Explained: Why violence hit Madrid’s streets ahead of Catalan deal

As Spain’s Socialists have just signed a pact with the pro-independence Catalan party, we explain why the deal has sparked violent protests on the streets of Madrid.


After six days of protests, tensions on the streets of Madrid appear to have eased as demonstrators sought to avoid clashes with police.

On Tuesday night, around 7,000 people gathered outside the Socialist Party headquarters when the demonstrations turned violent.

Radicals monopolised the front row, throwing bottles and even barriers at police who moved in to disperse the group.

The streets of several Spanish cities have been filled with people opposing negotiations between Spain’s acting government and Catalan separatist parties over a possible amnesty for thousands involved in Catalonia’s independence movement.

In central Madrid, people chanted “Sánchez, son of a b****” and “Puigdemont to jail”, referring to acting prime minister Pedro Sánchez and Catalan independence leader Carles Puigdemont, who is currently in self-imposed exile in Belgium.

A total of ten people were arrested, and health workers treated 39 people, 30 of them police officers.

“Today is historic,” said journalist Vito Quiles on his social networks.

“(The amnesty) is humiliating. They didn’t take into account the opinion of half the population,” two pensioners who took part in the demonstration told El País.

The agreement signed on Thursday between the Socialist Party and Puigdemont’s party moves the country away from a de-escalation of tensions, but why are Spaniards so angry with Sánchez?

‘The beginning of the end of democracy’

Madrid’s Calle Ferraz, where the Socialist Party headquarters are located, has been the scene of Spanish discontent for days.

Pedro Sánchez, acting prime minister and leader of the Socialists, was negotiating with Catalan separatist parties to secure their support in his bid to form a new government and keep his centre-left coalition in power after an inconclusive national election in July.

But the demands of the Catalan pro-independence parties have not gone down well with the public.

Among the promises that Pedro Sánchez made to these parties was the cancellation of 20% of Catalonia’s debt to the state, which amounts to €15 billion.

Following an outcry from the other regions, the Socialist Party assured them the agreement would be extended to the other regional debts.

However, the Junts per Catalunya party – led by Puigdemont – still holds the key to Sánchez’s government.

The seven seats they won in the last general election are essential for the Socialists to return to government.

What they are demanding in exchange for these coveted seats is what has most inflamed Spaniards: amnesty for political leaders implicated in Catalonia’s independence bid.

“The landscape is very worrying. On the one hand, the investiture negotiations are aberrant. On the other hand, dangerous steps have been taken in the recent protests,” Óscar Sánchez-Alonso, professor of politics at the Faculty of Communication of the Pontifical University of Salamanca, told Euronews.


“Alongside those who are legitimately and peacefully expressing their dissatisfaction, there is also a growing concentration of groups willing to use violence, and in some sectors the idea has taken hold that if the law doesn’t apply to some, it is logical to break it in other directions,” he added.

The pro-independence parties have stated that “all those who were repressed, without exception” will benefit from the amnesty – a total of 1,432 people, according to calculations by the pro-independence organisation Òmnium Cultural.

It is a decision that has divided Spanish society, with 56.5% of the country against it, according to the latest poll by Simple Lógica, which specialises in public opinion research.

The judges also wanted to have their say. The main association of magistrates has issued a very strong statement against the approval of an amnesty.

“It is the beginning of the end of our democracy,” it said, adding that the amnesty law “is not allowed by the Constitution”.


Who would benefit from the amnesty?

As demonstrations took place in Spanish cities, the Socialist Party has been negotiating ‘intensively’ with Puigdemont’s party to reach an agreement signed this Thursday.

Negotiators said the unrest in Madrid had not affected talks with the pro-independence parties.

Of the more than 1,400 people who would benefit from the future amnesty law, politicians top the list. The first major beneficiary is Puigdemont, who faces charges of disobedience and embezzlement.

The list of names includes politicians, mayors, civil servants and also citizens charged with public disorder or even terrorism.

