Over the last four decades, Spanish democracy has fostered an admirable period of progress and freedoms, and its society now ranks among the most advanced on the planet. This achievement does not mean that Spanish society is not still facing threats, most notably from Catalan secessionism. In 2017, separatist leaders tried to trample on the frameworks of constitutional and regional coexistence, tearing at the social fabric in Catalonia and in the rest of Spain.
The Spanish state dealt with the challenge. The pro-secessionist leaders were tried and convicted. The sentences helped overcome the most acute stage of the crisis, but they have not definitively resolved the existential challenge to Spanish democracy posed by the independence movement. This is the backdrop against which one must consider the government pardons that the Spanish prime minister has explicitly suggested.
There are weighty reasons to reject the granting of clemency. First of all, the gravity of the subversive acts must unavoidably be considered, as well as the openly expressed willingness by some of the convicted leaders to do it all over again. Both the public prosecution and the court that handed down the sentences have issued reports against the pardons. And in strictly political terms, things are not any easier. The government is weighed down by two issues. It is not necessary to twist the facts too much to suspect that the main reason for pardoning the convicts is the executive’s political need to maintain the perimeter of governance with its current partners – the coalition is governing in a minority and thus needs the votes of parties such as the Catalan Republican Left to pass legislation. The second trap was created by the prime minister himself with statements that could be described at the very least as inappropriate. Introducing the notion of “revenge” – no matter what his intention may ultimately have been – was unacceptable. And it doesn’t help that in 2019 he was talking about the prisoners “serving out their full sentences.”
There is ample evidence that the ‘no-to-everything’ attitude maintained by previous Spanish governments has favored the growth of pro-independence positions over the last decade
The Spanish legal system gives the government the power to grant pardons based on criteria of justice, equity or public usefulness. It also requires preliminary reports, although these are not binding. The law does not require any expression of remorse by the convicted individual as a condition to issue the pardon. The Supreme Court (which tried and convicted the secessionist leaders) last week sent the executive its report, which underscored the prisoners’ lack of regrets and the absence of reasons of equity that might justify a pardon, which was described as “an unacceptable solution.” The court’s reasoning did not explore the concept of “public usefulness.”
But the concept of government pardons is political in nature, not legal, thus the idea of “public usefulness” in the wording of the law. The text regulating the concept, dating from 1870, allows for pardons to be issued even against the opinion of the court that handed down the sentence. Spanish democracy has yet to resolve the conflict in Catalonia. This could be attempted through a passive continuation of the status quo. Or it could be attempted through dialogue. There is no guarantee that the latter option will yield a positive effect. There is ample evidence that the “no-to-everything” attitude maintained by previous Spanish governments has favored the growth of pro-independence positions over the last decade. The situation is already difficult as it is. But it would become an unmanageable disaster if there were to be a quantum leap in pro-secession positions and these were adopted by a vast majority.
This newspaper believes that the best way to redirect the crisis is through political initiatives that will first reduce the tension, and then progressively restore spaces attuned to the Spanish democratic project within Catalan society. What doesn’t seem rational is to think that inertia will solve the problem. Pardons are probably a necessary condition, though not a sufficient one, to change this trend. This act of clemency should ultimately not be understood as a gesture toward the independence leaders, from whom Spanish democracy cannot and should not expect anything; instead it would represent a gesture of concord toward the citizens of Catalonia, a broad majority of whom are in favor of the move, according to opinion polls and in light of the makeup of the regional parliament.
The court’s convictions are not being argued with, nor should they be. The issue at hand is whether the full sentences must be served or not. The first option would be the natural one. But the second one would be equally legal. The convicted leaders have been behind bars for three-and-a–half years. And it is evident that prison is being used as ammunition by those who wish to press ahead with their inflammatory tactics in Catalonia. It is not trivial that part of the independence movement has been denigrating the possibility of a pardon with esoteric arguments. The measure could facilitate a change of mood at a time when all indicators show that Catalan society wants to emerge from the dark tunnel of the past years.
Spanish democracy must prevent more Catalans from distancing themselves from the common project, and attempt to win back some of those who have already severed their ties. And that is a job for politics
It could be that the government’s actions are being fueled by a narrow partisan calculation. But a fair analysis should also acknowledge the enormous damage that the Socialist Party (PSOE) will surely sustain – starting with Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez: the numbers show that an overwhelming amount of Spaniards oppose the pardons, even PSOE voters. Yet despite this, Spanish democracy must prevent more Catalans from distancing themselves from the common project, and attempt to win back some of those who have already severed their ties. And that is a job for politics. The independence movement is not an unrecoverable, monolithic bloc. It is a diverse constellation that includes various causes, and there is some room to reduce its scope.
The pardons may not be granted any old way. The reports from prosecutors and the Supreme Court require that they be partial. Rational thinking demands that the beneficiaries should remain barred from holding public office, and that the pardons should stay in force on condition that the released leaders do not re-engage in criminal activities. The executive will have to clearly explain its motivations to all citizens.
Even if these requirements are met, it remains a difficult and controversial political act, though surely a necessary one in order to reinforce the common democratic project. While in 2017 independence leaders made a decision to fracture Catalan society, granting pardons would be a step in the opposite direction: offering Catalan society a framework for coexistence and a generous desire to heal the wounds. It is the kind of gesture that only a solid democracy can offer – the same democracy that the convicted leaders once tried to destroy. They will surely not appreciate the gesture. But Catalans will.
English version by Susana Urra.