Tuesday, December 08, 2015

On Constitution Day

On this day thirty-seven years ago, the Majorca Daily Bulletin was able to announce that democracy had been secured for Spain but had been achieved with a lower than expected turnout for a referendum aimed at precisely this democracy. Despite what had become increasing boredom with a campaign, the yes vote was overwhelming. On 6 December, 1978, the Spanish people approved the Constitution.

When politicians of the current day hark on about "democratic regeneration" (those most notably of the new arrivals on the political scene such as representatives of Podemos), it is curious to reflect on the fact that what had been democratic generation had been greeted with less than overwhelming rapture. Released from the yoke of decades of dictatorship, the Spanish people were nonetheless suspicious of this generation. Among the ranks of leading politicians, there were, after all, former Franco men, such as Manuel Fraga, the one-time tourism minister, who was the head of what was eventually to become the Partido Popular, and even the president of the transition, Adolfo Suárez, who had been named the minister secretary-general of the Movimiento, Franco's nominal party.

There were other reasons to be suspicious. Police brutality didn't suddenly cease with the passing of Franco, while ETA and terrorism were dominant themes of the time, with Basque independence demands far more to the fore than Catalonia's. There was also the amnesty, the legislative means of forgetting and, so it would have appeared to many, forgiving.

Against all this background the Constitution was drafted and finally approved by the people, but perhaps there was a further suspicion. There had been previous constitutions. They had dated back to the original Liberal Constitution of 1812, a landmark document of civil rights that was to be abused and then abandoned by the despotic and insane Ferdinand VII.

The Constitution of 1978 has survived. It has been an enduring template for individual rights, for the rights of the monarchy, for the rights of religious and political freedoms, for the rights of autonomous government in the regions. It is not inviolate but it would take an awful lot to amend it or re-write it. Which is why of course there is so much discussion as to doing just this.

Constitution Day this year took on more meaning than it normally does, though the general populace was probably less interested in this than with the holiday having been reallocated to yesterday (in the Balearics and various other regions but not all). For politicians it was of immense meaning, as it was being celebrated two weeks before the general election.

The vote on 20 December may well be the most important election since democracy was established, assuming greater significance than the 1982 victory of Felipe González and PSOE that was to usher in a truly modern and liberal-minded Spanish nation: a victory that had been achieved within the context of the suppressed information of yet another coup plot. But while PSOE were to provide certainty and stability, it cannot guarantee it this time. Indeed, it may well fail in forming the government or part of it. Uncertainty surrounds the election, and amidst this uncertainty is the role of the Constitution: it is being debated hotly.

There are those who favour some modification, others who would leave it as it is and others still who are inclined to radical overhaul. It isn't difficult to figure out which parties and which politicians adopt these different postures. It is Podemos, naturally, which seeks the greatest change, its Congress lead candidate in the Balearics, the now ex-judge, Juan Pedro Yllanes, arguing - rightly - in favour of an independent judiciary. For others in Podemos, there might be more fundamental targets, with the monarchy in their sights.

The most pressing concern, constitutionally, relates to the roles of the regions; or it is the most pressing issue in the Balearics at any rate. The PSOE message is one of an alteration to state financing and the adoption of a federal state. The national leader of PSOE, Pedro Sánchez, appears to favour such a remodelling of the regions' relationships with the state, but Sánchez may not be in any position to effect this.

The Partido Popular Congress number one, Mateo Isern, is open to a "possible update", but his more receptive attitude than others in his party does not disguise his own aversion to a move towards the unknown and the unleashing of the enormous elephant in the Spanish state's room, i.e. Catalonia.

It has to be acknowledged that the Constitution was a product of its time. As such, there is a strong argument for review in order to take account of the intervening thirty-seven years: Artur Mas, the president of Catalonia, certainly argues this case. But radical revision? Events on 20 December may just give a clue, and Isern's worries about the unknown might be realised.

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