In setback for the Spanish leader, a small party avoids amnesty measures

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Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s fragile coalition revealed deep and potentially crippling fissures on Tuesday when a small hardline Catalan separatist party he allied with rejected a critical amnesty measure deemed unsatisfactory.

The party, Together for Catalonia, provided support which allowed Mr. Sánchez to form the government last year, on the condition that he granted amnesty for alleged crimes linked to the failure of the 2017 independence bid. On Tuesday, the party argued that the legislative shield against prosecution for it and its leaders should be broader.

The rejection of the measure by Spain’s 350-seat lower house with 179 votes against and 171 for was a setback for Mr. Sánchez, creating the likelihood of additional weeks of arduous negotiations. It also raised the possibility that horse-trading over the amnesty deal – which is precisely what gave rise to his second term – could leave the government unable to pass basic legislation, including an upcoming budget.

“The problem is that it could be a zombie government,” said Pablo Simón, a political scientist at the Carlos III University of Madrid, who added that since Mr. Sánchez had no incentive to call elections anticipated, the government could simply show up. months or years of doing nothing if he did not untie the amnesty knot.

“This reveals that party support for this government is really weak,” he added.

The Together for Catalonia party, an independence movement, has the ability to hold Mr. Sánchez and his government hostage on this issue, because its few votes are needed to pass legislation in a deeply divided and polarized Parliament.

The party itself is divided, making negotiations more difficult, but it is seeking a general amnesty for Carles Puigdemontthe former regional president of Catalonia who led the failed secessionist movement in 2017 and who still lives in self-imposed exile in Belgium.

The party argues that amnesty should be immediately applicable to ongoing cases and broader to protect against charges such as terrorism and treason. This is necessary, he says, to defend party members against a justice system they view as politically motivated and hostile.

A judge is investigating whether Mr Puigdemont ordered the blockade of Barcelona airport and whether this constitutes terrorism. Another judge is looking into potential links between Mr Puigdemont’s top advisers and Russia, suggesting it could amount to treason.

Mr. Sánchez, who cobbled together his coalition with a mix of parliamentary parties despite winning fewer votes than the country’s main conservative party in last year’s elections, had sought to make concessions, but that did not It wasn’t enough. He and his allies fear that an overly broad amnesty could violate the Spanish Constitution or European Union law.

Conservatives warned that the amnesty deal that returned Mr. Sánchez to power amounted to a pact with the devil because it would give Mr. Puigdemont leverage over the entire government.

The amnesty plan was politically necessary for Mr. Sánchez, but publicly unpopular. Polls showed that a large majority of Spanish voters opposed it. The conservative opposition has staged mass demonstrations in recent months, attended by hundreds of thousands of people, to protest what it sees as a deeply cynical miscarriage of justice.

Analysts expected the fragmented nature of the government coalition to pose problems on major legislative issues such as the next budget or questions of autonomy and taxation for the northern regions. But the fragmentation occurs earlier and is sharper than expected.

The failure of the amnesty measure could, however, be temporary. It will now return to a committee to develop a new proposal, with potentially new amendments, and be voted on again in a maximum of a month.

But Mr. Sànchez and his socialists seem weakened by the first defeat.

“This government has had problems from the beginning, it will be difficult to govern,” said political scientist Mr. Simón. He added that the government and its allies feared this would “happen with every vote”.

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