Although the negotiations have not been made public, the main stumbling block preventing the two parties from reaching an agreement was Puigdemont’s demand that the amnesty not exclude some of his entourage.


Spanish media suggest that some of these people are under investigation or have been convicted of crimes unrelated to the independence declaration.

For example, the former president of the Catalan parliament, Laura Borràs, who was convicted of splitting public contracts in favour of a friend; or Puigdemont’s lawyer, Gonzalo Boye, who is being investigated for allegedly laundering drug money.

However, the protests are not only taking place outside the Socialist Party headquarters, but also within its own walls.

Party heavyweights have openly spoken out against them, to the point of creating an internal war.

“In some cases, the debate has been resolved with the expulsion (of the member) from the Socialist Party; other voices, such as Felipe González, ex-president of the Socialist government, have been dismissed as past history with little to contribute,” points out Sánchez-Alonso.


For Paloma Román, director of the School of Government at Madrid’s Complutense University, there are dissenting militants in every party, but the tension caused by the recent riots could help the Socialists to close ranks around the amnesty.

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A compromise too far? Spain’s Sanchez has ‘little wiggle room’ to stay in power

Spain’s conservative leader saw his final bid to become prime minister rejected by parliament on Friday, paving the way for Socialist incumbent Pedro Sanchez to have another shot at cobbling together a majority – with the backing of separatist parties whose support could cost him dearly.

Two months after an inconclusive general election resulted in a hung parliament, Spain’s protracted political horse-trading has delivered a first, highly expected verdict: there will be no conservative government led by Alberto Nunez-Feijoo – at least not in this legislature.

On Friday, the leader of the right-wing Popular Party (PP) conceded defeat in his second attempt to win the backing of Spain’s Congress of Deputies, the lower house of parliament, falling short of the 176 seats required for a majority.

Feijoo’s failure stems from his controversial alliance with the far-right Vox party, which has effectively alienated all other parties. It sets in motion a two-month countdown to new elections, the country’s sixth in eight years.

That is, unless the country’s interim leader Pedro Sanchez succeeds in his own attempt to reach the 176-seat threshold over the coming weeks.

Sanchez, 51, came second in the July 23 vote, his Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) trailing the PP by a narrower-than-expected 1.4 percentage points. Sometime next week, King Felipe VI is expected to task him with forming a government, although the date for a new investiture vote has yet to be set.

“The Socialists are likely to aim for a vote during the week of October 10-16,” said Barbara Loyer, a professor and Spain expert at Paris-8 University. “The investiture must take place before November 27, barring which Spanish voters will head back to the polls on January 14.”

A ‘clean slate’ for Puigdemont?

After repeated elections, political instability and the complexities of coalition-building have become recurrent topics of discussion in the EU’s fourth-largest economy.

“It’s all you hear about – in the press, on television or from people on the street,” said Jean-Marc Sanchez, a French-Spanish lawyer and keen observer of Spanish politics, speaking from Barcelona – where Catalan separatists hold the keys to power in Madrid.

The fragmented parliament resulting from the July 23 election has left Sanchez and his left-wing allies 24 seats short of a majority, meaning the Socialist leader needs the support of all but one of the 25 lawmakers representing Catalan and Basque nationalist parties.

“Sanchez is in a delicate position: he needs the support of all separatist parties since he is a long shot from having a majority alone,” said Maria Elisa Alonso, a political analyst at the University of Lorraine in eastern France who specialises in Spanish politics.

The PSOE leader, who has a track record of brokering compromise and holding together unwieldy alliances, can point to a recent precedent to bolster his case.

On August 17, his candidate for parliament speaker Francina Armengol garnered the support of 178 lawmakers in the lower-house Congress. They included seven MPs from United for Catalonia (JxCat), representing the most hardline separatists in Catalan politics.

JxCat’s figurehead is none other than Carles Puigdemont, the exiled leader of a botched Catalan independence drive in 2017 that has poisoned Spanish politics ever since.

