Spanish king in eye of storm over Catalan pardons

Monarch will have to sign off release of independence leaders by government

Spain’s King Felipe has been dragged into a controversy surrounding government plans to pardon jailed Catalan independence leaders.

The administration of Socialist Pedro Sánchez is expected to issue partial pardons for nine people convicted of sedition and jailed for their role in Catalonia’s failed bid for secession in 2017. The government says it hopes the release of the prisoners will calm tensions in the region and lay the foundations for negotiations.

The right-wing opposition has attacked the move, insisting that the jail sentences, of nine to 13 years, must be served in full.

However, on Sunday the conservative president of the Madrid region, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, suggested that the pardons could place the king in a quandary, as he would have to put his signature to the measure, as constitutional protocol dictates.


"What will the king of Spain do now?" she said, speaking outside the headquarters of her Popular Party (PP). "Will he sign those pardons? Will [the government] make him complicit in this?"

Ms Ayuso spoke shortly before a protest in Madrid against the pardons, in which the leaders of the PP, the centre-right Ciudadanos and the far-right Vox all took part. The organisers sought to reflect the widespread opposition to the initiative among ordinary Spaniards, with polls showing well over half of people against it.

However, to the consternation of the PP, Ms Ayuso’s comments have been hogging the headlines as much as the pardon proposal.

The PP itself was quick to downplay the remarks.

“Everybody knows that we are in a parliamentary monarchy and that the role of the king is fixed,” said the party’s congressional spokeswoman, Cuca Gamarra.

Setting a ‘trap’

Although Ms Ayuso subsequently appeared to backtrack on her words, she again drew controversy on Tuesday by warning that the Sánchez government had set “a trap” for the monarch. She added: “Whether or not he signs, whatever he does, he’s being put in question.”

King Felipe was crowned in 2014 after his father, Juan Carlos, abdicated following several scandals and amid health concerns. Last summer, Juan Carlos fled to the United Arab Emirates, where he remains, as speculation about his financial affairs raged.

In 2017, at the peak of the Catalan crisis, King Felipe delivered a strongly worded televised speech against those leading the independence drive. While unionists tended to approve of his stance, the incident reinforced his status as a pariah for the independence movement.

Left-wing commentator Antonio Maestre said the king had no choice but to sign the pardons because it was his “constitutional duty, and his symbolic role as head of state demands it”. He added that refusing to sign would mean “taking part in a coup d’état”.

“If the king doesn’t want to sign the pardons, he should abdicate,” said Gabriel Rufián, of the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC).

Reports suggest the pardons will be approved in late June or early July.

"The sooner we finish this, the better," said deputy prime minister Carmen Calvo, adding that this follows "10 very frustrating years for Catalans during which Catalonia has lost a great deal".

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Spain