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Can Catalan Pardons Pave a Way Out of Spain’s Territorial Crisis?

We should look joyous, no?” asked Jordi Sànchez as he stood in the lobby of the Lledoners prison on June 23, about to walk out a free man. The Spanish government pardoned the Catalan activist and eight others who had been convicted for their role in the 2017 referendum on Catalan independence. The political leaders strode across the patio, stopping to pose for the global media gathered outside the prison gate. Smiling and cheering, they held up a banner that read, in English, “Freedom for Catalonia.” Trailing behind, Oriol Junqueras, the leader of the Catalan Left Republican party (ERC), looked somber. Still, he waved his right hand and then, almost out of habit, closed it into a raised fist.

Days later, on June 30, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, leader of the Socialist Party, defended his decision to issue the pardons before Congress. “The time of politics has arrived,” he said. “What we cannot do is offload our own political responsibilities onto the judiciary.” For columnists and pundits across Spain, the take-away message from the speech was very different: Sánchez’s red line against a future referendum. “There will be no referendum on self-determination,” Sánchez said, claiming that he planned to maintain an open dialogue with Catalan pro-independence leaders that would adhere to Spain’s 1978 Constitution, which regards the country as an “indissoluble unity.” Changing it requires a three-fifths majority. The July 1 headline in El País read: “Referendum, never.”

The reaction to Sánchez’s speech on the right was predictable. Hard-line Spanish nationalists from the conservative Partido Popular and the far-right Vox party painted the pardons as tantamount to treason. “You’ve put the fate of Spain in the hands of those who want to destroy it [and] you’ve betrayed your oath to defend the equality of all Spaniards,” the PP’s current leader, Pablo Casado, told Sánchez in parliament on June 30. Vox leader Santiago Abascal called the pardons “an act of political corruption” that amounted to “treason against the king.” Together with Inés Arrimadas, leader of the center-right Ciudadanos party, Abascal encouraged Casado to call for a vote of no confidence, the same political maneuver Sánchez had pulled on his predecessor, former prime minister Mariano Rajoy, in 2018, following the Partido Popular’s major—and still ongoing—corruption scandal. Such a move, however, would be bound to fail. Sánchez’s progressive coalition government, which includes the left-wing party Unidas Podemos, doesn’t hold a parliamentary majority, and relies on the support of regional pro-independence parties of different ideological shades to pass legislation. Given the Spanish right’s current advocacy of militant Spanish nationalism, those parties would almost certainly never support a vote of no confidence and risk losing their king-making power.

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