Spanish parliament passes controversial amnesty bill

Right-wing opposition party Partido Popular (PP) leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo applauds after speaking before a vote on final approval of the amnesty law for Catalan separatists at the Congress in Madrid, on May 30, 2024. Spain lawmakers hold final vote on a controversial law to grant amnesty to Catalan separatists involved in the failed 2017 independence bid at the Congress in Madrid, on May 30, 2024. [AFP]

Spain's parliament gave the final green light to a controversial amnesty bill for Catalan separatists Thursday, paving the way for the return of their figurehead Carles Puigdemont after years of self-imposed exile.

The legislation seeks to draw a line under years of efforts to prosecute those involved in the failed 2017 Catalan independence bid that triggered Spain's worst political crisis in decades.

The text, which has been strongly opposed by Spain's right and far-right opposition, passed by 177 votes in favour to 172 votes against in the 350-seat parliament. One person was absent from the vote.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez hailed the move, saying "forgiveness" was more powerful than holding a grudge over the 2017 crisis.

"In politics, as in life, forgiveness is stronger than resentment," he wrote on X.

"Today Spain is more prosperous and more united than in 2017. Coexistence is making progress."

It is a key moment for Sanchez as the bill was a demand by separatist parties in exchange for their parliamentary support last November that let him begin a new term in office.

Rowdy session of insult trading

The bill, which grants an amnesty to hundreds of separatists involved in the independence bid, passed its first reading in the lower house in March.

It then went to the upper-house Senate, dominated by the right-wing opposition, where it was symbolically vetoed -- the Senate cannot block a bill but only propose amendments -- before returning to the lower house on Thursday morning.

Following a rowdy two-and-a-half-hour debate during which the Speaker was forced to call order several times due to the insults traded on the floor, the bill passed.

The measure, which has dominated Spanish political discourse for months, could affect around 400 people, according to a justice ministry estimate.

It will be up to individual judges to decide if the amnesty applies to their cases.

They have two months to raise issues with the Constitutional Court or the European justice system, which could delay the law's implementation for some time.

'A death certificate'

"Today we've witnessed the Socialist Party's death certificate being signed," right-wing opposition leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo said before the vote.

Feijoo's Popular Party (PP) technically won last July's general election but did not have the parliamentary support to form a government, leaving the way open for Sanchez, who succeeded with the crucial backing of the Catalan separatist parties.

And what they demanded in exchange was the amnesty bill -- whose biggest beneficiary will be Puigdemont, the former Catalan leader who led the secession bid then fled Spain to avoid prosecution.

Puigdemont's hardline JxCat party hailed the vote as a victory.

"Today is a historic day in the broadest sense of the word. Today is not about forgiveness, it's about winning a battle in the war," said Miriam Nogueras, JxCat's parliamentary spokeswoman.

"Next stop, a referendum," said Gabriel Rufian of the more moderate ERC party, referring to the separatists' longstanding demand for a referendum on Catalan independence.

The amnesty has sparked fierce opposition from the PP and the far-right Vox, which have rallied mass street protests against the move and vowed not to give up the fight even after the measure becomes law.

The latest protest was last weekend.

Successful strategy

Surveys suggest Spaniards are divided over the amnesty, including among Sanchez's Socialists and their supporters, though the result of the May 12 Catalan regional election has shifted the picture.

After a decade in power, the separatists lost their absolute majority with the Socialists winning a clear victory, suggesting focus has shifted away from independence, vindicating Sanchez's strategy of defusing tensions around the 2017 crisis.

Although the Socialists are preparing to take over leadership of the Catalan government, Puigdemont has said he wants to lead a minority separatist administration.

He has also said he hopes to be back in time to see a new Catalan government take office, which is due to happen by June 25 at the latest.

But it is unclear if that will happen given the two-month time span for the courts to enact the legislation and cancel outstanding arrest warrants, including the one for Puigdemont.