Spain’s Next Government Hinges On Fugitive Leader Eyeing Amnesty

Carles Puigdemont and his party have a say in who becomes prime minister. Their support will come at a price.

(Bloomberg) — In a ninth-century Romanesque-style Catholic abbey in southeast France, several hundred Catalan separatists gather across the Spanish border to celebrate their cultural identity with some of the region’s political grandees.

The five speakers — the current Catalan president and four predecessors — enter to rapturous applause to pay tribute to a famous cellist who lived in the mountainous region. But it’s quickly clear who the chanting crowd is here to welcome: their self-exiled leader who has suddenly found himself back with a starring role in Spain’s latest political drama.

Carles Puigdemont fled Spain in 2017 to escape arrest after spearheading a botched attempt to unilaterally declare independence for Catalonia. Following an inconclusive Spanish election in late July, the former journalist and the party he leads hold the key to who will get to form the next government — and their support, inevitably, will come at a price.

Neither Socialist caretaker Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez nor conservative opposition leader Alberto Nunez Feijóo has enough votes in the Spanish Parliament to lead the country. 

On Tuesday, King Felipe VI invited Feijóo of the People’s Party to try to form a government by the end of September, though given the arithmetic that remains unlikely. A high-ranking party official, though, said it’s willing to have talks with Puigdemont’s Junts per Catalunya, or Together for Catalonia.

Sanchez’s bid to keep the top job, meanwhile, was boosted last week by the seven Junts lawmakers supporting his nomination for the post of parliamentary speaker. Whether Sanchez succeeds should Feijóo fail now depends on Puigdemont even more.

The erstwhile head of the regional government in Barcelona has drawn up a wish-list of demands. Top is an amnesty to clear him and hundreds of others of any charges linked to the push for Catalan independence that rocked Spain. It could also cover police officers charged with violence.  

Junts wants to see the amnesty law passed before the investiture vote for a new prime minister, according to a person familiar with the strategy. The party, though, hasn’t yet received a credible emissary from the Socialist Party to discuss support, the person said.

For Puigdemont, 60, it’s a chance to return to the front line of Spanish politics, or at least give his party greater sway. The question is whether he overplays his hand and — with echoes of the turmoil of 2017 — asks for things he simply won’t get without leaving room to negotiate.

“Everybody enters a negotiation with the highest demand and then adjusts,” said Veronica Fumanal, a political analyst who worked with Sanchez before he became premier. “If they really want to negotiate, they have to be clear how much they want to negotiate and what is clear for both parties,” she said, adding that it’s too early to say whether the amnesty would be approved.

The event this week on a scorching hot day 140 kilometers (85 miles) north of Barcelona was the first time Puigdemont, who has lived in Belgium the past six years, had spoken publicly since the election. He mainly kept his comments to Pau Casals, known internationally for his cello compositions and also among Catalans for his “I am Catalan” speech to the United Nations in 1971.  

Casals had “a way of understanding the Catalan nation,” Puigdemont said. “Freedom for Catalonia was part of his activism and activism for Catalonia is fighting for the language, fight for peace and for humanist values.”

There’s no doubt Puigdemont could have another day in the political sun, but for now Junts’s view is that neither the Socialists nor anybody else is bothering to engage, according to the person familiar with the party’s thinking.

Sanchez has spent the five years since first becoming premier navigating a fragile government, relying on a patchwork of smaller parties to pass legislation. During that time, Junts was a sideshow, rarely seeking to work with the government and locking itself up instead in its demands and fight to protect Puigdemont from going to court.

When there was no role for Junts, “nobody was interested in understanding what the party thinks,” Puigdemont said in a recent post on X, the platform previously known as Twitter. Now it’s different because “they think Junts is back in the political game,” he said.

Puigdemont’s legal team has spent years analyzing possible amnesty laws that could support such an initiative in Spain, including the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, and the 1977 law in Spain following the dictatorship. In both cases, the amnesty covered blood crime, mainly murder, which isn’t the case in Spain.

For his part, Sanchez has sought to win back voters in Catalonia, traditionally a Socialist stronghold until the independence movement gained traction in the 2010s, by defusing political tension. Most notably, he pardoned the nine secessionist leaders who had been sent to prison for their role in the independence declaration.

The gamble paid off in the July election as support for the Socialists boomed while secessionist votes dropped amid low voter turnout in Spain’s second most-populous region.

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Junts, though, is more hard core. Parties including the Basque nationalists and Catalan separatist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya worked with the government in recent years in exchange for certain gains for their regions. By contrast, Junts isn’t interested in the governability of Spain, but just what can further its goal of independence for Catalonia within the existing constitutional framework, according to the person familiar with the party’s strategy.

That harks back to 2017, when Puigdemont held an independence referendum and then illegally declared that Catalonia was ceding from Spain. That triggered a constitutional crisis and prompted the government in Madrid to seize direct control of the region.

This time, he wants to avoid boxing himself into a corner. His recent demand for supporting the Socialist Party’s Francina Armengol as speaker of parliament illustrated that, according to Fumanal, the analyst.

Junts demanded the Socialists allow the use of the Catalan, Basque and Galician languages in parliament. The separatists also said the Socialist leadership should seek to have them approved as European Union working languages — a long and unlikely process — and deliver the request by the next European Council meeting on Sept. 19.

The move may end up being symbolic, but it’s the kind of negotiation that resonates in the Saint Michel de Cuxa abbey in southeast France. Catalans call the region Northern Catalonia, and it’s here that Puigdemont can get closest to his supporters while a fugitive of Spanish courts. He has a network who help him find lodging whenever he has events in the area.

As the event to celebrate cellist and composer Casals drew to an end, musicians performed Els Segadors, the Catalan anthem. The crowd of about 300 broke into song as three Catalan flags fluttered above the heads.

The presidents past and present left through the side door, Puigdemont presumably to be headed back to Belgium soon. He lives in Waterloo outside Brussels in an affluent area and draws a salary from the European Parliament. But it’s a place synonymous with Napoleon’s defeat. The question for his party is whether he can lead them to at least some sort of political victory.

–With assistance from Demetrios Pogkas.

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