Protestors wave Spanish flags at a Madrid protest
Protestors wave Spanish flags at a Madrid protest against plans to grant an amnesty to Catalan separatists. AFP

Tens of thousands of people, many waving Spanish flags, rallied in Madrid on Sunday against plans to grant an amnesty to Catalan separatists in a protest called by far-right party Vox.

The divisive amnesty question follows an inconclusive July general election which left acting Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez needing the support in parliament of Catalan separatist parties ERC and JxCat to be sworn in for another term.

In exchange, the two parties demand an amnesty for hundreds of people who faced legal action over their often minor roles in Catalonia's failed push for independence in 2017 which sparked Spain's worst political crisis in decades.

"Spain is not for sale" and "No amnesty" were among the slogans on display at the rally in the central Plaza de Colon.

Marcos Carbonell, a 37-year-old engineer, said he was upset that Sanchez was willing to make a pact with those who want to "break up Spain".

"It's shameful. Not everything goes to stay in power," he told AFP at the protest organised by the Foundation for the Defence of the Spanish Nation which has close ties to Vox.

Many in the crowd were angry that an amnesty could benefit JxCat leader Carles Puigdemont, who headed the northeast region's government in 2017 when it made a short-lived declaration of Catalan independence after a violence-marred referendum banned by Madrid.

Puigdemont fled Spain shortly after to avoid prosecution and now lives in Belgium. Many Spaniards consider him an enemy of the state.

"Send Puigdemont to prison!" shouted demonstrators, who numbered around 100,000 according to the central government's delegation to Madrid. Vox put turnout at over 100,000 without giving a figure.

Vox leader Santiago Abascal, warned that Sanchez threatened Spanish unity and accused him of only seeking an amnesty "to remain in power".

"What a shame, what an indignity, what a betrayal," he told the crowd.

The main opposition conservative Popular Party (PP) staged its own protest against the proposed amnesty on Sunday in the southern city of Malaga which it said drew over 20,000 people.

"This amnesty is not being negotiated in the name of Spain, it is negotiated in the name of Sanchez," PP chief Alberto Nunez Feijoo told the demonstrators, adding all Spaniards should be allowed to vote on the amnesty plan.

This is the fourth rally staged by the party against the planned amnesty following demonstrations in Madrid, the central city of Toledo and Santiago de Compostela in Feijoo's home region of Galicia in the northwest.

An amnesty could benefit over 4,000 people, mostly minor officials and ordinary citizens who helped stage the 2017 referendum that was banned by the courts or took part in protests that turned ugly, according to pro-independence Catalan group Omnium Cultural.

Sanchez, who has sought to calm separatist tensions since coming to office five years ago, in 2021 pardoned top Catalan separatist leaders who were serving long prison terms over the secession bid.

He defended the need for an amnesty during a speech to top Socialist party members on Saturday, arguing the 2021 pardons had "undeniably" defused the conflict and the would further reduce tensions.

"We can't leave this wound open indefinitely," he added.

While he did not campaign on a promise to issue an amnesty, the results of the July election require him to consider the demands of other parties in order to form a new government, Sanchez said.

"We must make a virtue out of necessity," he said.

Sanchez needs to secure support from at least 176 lawmakers within the 350-seat parliament to win a key vote that must take place before November 27.

If he fails, Spain will automatically be forced to hold new elections, most likely in mid-January.

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