Why Spain’s right is vehemently opposed to changes to sedition law

Spain's right-wing opposition is infuriated over government plans to abolish sedition, the charge used against Catalan separatist leaders, decrying the move as a gift to pro-independence parties in exchange for parliamentary support.

Why Spain's right is vehemently opposed to changes to sedition law
Catalonia's failed independence bid sparked Spain's worst political crisis in decades, with then-Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and several others fleeing abroad to escape prosecution. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

Parliament on Thursday approved a bill to reform the criminal code to drop what Spain’s left-wing coalition government sees as an antiquated offence, replacing it with one better aligned with modern European norms.

And the change should be in place before the year’s end, Spanish media reports say.

In response, the far-right Vox party has called a protest in Madrid on Sunday, while the right-wing opposition Popular Party (PP) has convened rallies across the country to express its opposition.

Right-wing parties say eliminating sedition — the charge used to convict and jail nine Catalan separatists over their involvement with a failed 2017 independence bid — will pave the way for another attempt to separate from Spain.

Initially condemned to between nine and 13 years behind bars, the separatists were pardoned last year by the leftist government, drawing fury from the Spanish right.

“Great for those in Catalonia who want to stage another coup!” PP lawmaker Edurne Uriarte told a parliamentary debate over the planned law changes.

Like European democracies

The failed independence bid sparked Spain’s worst political crisis in decades, with then-Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and several others fleeing abroad to escape prosecution.

Spain says its efforts to have them extradited have failed because many European countries simply don’t recognise sedition as a crime, with the bill seeking to reframe the offence as an “aggravated public disorder”.

The bill aims “to reform the crime of sedition and replace it with an offence comparable to what they have in other European democracies,” Sánchez said earlier this month.

“The crimes committed in 2017 will continue to be present in our penal code, although no longer as crimes of sedition… but as a new type of crime called an aggravated public disorder,” he said.

But even Puigdemont has expressed misgivings about the legal change, saying those separatists celebrating the move “have learned nothing from the last five years”.

The new offence would carry a maximum penalty of five years behind bars, compared with 15 years for the crime of sedition.

Opposition leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo asked Sánchez to “clarify whether he is actually reforming the crime of sedition to protect Spanish democracy or whether he is just trying to politically survive” — implying the bill was payback for pro-independence party support in parliament.

“The PP’s stance is clear: we will increase the penalties for sedition and rebellion, we will make them criminal offences and will make the holding of an illegal referendum a crime,” he said of his party’s position, with a general election on the horizon.

Some reluctance on the left

The PP managed to ensure Thursday’s vote was vocal, a rare procedure in Spain in which lawmakers verbally declare their support or opposition for a bill, in a move forcing the more reluctant Socialists to lay their cards clearly on the table.

Spain’s criminal code currently defines sedition as “publicly rising up and using mass disorder to prevent the implementation of laws, by force or through means outside the law”.

More succinctly, the Royal Academy of Spanish Language defines it as a “collective and violent uprising against authority, against public order or military discipline without reaching the gravity of rebellion”.

The crime has survived various reforms of the legal code, the last of which was in 1995, but its critics say it dates back to the 19th century.

“We are revising a crime that was enacted in 1822 in Spain, dating back 200 years to when there were still military uprisings,” Sanchez said earlier this month, pointing to Germany, where sedition was abolished in 1970.

But reclassifying it as an aggravated public disorder hasn’t satisfied some on the left who fear it could be used against demonstrators.

“It concerns us… (that the new offence) could have some limiting effect on the right to peaceful protest,” argued Pablo Echenique, spokesman for the hard-left Podemos, the Socialists’ junior coalition partner which was behind the moves to abolish sedition.

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As it happened: Spain MPs use Catalan, Basque, Galician in Congress

Spanish lawmakers were from Tuesday allowed to address parliament in Catalan, Basque or Galician, fulfilling a demand from Catalan separatists whose support is crucial for Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to remain in power.

As it happened: Spain MPs use Catalan, Basque, Galician in Congress

But the measure was fiercely opposed by the right, with lawmakers from far-right Vox walking out as members of Sánchez’s Socialist party addressed the assembly in Galician.

They also returned the earpieces that would allow them to hear a simultaneous translation.

“We don’t want to be complicit of the breakdown of our co-existence,” the head of Vox’s parliamentary group, Maria Jose Millan, told reporters.

Vox rejects Spain’s current system of devolved regional powers and has proposed a national referendum to ban separatist parties.

The main opposition conservative Popular Party (PP) meanwhile demanded that the use of minority languages in the assembly only be allowed once the rules on their use are formally approved on Thursday.

Catalan, Basque and Galician, which are spoken in various regions, are all classed as co-official languages in Spain, where the official language is castellano, or Castilian Spanish.

Alongside Spanish, these languages are taught in schools and used in the respective regional administrations and parliaments in Catalonia in the northeast, the Basque Country in the north and Galicia in the northwest.

Being permitted to use these languages in debates in the Spanish parliament has long been a demand of nationalist parties in these regions.

“This is a historic day… Finally the rights of Catalan speakers are being respected,” Miriam Nogueras, a Catalan lawmaker from Carles Puigdemont’s hardline JxCat party, said outside parliament.

READ MORE: Why Spain has allowed regional languages to be spoken in Congress

JxCat unexpectedly emerged as kingmaker following Spain’s inconclusive July 23rd election.

It has since laid out a string of demands in return for its support to ensure Sánchez, currently in an interim role, can stay on as prime minister.

Allowing the use of such languages in the assembly was one of JxCat’s demands in exchange for its support to ensure the election of Francina Armengol as parliamentary speaker, the candidate from Sánchez’s Socialist Party.

Puigdemont headed Catalonia’s regional government during the botched 2017 independence bid that sparked Spain’s biggest political crisis in decades.

He fled Spain shortly after to avoid prosecution and has since lived in self-imposed exile in Belgium.

Spain’s EU language debate

JxCat also demanded Madrid ensure that Catalan, Basque and Galician were recognised as official languages of the European Union, a question which was being debated by the bloc’s top diplomats earlier on Tuesday.

The EU currently has 24 official languages, although there are around 60 minority and regional languages in the bloc.

The inclusion of any additional official languages must be agreed unanimously by all 27 member states.

But the proposal drew objections, with the EU debate postponed as ministers from the bloc sought more time to mull over the issues.

READ MORE: EU States reluctant to add Catalan as official language

Spain’s general election resulted in a hung parliament.

The right-wing Popular Party won most votes and its leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, has been tasked with forming a government, despite lacking a working majority within the 350-seat assembly.

Should he lose the parliamentary vote to become prime minister on September 27th, the task of forming a government will pass to Sánchez.

Sánchez will then have two months to piece together a governing majority – which will only be possible with support from JxCat’s seven lawmakers.

If he also fails, Spain will have to call new elections, probably in January.