Spain's 40-year itch A woman stands near a Spanish Republican flag | Jorge Guerrero/AFP via Getty Images
A woman stands near a Spanish Republican flag | Jorge Guerrero/AFP via Getty Images
MADRID â" Forty years after its creation, Spainâs constitution is back in the political limelight.
Drafted three years after the death of dictator Francisco Franco, the document â" seen as the linchpin of the countryâs so-called transition from authoritarian rule to parliamentary democracy â" has attained an almost mythical status among many Spaniards.
But as supporters gathered at a flurry of commemorative events in the Spanish capital this month, calls to reform a democratic system some have taken to calling a âshamâ are getting louder.
âSpain has a major upheaval every 40 years and right now weâre in one of them,â said Andalusiaâs Socialist president, Susana DÃaz, pointing to a trend that goes back beyond the transition to the 1936-39 civil war and the countryâs humiliating loss of key colonies in 1898.
Spain pursued the road to democracy at high speed, soon becoming a member of the EU and NATO.
The 1978 constitution marked the end of Francoism and the countryâs first steps on the road to democracy. But a series of institutional crises, driven by political corruption and Catalan nationalism, has spurred a growing sense that the country is ripe for another upheaval.
Around the corner from an open-air concert to celebrate the anniversary in front of the Spanish Congress in central Madrid earlier this month, demonstrators gathered to demand the r elease of people they described as political prisoners: activists, artists and performers jailed for their public statements or their art. âThe transition is a farce,â they shouted.
âIt does seem like a farce to us, given the cuts to human rights and the situation weâre going through,â said 64-year-old Carmina RamÃrez, who took part in the protest. She described the constitution and the democratization process she witnessed as a young woman as âa deal done by those at the top, the elites.â
âWeâve got to get over all this hoopla about 1978,â she said. âIt may have got us this far but times have changed.â
I f thereâs one point on which defenders and critics of the âtransitionâ agree, itâs that the constitutionâs success depended on a remarkable degree of consensus. Former members of the right-wing Franco regime worked together with moderates and leftists â" some of whom had been in jail or exile during the dictatorship.
Former King Juan Carlos of Spain and Queen Sofia on November 27, 1975 during the religious ceremony of his enthronement. He was picked by dictator Francisco Franco to succeed him as head of state | AFP via Getty Images
âYou have to understand that weâd come out of a long, 40-year dictatorship whose foundations were in a dramatic civil war that caused wounds which still hadnât healed when the constitutional project was begun,â said Miquel Roca, a member of a small group of jurists who drew up the new constituti on.
Spain pursued the road to democracy at high speed, soon becoming a member of the EU and NATO. By the nineties, it was an influential European economic power and its transformation was lauded worldwide. The constitution was seen as the underpinning of that success.
But the last decade has corroded Spainâs self-perception of a model democratic state. Dozens of corruption scandals rocked the Socialist Workersâ Party and the conservative Popular Party, the two major political parties that have dominated national politics since the transition. Coming in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis that left millions of Spaniards out of work and impoverished, it left the country dispirited and distrustful.
Then came the arguably more damaging Catalan independence movement and the governmentâs crackdown. Madrid imposed direct rule in the region. Many independence leaders and activists fled abroad or were arrested.
The standoff put new strains on one of th e centerpieces of the constitution â" which seeks to balance the demands of Spainâs 17 regions with the âinseparable unity of the Spanish Nation.â It also placed some of the countryâs main democratic institutions under fierce scrutiny. Chief among them: the judiciary.
With nine Catalan independence leaders in jail â" in some cases for over a year â" the independence movement and many on the left have questioned the judgment of the Spanish Supreme Court, which is handling the case. A 2018 EU scorecard placed Spain 23rd â" below Portugal, Hungary and Romania â" in a top-to-bottom ranking of how favorably the public views the independence of its countryâs justice system.
Demonstrators hold a banner demanding freedom for former Catalan VP Oriol Junqueras, in pre-trial jail since late 2017 | LluÃs GenÃ©/AFP via Getty Images< p>Meanwhile, a string of cases in which social media users, rappers and other artists have been jailed for allegedly glorifying terrorist groups such as ETA â" which has disbanded and has not killed in almost a decade â" has also sparked outrage in many quarters.
âWe are worried about the state of health of freedom of speech in Spain,â said Ignacio GonzÃ¡lez Vega, spokesman for the progressive Judges for Democracy association.
Appetite for renewal
Some have suggested that the roots of the crisis lie in the hasty, often untransparent way the constitution was cobbled together.
In his book, âInstitutions of Modern Spain,â Michael T. Newton notes that the roles of key institutions were not sufficiently negotiated.
âWhile the end might have justified the means, many cracks were papered over,â he wrote. âMany agreements were reached not in the committee rooms of the [parliament] but behind closed doors in party offices or Madrid restaur ants.â
The fact that there have been only two constitutional reforms over the last 40 years reflects how reluctant Spainâs political class is to meddle with its Magna Carta.
Although 70 percent of Spaniards want constitutional reform of some sort, according to a recent poll by the Center for Sociological Research (CIS), the question is how â" and how far.
The âconstant celebrationâ of the constitution by older Spaniards is not shared by many of their younger countrymen, said political scientist JosÃ© FernÃ¡ndez-Albertos. Left-leaning voters also tend to advocate a deeper change than those on the right.
The territorial model and judiciary are often cited as obvious candidates for reform, as is the closed electoral list system, the monarchyâs male-oriented succession and regulations that allow opaque party financing practices.
The fact that there have been only two constitutional reform s over the last 40 years â" in 1992, to accommodate the Maastricht Treaty, and in 2011, to guarantee budgetary stability during the eurozone crisis â" reflects how reluctant Spainâs political class is to meddle with its Magna Carta.
The only major party ready to buck that trend in recent years has been Podemos. When the leftist, anti-austerity party erupted as a political force in 2014, it promised to blast open âthe padlock of â78.â
But after getting a taste of the practical difficulties of introducing constitutional reform â" which requires two-thirds of parliamentâs support in a heavily polarized political landscape â" Podemos rarely uses such language today.
Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias and other party members arrive at the Lledoners jail in Sant Joan de Vilatorrada | LluÃs GenÃ©/AFP via Getty Images
Blamin g the constitution and the transition for modern Spainâs ills may be tempting, but it is ultimately misguided, said FernÃ¡ndez-Albertos. âIt makes narrative sense to associate the choices made back then with the situation we have right now,â he said. â[But] if certain things fail, itâs not so much because in the constitution, thereâs a clause put there by some military guy who was linked to the Franco regime but because Spainâs current political dynamic is the way it is.â
Critics of the constitution also tend to play down its considerable successes â" not just in guiding the country through the turmoil of its early years of democracy but in ensuring political stability, and a certain degree of prosperity, under both leftist and conservative governments in the decades that followed.
Indeed, some of the most frequently cited faults in Spanish democracy â" such as its tribalism and lack of representation â" can also be seen in many other European nation s today.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro SÃ¡nchez and Andalusia regional President Susana DÃaz | Cristina Quicler/AFP via Getty Images
What many Spaniards seem to yearn for, whether or not it involves an overhaul of their constitution, is a return to the statesmanlike, consensual attitudes that created it â" the so-called spirit of the transition.
With the country at a crossroads, Spain has to put aside âthe party tricksâ and avoid the temptation of ideological polarization, political scientist Francisco J. Llera said.
âThis moment is historic and, as was the case back then, requires responsibility, moderation, generosity and pacts by our elites.â
Guy Hedgecoe is a Madrid-based journalist and author of âSkin Against Stone: Spainâs Basque Labyrinthâ (2016).
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