In one of his adventures on the highways of 17th-century Spain, Don Quixote encounters a gang of prisoners ‘manacled and strung together by the neck, like beads, on a great iron chain'. Undeterred by Sancho’s protestations that these are criminals on their way to serve as galley slaves in just punishment for their crimes, Don Quixote, declaring that it is his duty as a knight errant to provide ‘succour for the wretched’, fights off the guards and frees them.
In something of the same spirit, Spain’s prime minister has just announced a pardon for Catalan separatist leaders. Nine politicians, serving sentences of up to 13 years for offences including sedition, are now to be released after almost four years in jail.
Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez previously declared that the sentences — imposed after Catalonia's illegal referendum and short-lived independence declaration in 2017 — should be served in full. But he seems to have changed his mind, declaring a few weeks ago that: 'There is a time for punishment and there is a time for concord.'
Spain’s constitution allows a government to grant a pardon if it believes it will serve a wider good. In this case, the government says that the measure will defuse tensions and heal divisions in Catalonia, allowing dialogue with the region’s newly formed pro-independence government. Certainly many Catalans have greeted the pardons as a welcome conciliatory gesture. One separatist told me she thought the pardons 'politically intelligent' since they deprive her movement of its imprisoned martyrs and a narrative in which the Spanish state is cast as a cruel oppressor.
Opposition parties however suggest that Sánchez’s real aim is to ensure the continued support of the Catalan separatist MPs in the national parliament on which his minority left-wing coalition government depends. The prime minister denies this: 'I’d do it even if I had 300 seats [of the 350 in parliament].' The pardons, he says, are intended to help Catalonia and Spain leave behind 'a bad past' and move together towards 'a better future'.
The decision however is deeply unpopular; polls suggest that over 60 per cent of Spaniards are opposed to the pardons. The two main right-wing parties, the Partido Popular and Vox, have been virulent in their criticism. Pablo Casado, the leader of the Partido Popular, Spain’s main opposition party, says the pardons undermine the rule of law, describing them as 'profoundly immoral and tragically mistaken'. Vox, further to the right, agrees, denouncing the separatist leaders as corrupt and their declaration of independence as an attempted coup d’état.
Spain’s Supreme Court has already declared that the pardons are ‘unacceptable’, noting that the imprisoned separatists have shown no sign of remorse:
“When the people responsible for a unilateral attempt to subvert the constitutional order portray themselves as political prisoners… the reasons invoked to support full or partial cancellation of their sentences lose all justification.
While some Catalan separatists now recognise their unilateral declaration of independence was a mistake, others seem to want to keep that option open. Meanwhile many separatists suggest that the Spanish government is back pedalling because it is nervous about appeals against the sentences in the European Court of Human Rights. All have vowed to continue the push for independence and maintain that instead of pardons, an amnesty is required.
Sánchez nevertheless is hoping that the situation in Catalonia will now improve and that the EU Covid recovery fund will boost the economy, causing support for his minority government to grow. But it may instead be that the strength of feeling against these pardons (many of Sánchez’s own voters are opposed) will help the Partido Popular, backed by Vox, to form a government after the next general election due by the end of 2023.
If a right-wing government is formed in the near future, it is likely to take a far more confrontational approach with a pro-independence government in Catalonia. Sánchez’s attempt to make a new start by granting the pardons may then turn out to have been a futile, indeed quixotic gesture.
Don Quixote’s liberation of the prisoners certainly didn’t end well. Far from showing gratitude, the convicts pelted him with stones, stole his jacket and ran off, leaving him prostrate on the road and 'downcast to find himself so served by the very people for whom he had done so much'.