Carles Puigdemont has been in exile in Brussels since leading a failed bid to win independence for Catalonia. © Kenzo Tribouillard, AFP

Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium to avoid prosecution over his illegal independence referendum, has made his support conditional on Sanchez granting an amnesty and “an end to all legal proceedings” against Catalan separatists. Meanwhile, the left-wing ERC, another Catalan separatist party, has asked for a new referendum on self-determination – a legal one, this time – in exchange for its backing.

“ERC leaders who were convicted over the 2017 independence bid have already been pardoned (by Sanchez) and released, whereas the JxCat fugitives have their own fate on the line,” said Loyer. “A general amnesty would wipe the slate clean for everybody.”

Such demands have prompted a barrage of protests from across the political spectrum, including from prominent members of Sanchez’s own party.

“We cannot let ourselves be blackmailed,” said Felipe Gonzalez, the former Socialist prime minister who governed Spain in the 1980s and 90s. “We told voters on July 23 that there was no room for amnesty under our Constitution,” added Emiliano Garcia-Page, PSOE’s president of the Castilla-La Mancha region south of Madrid, flagging the risk of a voter backlash.

A risky balancing act

Sanchez is now caught between two fires as he attempts to win over separatist lawmakers without alienating others in his own camp.

“He will have to convince voters and his lawmakers that the amnesty that was impossible – and unconstitutional – only a few months ago is now somehow possible,” said Alonso, stressing that Sanchez has “very little wiggle room”.

As he campaigned in the run-up to the July vote, Spain’s interim prime minister clearly stated that “amnesty is incompatible with the Constitution”. He will have to strike a more conciliatory tone if he is to sway the separatist camp – a feat he has repeatedly pulled off in the past.

“Sanchez is something of a whiz when it comes to semantic pirouettes, portraying seemingly impossible moves in a good light,” said Loyer. She noted that the Socialist leader studiously avoids the word “amnesty”, opting instead to “dejudicialise” the tussle between Barcelona and Madrid.  

Since coming to power in 2018, a year after Catalonia’s failed independence push, Sanchez has sought to ease the country’s chronic separatist tensions. He has resumed talks with separatist parties, pardoned nine of their leaders, and reformed Spain’s sedition law to reduce prison sentences.

The PSOE leader has denied the reforms are a concession to secessionists, but critics on the right have blasted such moves as cynical ploys to hang on to power.

“Sanchez always turns his coat the right way round, he’s the great survivor of Spanish politics,” said Jean-Marc Sanchez, the French-Spanish lawyer. “He’ll do anything to remain in power.”

With analysts pointing to a January election as the likeliest outcome, the prime minister’s latest attempt to pull off a majority in parliament could carry a high political cost. As Alonso warned, “voters may seek to punish him at the polls should he propose an amnesty” for the likes of Puigdemont.

While new elections would prolong the political impasse, Spain remains better equipped than other countries to cope with gridlock in the capital, Loyer cautioned.

“One has to bear in mind that Spain is a highly decentralised country, with autonomous regions wielding a lot of power,” she explained. “Like in Belgium, a large part of day-to-day affairs can carry on unimpeded, even when the central government is in crisis.”

This article was translated from the original in French.

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Spain election repeat more likely after expat vote count

Spain’s already complicated electoral landscape just got a lot more complex.

On Saturday, the count of the 233,688 ballots deposited by Spaniards living abroad — which are tallied five days after the in-person vote is held — led to the redistribution of seats in the Spanish parliament. As a result, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist Party lost one of the spots it was allocated in Madrid, which will now go to the center-right Popular Party.

The Popular Party is now set to have 137 MPs in the next legislature; together with the far-right Vox party’s 33 MPs and the single MP belonging to the affiliated Navarrese People’s Union (UPN), the right-wing bloc is set to control at least 171 seats the same number as Sánchez and his preferred partners. Should the Canarian Coalition revise its stated position, which is against backing any government that includes Vox, the conservative bloc could add another seat to its tally.

