Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), was reelected today as the President of the Spanish government for the next 4 years in an atmosphere of high political and social tension. In his inauguration speech, Sánchez closed by saying, “The process that has brought us to this day has not been easy. Thank you for your trust.” He secured a total of 179 votes in the Congress of Deputies, surpassing the required 176 votes with the support of the “investiture bloc,” a heterogeneous alliance of left-wing, nationalist, and separatist parties. The agreements made with these parties have caused significant controversy. This outcome follows weeks of negotiations, pacts, and protests against Sánchez. At the center of it all is a law, the amnesty law, and the long-standing issue of Catalan independence.
1. How did Pedro Sánchez get here?
First of all, how can a candidate who did not win the elections end up being elected as president? The answer lies in how the Spanish democratic system works. Spain operates under a parliamentary system, unlike most of Latin America, which predominantly has presidential systems. In order for a president to be invested in Parliament, they need the support of an absolute majority in the first attempt, meaning 176 out of 350 deputies, or a simple majority in the second attempt, meaning more “yes” votes than “no” votes. In the elections, the conservative People’s Party (PP) received the most votes, with 33% of the vote and 137 parliamentary seats. The Socialist Party came in second, with 31.6% of the vote and 121 seats. The leader of the PP, Alberto Núñez-Feijóo, first attempted to be invested as president at the end of September and relied mainly on the support of the far-right party, Vox. However, he only secured 172 votes, which were insufficient for his investiture, primarily because no other party wanted to support the far-right. Pedro Sánchez during the session in which he obtained his new mandate. Photo: Getty Images
After that, it was Sánchez’s turn, and he succeeded despite the fact that until just a few months ago, this scenario seemed impossible. Sánchez’s political career has been unique, and it also helps to explain how he managed to get here. The current president started in politics at the age of 21, as an ordinary party member, city councilor, and later a member of Congress. Despite the setbacks, he has always managed to land on his feet. He won the primaries of his party against the party establishment, successfully initiated a motion of no confidence against then-President Mariano Rajoy (PP) in May 2018, and has been leading the Spanish government ever since. “He is undoubtedly a political animal,” says Javier Martín Merchán, a professor of Political Science at the University of Comillas (Spain). This ability to bounce back when everything seems to be against him was demonstrated earlier this year when, following poor results for the PSOE in the regional elections last May, Sánchez unexpectedly called for early general elections. At that time, hardly anyone believed he could succeed. “It seemed to be the culmination of disaster for the Socialist Party, and it seemed like he was going to end his term in La Moncloa,” recalls Martín Merchán. But despite not coming in first (in the elections), “he becomes the parliamentary force capable of garnering the most support,” says the analyst, referring to Thursday’s result. However, Merchán emphasizes that his image has been weakened by the “very tough wear and tear of the negotiations.” “Sumar,” the left-wing alliance led by Yolanda Díaz, is the main partner of the PSOE for this term. Photo: Getty Images
2. A puzzle of pacts
To become president again, Sánchez had to seek the support of rival parties to bridge the gap between the 122 seats won by the PSOE in the elections and the 176 seats required for an absolute majority. He achieved this after months of intense negotiations and pacts that have caused great controversy in Spain. One of the first pacts was made with “Sumar,” a coalition of left-wing movements created this year under the leadership of Yolanda Díaz, who was the second vice president in Sánchez’s previous term. With “Sumar,” the PSOE agreed on labor and wage-related issues, such as reducing the workweek from 40 to 37.5 hours. Alberto Núñez-Feijóo, leader of the PP, failed to secure the necessary support to become president. Photo: Getty Images
Pacts were also made with parties such as the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG) and the Canary Islands Coalition (CC), as well as with Basque nationalist and separatist parties, the Basque Nationalist Party, and Bildu. These agreements involve a range of issues, from expanding labor rights to debt forgiveness, devolution of powers, and increased resources. However, the pacts that have caused the most controversy were made with two Catalan separatist parties, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) and Junts per Catalunya. The first pact includes, among other things, the cancellation of €15 billion in debt owed by the Catalan government, while the second includes the most controversial measure negotiated by the PSOE: an amnesty law that benefits hundreds of individuals convicted in connection with the Catalan independence process, which culminated in an illegal unilateral declaration of independence in 2017.
3. The controversial amnesty law
Catalan independence and its relationship with the Spanish government have been issues on the country’s political agenda for over a decade, causing suspicion and significant tensions. The peak of tension in the so-called “procés” was the Catalonia self-determination referendum in 2017, which led to the conviction of dozens of political leaders and Catalan citizens by the Spanish justice system, as the referendum had been previously declared illegal and suspended by the Constitutional Court. The referendum took place on October 1st of that year, and it was a violent day with the intervention of the state security forces. The then-Catalan government, led by former President Carles Puigdemont, considered the results legitimate and unilaterally declared the independence of Catalonia. Days later, Puigdemont fled to Brussels to avoid being sent to prison. Earlier this week, the Socialist parliamentary group presented the controversial amnesty bill to the Congress. Carles Puigdemont, from Junts per Catalunya, announced the agreement with the PSOE from Belgium. Photo: Getty Images
“The bill proposes that for a certain period of time, from 2012 to 2023, certain offenses established in the penal code, some of which have already been tried and sentenced, be annulled,” explains Rafael Rubio, a professor of Constitutional Law at the Complutense University of Madrid. “It is an exceptional and temporary suspension of certain offenses that would be eliminated, both in terms of their effects and their trace.” Amnesty eliminates the offense entirely, while a pardon acknowledges the committed offense but erases the penalty. It is estimated that the amnesty could benefit around 400 people, including politicians, Catalan leaders, social leaders, citizens, and police officers involved in the “procés.” “There is a long and generic list of offenses covered by this bill, but basically, they are those committed with the intention of promoting the secession or independence of Catalonia and all those who have contributed to achieving that goal,” explains Rubio. Núñez-Feijóo greets Sánchez after being reelected as president. Photo: Getty Images
Although there may be amendments and delays in the approval process of the amnesty law, if all the parliamentary groups that have reached agreements with the PSOE to initiate this term of office give their support, it could see the light of day in a few months, according to Rubio. The People’s Party and the far-right Vox have already announced that they will file appeals against the amnesty law with the Constitutional Court and the European Union’s courts, considering that it violates the principle of the separation of powers…
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