Spanish PM heads to Catalonia before pardon to separatists

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez will deliver a major speech in Barcelona Monday as his government is poised to pardon the jailed Catalan separatists behind a failed 2017 independence bid.

He is set to outline his roadmap for Catalonia during an address beginning at noon (1000 GMT) to regional dignitaries at the prestigious Liceu theatre in the heart of the Catalan capital.

The highly anticipated speech, called “Reunion: a plan for the future for all of Spain”, appears to be a final act before his government officially announces the controversial pardons.

Barring a last minute surprise, Sanchez’s cabinet will approve the pardons on Tuesday, top-selling daily El Pais reported Sunday.

The Socialist premier is scheduled to address parliament on June 30 to defend the move.

Sanchez has sought in recent weeks to rally support for the pardons, arguing they are key to overcoming the political impasse over Catalonia’s separatist drive.

Catalonia has been a dominant theme in Spanish politics since the rich northeastern region in 2017 pressed ahead with a banned independence referendum which was marred by police violence.

The referendum was followed by a short-lived declaration of independence and it plunged Spain into one of its biggest political crises since democracy was restored in 1975 following the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco.

– Protests –

Spain’s Supreme Court in 2019 convicted 12 Catalan politicians and activists for their role in the independence push, with nine of them handed jail terms of between nine and 13 years.

The ruling triggered days of protests across Catalonia which sometimes turned violent in Barcelona and other cities.

A majority of Spaniards, 53 percent, oppose the pardons, although 68 percent of Catalans are in favour, according to a survey by the Ipsos polling firm.

Spain’s Supreme Court has also opposed the pardons, as do the country’s main opposition parties.

Tens of thousands of people protested in central Madrid on June 13 against the plan to offer clemency.

Many conservatives argue Sanchez is motivated mainly by a desire to hold on to power since his minority government relies in part on Catalan separatists to pass legislation in the national parliament.

But Sanchez last week received surprise support for the pardons from Spain’s main business lobby CEOE, which opposes Catalan independence, as well as from the Catalan Catholic Church.

– Pardons are ‘key’ –

Analysts said Sanchez was taking a political gamble with the pardons now in the hopes that he can overcome any harm to his government’s popularity before national elections, due by January 2024.

“With time, the pardons will seem anecdotal if the economy is doing well,” said Pablo Ferrandiz, a sociologist at Madrid’s Carlos III University.

He recalled that Spain is one of the “main beneficiaries” of the European Union’s 750-billion-euro ($910-billion) coronavirus rescue fund which will start flowing later this year.

It remains to be seen though if the pardons will foster dialogue between Madrid and the Catalan regional government, headed since May by Pere Aragones, a moderate separatist.

Aragones belongs to the leftist ERC party, which is led by Oriol Junqueras, the prisoner serving the longest sentence of 13 years over his role in the 2017 separatist push.

“The pardons are a key piece, they are the key which open the chains because the situation in Catalonia was totally blocked,” said Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

But he warned the “road will not be easy” as Catalan separatists demand the right to hold an independence referendum, which Sanchez’s government fiercely opposes.

The pardons  “will force separatists” to “leave behind them” the failed 2017 independence bid and “propose something” else, added Bartomeus.

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