About 25,000 people, including the leaders of the three parties on Spain’s right, have rallied in Madrid to protest against the government’s deeply divisive moves to pardon the 12 Catalan independence leaders convicted over their parts in the failed secession attempt almost four years ago.
The event on Sunday, held beneath the enormous Spanish flag in the capital’s Plaza de Colón, came almost two and a half years after a similar demonstration against the Socialist government’s handling of the Catalan independence crisis.
Unlike the last protest – during which the heads of the conservative People’s party (PP) and the centre-right Citizens party posed for controversial photos alongside the leader of the far-right Vox party – the leaders deliberately kept their distance from one another on Sunday.
A recent national poll for El Mundo found that 61% did not agree with the pardons, while 29.5% backed them.
The Socialist-led coalition government of Pedro Sánchez will have the final say, but Spain’s supreme court issued a non-binding report opposing the pardons last month, saying the jail sentences of between nine and 13 years handed to nine of the 12 independence leaders were appropriate and noting those convicted had not shown “the slightest evidence or faintest hint of contrition”.
Sánchez has acknowledged the pardons are unpopular with voters but says they are the best way to end the political standoff and re-establish coexistence.
“Spanish society needs to move from a bad past to a better future – and that will require magnanimity,” the prime minister said earlier this week.
Both his willingness to consider the pardons and his emollient words have been seized on by his opponents, who accuse him of abandoning his previous, anti-pardon stance, and of selling out to the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left party on whom his minority government depends for support in congress.
“We ask [Sánchez] to respect national unity, the constitution, the equality of all Spaniards, and the law,” the PP leader, Pablo Casado, said before heading to the rally. “We’re asking Sánchez not to sell unity and national sovereignty for a handful of votes.”
Inés Arrimadas, who leads the Citizens party, said Spaniards wanted justice and democracy.
“Mr Sánchez ran in the election saying he wouldn’t pardon the coup-mongers and that’s why we’re here today – to make sure he keeps that promise,” she said. “He knows Spanish society doesn’t want the pardons.”
The Vox leader, Santiago Abascal, addressed the lack of another group photo and railed against what he termed the government’s treasonous machinations.
“We’re back in the Plaza de Colón once more and we’re not afraid of any kind of photo,” he said. “The picture that shames Spaniards is the one of the national government being photographed governing and staying in power thanks to all the enemies of Spain, of freedom, and of constitutional order.”
Abascal said the pardon were “an act of treason against all Spaniards, who have to watch as the politicians who staged a coup against the constitution are freed by an illegitimate and illegal government order”.
In an interview published on Sunday, Carmen Calvo, Spain’s senior deputy prime minister, said the pardons would be approved soon and insisted “the only viable alternative for Catalonia” was a political rapprochement and an end to provocations from both the independence movement and the Spanish right.
Speaking to La Vanguardia, Calvo called on the PP to behave responsibly and attacked it for returning to the Plaza de Colón in the company of Vox.
“The PP needs to accept its share of responsibility and decide what it’s going to contribute,” she said. “Is it just going to go back to Colón with the heirs of Francoism? That’s a ludicrous – and indeed hypocritical – answer given they don’t want to be in another photo.”
The former Socialist prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero also threw his weight behind the pardons, telling the online newspapers elDiario.es and InfoLibre: “Reconciliation, contact, dialogue and forgiveness are the only path to coming together again … This is the way to restore normality and co-existence after all that we’ve been through.”
Sunday’s rally came as the far-left, anti-austerity Podemos party – the junior partners in Sánchez’s coalition – chose Ione Belarra as its new leader. Belarra, who serves as the government’s social rights minister, replaces Pablo Iglesias, who retired from Spanish politics last month.