Why did Spain free independence leaders? - exploring the reasons behind the pardons

Marc Sanjaume, PhD in Political Science, believes Spanish president Sánchez was ‘very brave’ to release 2017 referendum organizers

Pardoned independence leaders pose for a photo alongside Catalan president Pere Aragonès and vice president Jordi Puigneró (by Pau Cortina)
Pardoned independence leaders pose for a photo alongside Catalan president Pere Aragonès and vice president Jordi Puigneró (by Pau Cortina) / ACN

ACN | Barcelona

July 4, 2021 12:29 PM

On June 22, the Spanish government granted pardons to Catalan independence leaders jailed for their roles in organizing the 2017 independence push, in order to foster social reconciliation with the Catalan government. The next day, the leaders walked free from their cells

The nine politicians and activists spent around 3.5 years behind bars, including a lengthy pre-trial detention. They were found guilty of sedition for leading Catalonia’s referendum push and attempt to declare independence from Spain in the fall of 2017. 

To understand the underlying motivations behind the pardons, we speak to Marc Sanjaume, a professor of Political Science at the Universitat Oberta of Catalonia (UOC) and a member of the Political Theory Research Group (GRTP). He has a PhD in Political Science from Pompeu Fabra University and he was a former advisor on comparative politics at the Institute for Self-Government Studies of the Institutional Government of Catalonia. 

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Q: What are the reasons why the Spanish president, Pedro Sánchez, had for granting his pardons?

There are two kinds of reasons: on the one hand, there is obviously a strategic one that comes from domestic and international pressures and on the other hand, there is the ideological one as a way for the Socialist Party to deal with this secessionist demand in Catalonia. 

Q: Do you think this was a key factor in the timing of the pardons?

No, I think that the key factor was the local factor because this is the perfect occasion for Pedro Sánchez to buy time until the next elections without having many problems and achieving a more solid political landscape for pushing his agenda. 

Q: What about the reaction from the Catalan government and the Catalan pro-independence parties in general?

These pardons were not the top priority or even on the agenda of the secessionist parties, however from another perspective, the pro-independence parties and the Catalan government welcome these measures because it shows that the Spanish government is handling this question differently to any other time. 

Q: The presidents of Catalonia and Spain met this week and agreed to resume talks to address the independence conflict. How important is this development? 

This is the first attempt to show that dialogue is possible, I think it reveals that both leaders have the willingness to start talking. Yet, they both know their point of departure is very far away from each other: the pro-independence side claims self-determination and amnesty, and this, according to the Spanish president, is unacceptable. 

Q: Pere Aragonés said that there are other ways to hold a referendum without changing the Constitution. What is he referring to there?

That the legal texts should not be an obstacle to finding ways to make the Catalans vote on independence. There are other legal possibilities, for example, a non-binding consultation, a state of autonomy reform or a constitutional reform. 

Q: How do you think right-wing parties will use the pardons? 

The Spanish right-wing is behaving as expected, they are in opposition, being the guardians of Spanish nationalism in its fullest expression. They know they get votes defending Spanish sovereignty and, not only in Spain, but in the entire world, this strategy gives benefits. 

Q: Do you think Pedro Sanchez will be a vote winner or a vote loser, for him personally and his party, after the pardons? 

Pedro Sánchez was very brave in making this decision. As I stated before, there is a strategy here, he wants to keep power by having the support from the Catalan minority, yet, this can lead to a bad result, by fuelling the right-wing voters in the next elections.