Catalonia’s newly elected premier, Pere Aragonès of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), took the oath of office on Monday evening with a pledge to work toward “amnesty” for the jailed leaders of the 2017 breakaway bid as well as to make “self-determination inevitable” for the northeastern Spanish region.
During a 30-minute ceremony, the left-wing separatist leader said his goal is to take steps toward a republic, but conceded that the challenge is “enormous” and that Catalonia itself is divided by a series of inequalities that are “economic, social, territorial, linguistic or due to origin, gender or beliefs.”
“This is what divides us as a people and what weakens us as a nation,” he said, withholding specific details about his future plans in a post that he has already been holding in an acting capacity since September 2020, when he took over from Quim Torra after the latter was banned from public office by the courts for disobedience in connection with electoral legislation violations.
However, in a radio interview on Monday morning, Aragonès said that this week he would phone Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist Party (PSOE) to discuss the conflict as well as the management of funds from the Next Generation EU recovery package. The new Catalan premier would like to restart dialogue with Madrid on the future of the region before the summer.
Catalans went to the polls on February 14 in a regional election that delivered a majority to pro-independence forces, although the non-separatist Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) won the most votes. After three months of stalled talks, ERC and the more hardline Together for Catalonia (Junts) announced a deal to create a coalition government. The opposition has called the plan “a repeat edition of a failure.”
Meanwhile, the central government is pondering a difficult decision: whether to grant pardons to jailed leaders of the 2017 unilateral secession attempt who were sentenced to between nine and 13 years in prison for sedition and misuse of public funds, and who have now been behind bars for three-and-a-half years including their time in pre-trial custody. This group includes ERC party leader Oriol Junqueras, who was deputy premier when Catalonia held an outlawed independence referendum on October 1, 2017 that was followed by an independence declaration passed by separatist parties inside the regional parliament. The Catalan premier at the time, Carles Puigdemont, fled Spain to avoid being tried for these events and has since been living in Belgium.
Officially, the executive says that no decision has yet been made. But several sources said that both the PSOE and its junior partner in government, leftist Unidas Podemos, favor granting clemency in order to reactivate the stalled talks over the future of Catalonia. The central government is also working on a reform of the criminal code to reduce the prison terms for sedition, a move that would also benefit the jailed pro-independence leaders.
Although the clemency decision is formally in the hands of the Justice Ministry, the final call will be made by Sánchez and several sources said they believe he will wait until the summer in order to minimize its political fallout. The main opposition Popular Party (PP) believes that the pardons are part of the price that Sánchez is paying for getting voted back into the prime minister’s office following the November 2019 election: his confirmation in January 2020 was partly made possible by an abstention by ERC in the second round of voting. Catalan separatist lawmakers sitting inside Spanish Congress also helped get a new national budget passed in December, ending years of gridlock and improving Sánchez’s own prospects for a full political term.
If the executive grants the pardons, it will be doing so against the recommendations of state prosecutors. The Supreme Court, which handed down the convictions in October 2019, is also expected to deliver an unfavorable report this week after noting that most of the convicted leaders ignored a recent opportunity to express their opinions on the possibility of a pardon, and the only one who did – Jordi Cuixart, head of the non-profit group Òmnium Cultural, which played an active role in promoting the unilateral secession attempt – showed no contrition or even acknowledged the existence of a crime, saying that he “would do it all over again.”
In the last half of 2020, the Justice Ministry only granted 18 pardons out of 1,664 requests, and in all cases they were backed by at least one favorable report. Government pardons were greatly reduced under the former administration of Mariano Rajoy (2015-2018), and they have remained rare since then.
If the Cabinet finally approves pardons for the leaders of the 2017 breakaway bid, the PP said it will challenge the decision in the Supreme Court. Party president Pablo Casado has called the pardons “the red line that Pedro Sánchez must not cross.”
The PP also cautioned that if its warnings go unheeded, it could affect other important matters for the governance of Spain, such as a long-delayed renewal of the members of the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ), the country’s legal watchdog. The issue has already been a source of friction in the past, and if the government grants the pardons, PP sources said that the chances of reaching an agreement on the CGPJ will be “practically impossible.” The renewal needs a qualified majority of deputies in Congress to pass (210 of the total 350), meaning that the support of the PP is essential for such a vote to pass. The coalition government lacks a working majority and so must rely on other parties to pass legislation.
English version by Susana Urra.