Those numbers do not improve conservative leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo’s chances of becoming prime minister. Even with an additional seat under Popular Party control, he still does not have enough support to overcome the crucial simple majority vote that a candidate must win in parliament in order to form a government.

But with the technical tie created by the reallocation of seats, Prime Minister Sánchez’s already narrow path to victory has become much more precarious, making the possibility of new elections in Spain more likely.

Prior to the loss of the seat in Madrid, Sánchez’s options for remaining Spain’s head of government involved persuading nationalist and separatist MPs to back a left-wing coalition government formed by his Socialist Party and the left-wing Sumar group. The combined forces of those parties and the 153 Socialist and Sumar MPs would have enabled Sánchez to count on 172 favorable votes, slightly more than the 170 the right-wing bloc was projected to control. As long as he convinced the Catalan separatist Junts party to abstain, Sánchez would have had more yeas than nays and been able to form a new government.

But now, with only 171 votes in its favor, the left-wing bloc will be facing at least an equal number of right-wing MPs capable of rejecting Sánchez’s bid to remain Spain’s prime minister. Getting Junts to abstain is no longer enough — Sánchez will need one or potentially two of the separatist party’s MPs to vote in his favor.

A hard circle to square

If getting Junts to abstain was already unlikely, getting the party to explicitly back the Socialist candidate seems virtually unthinkable right now.

Since 2017 the party’s founder, former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, has been pursued by the Spain’s judiciary for his role in the Catalan independence referendum. As a member of the European Parliament, Puigdemont has been able to sidestep Madrid’s efforts to extradite him from Belgium, where he lives in self-imposed exile. But in June a top EU court stripped him of his immunity and just days ago Spanish prosecutors called for a new warrant to be issued for his arrest.

Earlier this week Junts said that it would only negotiate with Sánchez if he agrees to declare a blanket amnesty for everyone involved in the 2017 referendum and commits to holding a Catalan independence vote.

“The party that needs our support will have to be the one to make the effort,” said incumbent Junts MP Míriam Nogueras. “These negotiations need to be held from one nation to another … Things are not going to be as they have always been.”

Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister María Jesús Montero was quick to reject both demands, saying on Tuesday that the Socialist Party could only negotiate “within the margins of legality set out within the Spanish constitution.”


For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Holding new national elections would almost certainly hurt separatist parties. With the exception of Basque group EH Bildu, all of them lost seats in last Sunday’s vote, and they’re likely to lose even more support if they force electors to go back to the polls in December or January.

On Saturday, Raquel Sans, spokesperson for the Republican Left of Catalonia party, admitted that her group had begun to hold discreet talks with Junts with the goal of forging “strategic unity” among Catalan separatists and avoiding repeat elections that “are not in the interest of the public.”

The tie between the two blocs may allow conservative leader Feijóo to press Spain’s King Felipe VI to name him as his candidate to be the next prime minister when parliament is reconvened next month.

Although there is no chance that Feijóo will be able to win the required support from fellow MPs, a failed bid in parliament will allow him to momentarily quiet the dissenters in his ranks who have been calling for him to step down in the aftermath of last Sunday’s result, in which the Popular Party won the most votes in the election but failed to secure the seats needed to form a government.

There is still the possibility, however, that enough party leaders will tell the king that they back Sánchez’s bid and that he has a viable path to form a coalition government. While the now-caretaker prime minister is keeping a low-profile this week, Socialist Party representatives are said to be hard at work, holding informal chats with partners with the objective of stitching up that support in the coming weeks.

Regardless of whether the candidate is Feijóo or Sánchez, the moment one of them fails their first investiture vote, a two-month deadline will begin counting down, at the end of which the Spanish constitution dictates that the king must dissolve parliament and call new elections. That new vote must be held 54 days after the legislature concludes, so if no deal is struck in the coming months, Spaniards would go to the polls again at the end of this year or, more likely, at the beginning of 2024.

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