On Sunday thousands of people, among them the leaders of the three parties on Spain’s right, will once again gather in the Madrid square that boasts the world’s largest Spanish flag to protest against the Socialist-led government’s handling of the Catalan independence crisis.
In February 2019, in a deeply controversial moment immortalised in photographs of the occasion, the conservative People’s party (PP), the centre-right Citizens party and the far-right Vox party joined forces in the Plaza de Colón to accuse the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, of betraying Spain, and to call for an early election.
This time, their common fury is directed at Sánchez’s decision to consider pardoning the 12 Catalan independence leaders convicted two years ago for their parts in the illegal, failed attempt to secede from the rest of Spain in October 2017.
The question of pardoning the Catalan leaders remains deeply divisive in Spain, a fact not lost on opposition parties and many people in Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers party (PSOE). A recent poll for El Mundo found that 61% of those surveyed did not agree with pardoning them, while 29.5% backed it.
Although the government will have the final say, Spain’s supreme court issued a non-binding report opposing the pardons last month, saying the sentences handed out were appropriate and noting those convicted had not shown “the slightest evidence or faintest hint of contrition”.
Sánchez, however, insists the pardons could be the best way to cool enduring tensions and move towards a political solution to the territorial impasse. “I do understand that there will be people who have objections to the decision the government might make – especially after the events of 2017,” the prime minister said on Wednesday. “But I ask them to put their trust in us because we need to work on coexistence … Spanish society needs to move from a bad past to a better future – and that will require magnanimity.”
The prime minister’s desire to push ahead with the idea has been seized on by his opponents, including Pablo Casado. The PP leader, buoyed up by his party’s new lead over the PSOE in the polls, has decided the pardons question is worth the possible risks of once again appearing to throw his lot in with the far right by heading to the Plaza de Colón on Sunday. Unsurprisingly, he rejects any such suggestion and points to his unambiguous repudiation of Vox last October, when he attacked their politics of “fear, anger, resentment and revenge”.
This time Casado will be taking care not to cosy up to the Vox leader, Santiago Abascal, and says attending the rally is a simple democratic duty. He also says the event is about showing the lengths to which the PSOE – which heads a minority government – will go to ensure the continued support in Congress of the pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia party (ERC).
“I think it’s very unfair to try to convince public opinion that gathering peacefully in a square to protest against those who have broken the law is something negative,” he said on Monday. “If a state in Germany sought independence and a government needed its votes to stay in power – and failed to do what it had sworn to do, which was to defend the German constitution – and if people came out to defend the constitution, I very much doubt those people would be demonised.”
Even so, some regional PP presidents on the more moderate wing of the party have said they will not be attending the rally, citing previous commitments.
Casado likes to describe the PP today as a “reformist, liberal, pro-Europe, globalist, centre-right party” with broad appeal, but its current return to the centre comes only after a fruitless lurch to the right in an attempt to woo Vox voters.
The party’s efforts to capitalise on the proposed Catalan pardons have also been complicated by the reappearance of the kind of historical corruption allegations that did for the government of Casado’s predecessor, Mariano Rajoy and, perhaps more significantly, by a well-timed change of heart from the ERC.
In an article on Monday, the ERC’s jailed leader, Oriol Junqueras, admitted the independence movement had made mistakes, showed enthusiasm for the pardons, and said the time of unilateral actions had come to an end.
The article, which did not go down well with the hardline separatists in Together for Catalonia, the party of the former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, struck a decidedly conciliatory note as Sánchez prepared to meet the new regional president, Pere Aragonès, for talks later this month.
Aragonès, a member of the ERC, has also indicated a willingness to negotiate over the future of the region, saying: “It won’t be easy – it will be extraordinarily difficult – but it’s our duty to the people of Catalonia.”
José Pablo Ferrándiz, a social sciences lecturer at Madrid Carlos III university, said Casado was taking a gamble by going to the Plaza de Colón. He said that Citizens, which is in freefall across Spain and in danger of disappearing altogether, had little choice but to show up – as did Vox, which used the Catalan crisis to break into the political mainstream.
Ferrándiz said Casado did not currently command a huge amount of support among all rightwing voters, not even among those backing the PP. “That’s why I think this Colón strategy is mistaken: he’s not going to convince his own voters, and nor is he going to convince those from other parties that are close to it in ideological terms,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a very profitable move from an electoral point of view and I think he’s doing it because of what he’s seen in the polls.”
Ferrándiz said much of what happens in the next few months would depend, as ever, on the economy – in particular on how Spain used its €140bn Covid recovery fund from the EU. “If people see that the funds are being managed well and are making their way into their pockets and helping to reduce inequalities and create jobs, the pardons will shrink into being just a story that happened in the summer of 2021,” he said.
“But if the economy goes bad, the recovery is mismanaged and people feel they’re grappling with another crisis like in 2008, then the pardon issue will be another thorn in the PSOE’s side at the next election.”