Spain’s prime minister visits Catalonia before pardoning separatists

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Barcelona (AFP)

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez will deliver a major speech in Barcelona on Monday as his government is set to pardon the imprisoned Catalan separatists behind the failed 2017 independence bid.

He is expected to present his roadmap for Catalonia in a speech starting at noon (1000 GMT) in front of regional dignitaries at the prestigious Liceu theater, in the heart of the Catalan capital.

The eagerly awaited speech, titled “Reunion Island: a plan for the future for all of Spain”, appears as a final act before his government officially announces the controversial pardons.

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

The Socialist Prime Minister is due to address Parliament on June 30 to defend this decision.

Sanchez has sought in recent weeks to rally support for the pardons, arguing that they are essential to overcome the political deadlock over Catalonia’s separatist campaign.

Catalonia has been a dominant theme in Spanish politics since the wealthy northeastern region in 2017 launched a banned independence referendum that was marred by police violence.

The referendum was followed by a fleeting declaration of independence and plunged Spain into one of its greatest political crises since the restoration of democracy in 1975 after the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco.

– Events –

The Spanish Supreme Court in 2019 sentenced 12 Catalan politicians and activists for their role in the campaign for independence, nine of whom were sentenced to prison terms ranging from nine to 13 years.

The decision sparked days of protests across Catalonia which at times turned violent in Barcelona and other cities.

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

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

Tens of thousands of people demonstrated in central Madrid on June 13 against the pardon project.

Many conservatives argue that Sanchez is primarily driven by a desire to retain power since his minority government partly relies on Catalan separatists to pass laws in the national parliament.

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

– Forgiveness is “the key” –

Analysts said Sanchez is taking a political bet with pardons now in the hope that he can overcome any damage to his government’s popularity ahead of national elections, scheduled for January 2024.

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

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

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It remains to be seen, however, whether the pardons will promote dialogue between Madrid and the Catalan regional government, led since May by Pere Aragones, a moderate separatist.

Aragones belongs to the left-wing ERC party, led by Oriol Junqueras, the prisoner serving the longest sentence of 13 years for his role in the separatist push of 2017.

“Pardons are a centerpiece, they are the key that opens the chains because the situation in Catalonia was totally blocked,” said Oriol Bartomeus, political scientist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

But he warned that “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 the separatists” to “leave behind” the failure of the 2017 independence bid and “propose something else,” Bartomeus added.

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