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Spain: The investiture of the amnesty

Pedro Sánchez defended his pacts, which include clemency measures for Catalan separatists, as a wall against the rise of the far right across the world

Pedro Sánchez
Spain's PM Pedro Sánchez receives applause from the Socialists after his address in parliament on Wednesday.Daniel Gonzalez (EFE)
El País

Two keys issues were at the heart of the great expectation ahead of the first day of the investiture session, held this Wednesday in Spain’s Congress of Deputies. The first was the long-awaited explanation by the candidate to head the government, Pedro Sánchez, regarding the amnesty law negotiated with the Catalan independence movement. The second, how far the climate of institutional discredit being experienced these days in Spain would go inside the chamber, with the passivity, if not downright encouragement, of the right-wing opposition. The leader of the ultranationalist Vox party, Santiago Abascal, went so far as to compare Sánchez with Hitler on Wednesday, asserting that the Socialist leader is carrying out a coup d’état and requesting his partner in regional and municipal governments, the mainstream conservative Popular Party (PP), to use its majority in the Senate to lead the upper house into insubordination and refuse to process the clemency measures. He also urged the PP to encourage the illegalization of the Catalan separatist parties ERC and Junts.

The PP leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, attacked the candidate’s contradictions, accused him of political corruption and electoral fraud, but finally said in Parliament: “This is a legitimate majority for an investiture.” Although there is a multiple symphony of voices within the PP today, and even though the general rhetoric still resorts to a dangerous hyperbole in competition with Vox, the words of the PP president were a reassuring novelty in the middle of a very tough, fierce debate, but one that fell squarely within the bounds of democratic normality inside a Congress of Deputies that was surrounded by security forces.

Although the Socialist candidate began his speech with words of respect for those who have been peacefully demonstrating against his pacts these last few days, it took him an hour and 25 minutes to pronounce the word amnesty. Sánchez strung together an investiture speech designed to explain why the very difficult agreements that he has managed to forge — including the clemency measures that he himself rejected only a few months ago — are justified in order to retain a progressive coalition in government that will stop the far right, as well as the mainstream right that is willing to enter into deals with the former.

Thus, Sánchez outlined a global scenario marked by challenges such as the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, the climate emergency, inequality between men and women, or the economic and labor inequalities accentuated by the development of artificial intelligence. If democracy does not respond to insecurity, he stressed, insecurity will turn into rage until democracy itself is undermined. Anger, he added, is fodder for the far right. He presented the policies of his government in the last five years, and the future ones that he is preparing, as a retaining wall against a string of “retrograde” measures that the PP-Vox alliance is already rolling out in local and regional governments, and which above all affect the great obsessions of the ultraconservatives: the climate battle, measures for gender equality, the defense of the LGBTQ+ community and immigration.

Although most of the examples he cited were local, there was no shortage of international references — he mentioned Javier Milei, the far-right candidate in Argentina — to the battle between progressive and reactionary policies taking place in Europe and throughout the planet. It was a polarized description of the world, in which there was no outreach to the Spaniards who did not vote for him to join the common project, that sociological majority that he himself evoked as a defender and beneficiary of the advances defended by his government, although at the last election this group supported conservative options.

The story intended to load Sánchez with good reasons as he broached the most controversial price of his investiture: the amnesty law. But there was no reasoned explanation for the change of opinion in Sánchez’s speech, and we had to wait for the debate, hours later, for him to admit that it was the result of the July 23 election that generated the opportunity to propose the clemency measures: either the starting point was kept unchanged and a repeat election was held, or a “sincere and honest” negotiation with Junts could be opted for, transforming “the vicissitudes into opportunities” and facing the problems head on. The lack of real new content in the explanation of the amnesty, and the climate of tension that surrounds it, makes this measure the candidate’s riskiest bet yet.

Beyond Catalonia, the plans for the new term reflect the priorities of classic social democracy adapted to the challenges of the present world. Sánchez’s partner on the left, the Sumar alliance, asked him for more ambition in fiscal, industrial and housing policies. Sánchez offered to reform regional financing, streamline government procedures, accelerate access to subsidies for people caring for dependents and promote a pact on mental health, a law on equal representation and another one on family agriculture. He also announced free public transportation for children, youths and the unemployed, reducing the working week to 37.5 hours, renewing the validity of cultural passes and extending a reduction in VAT on food products.

The first task of his administration will be to draft and approve next year’s national budget, where he will have to combine this broad social offer with the fiscal discipline imposed by the return of the rules suspended by Brussels since the pandemic.

Despite the harshness of the tone, the debate held this Wednesday speaks of a democracy that faces its problems — even the most serious ones — within the framework established by the Constitution.

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