Pedro Sánchez’s election deal has too high a price – it undermines democracy




Comment & Analysis

The rise of extreme far-right, populist and nativist politicians and parties in recent years and the concomitant decline in public trust in government have stoked fears that Europe’s democratic institutions and traditions are under attack. So, on the face of it, the news that Spain’s centre-right People’s party (PP) and Vox, its ultra-nationalist – some would say neo-fascist or neoFrancoist – coalition partner, have failed to take power following July’s closely fought general election is an unreservedly welcome development. Yet pause right there. The PP won the election. It is the largest party in terms of parliamentary seats. So, as Spaniards contemplate another term for prime minister Pedro Sánchez of the centre-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE), which came second in July, many are wondering whether his triumph has come at too high a cost to the country’s democratic system. The stark price of Sánchez’s victory is a politically motivated amnesty for the Catalan separatist leaders, and hundreds of their supporters, who took Spain to the brink of constitutional collapse in 2017 by organising an illegal independence referendum. Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan president and leader of the militantly pro-independence Junts (Together) party, fled to Belgium when the then PP-led government of Mariano Rajoy launched a sweeping crackdown. Now he is back, as kingmaker, after Junts and the like-minded Republican Left of Catalonia party together won 14 parliamentary seats – sufficient to give Sánchez and his leftwing allies an overall majority. The PP and Vox are livid. Thousands have joined street protests, some accusing the prime minister of mounting a coup and ushering in a dictatorship. Sánchez, naturally, says he is doing what’s best for the country and democracy. He says the amnesty will normalise relations with Catalonia and rejects any suggestion that he is motivated by personal ambition. Regardless of whether he is believed, there are several serious problems with his position. The first is that he solemnly pledged, prior to July’s vote, not to do exactly what he has now done – that is, pardon the separatists. This breach of faith has gone down badly with PSOE voters, about 40% of whom oppose the amnesty, and given the general public a further reason not to trust politicians. Then there are the conditions laid down by Puigdemont to secure his collaboration. He demands a formal review of the status of Catalonia overseen by an international mediator; agreement that Catalonia, one of Spain’s wealthier regions, will retain 100% of taxes collected there; and guarantees that the amnesty will not be overturned in the courts – a Suella-Braverman-ish provision that lawyers say threatens judicial independence. Worst of all, from the viewpoint of stable government, Junts has warned Sánchez that its future support in parliament cannot be taken for granted. It has also flatly contradicted a PSOE claim that it has “renounced unilateralism”. The irony of all this is that backing for Catalan independence has slumped of late. Of 48 seats contested in the region in July, 34 went to centrist parties opposed to independence. Yet now the pact may revive Catalan (and Basque) separatist agitation. In short, Sánchez’s amnesty has all the hallmarks of a bad deal, reached in bad faith, secured at too high a cost and unlikely to stick for long. Is this unpopular, legally dubious, unsustainable manoeuvre justified by the need to prevent the return to power of the far right for the first time since the Franco era? Barely. There is a clear danger that it will undermine faith in democracy, increase public distrust, fuel instability and encourage extremists to resort to extraparliamentary methods.