Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Reforming Spain's Constitution?

How many of you are aware that the Spanish constitution makes possible, albeit hypothetically, the merger of two of Spain's regions - the Basque Country and Navarre? While radical elements long for such a union, the likelihood of it ever happening is all but zero. But the fact that the theoretical possibility even exists reflects historical anomalies that can creep into constitutions. In Germany there is one such. Bavaria, hypothetically, could declare itself independent.

These examples reveal that constitutions, generally considered to be inviolate, contain aspects that may or do require reform. As a form of pact between state and citizen, a constitution shouldn't necessarily remain set in stone. Circumstances do, after all, change, and where Spain is concerned, the constitution has been subject to more or less constant amendment over some two hundred years.

During the nineteenth century, there were various attempts at revision. The first actual constitution was that of 1812, a manifesto of liberalism that was doomed to failure but which was to be a fundamental factor in that century's development. Ferdinand VII revoked it and thus ushered in the clashes between liberals (joined later by republicans) on one side and the conservative monarchists on the other. Both parties were rife with their own intrigues and differences. From the conservatives came Carlism, a Catholic fundamentalism which fostered civil wars. The upheavals through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century bred what was to become Francoism. The 1812 constitution, it might be said, had been the unwitting launch pad for a dictatorship which naturally abandoned the constitution of the Second Republic.

The current constitution, dating from 1978, has been amended twice. Both the amendments were responses to influences outside Spain's borders. In 1992, European citizens in Spain were allowed to vote in and stand for municipal elections. There was little or no disagreement with this. Five years ago, there was dissent. Budgetary stability, demanded by Brussels, became a constitutional mandate. It was seen as a stitch-up between the two main political parties - the Partido Popular and PSOE. Austerity was in effect enshrined into the constitution. This very act was as influential as any other in bringing about the rise of Podemos, whose targets included austerity and what was perceived as the corrupt, cosy co-existence of the casta parties - the PP and PSOE.

Mariano Rajoy faced calls for constitutional reforms during his first period in office, all of which he ignored. Then, prior to the first election last December, he surprised many by announcing that he was open to reform. Getting rid of the Basque Country-Navarre hypothesis was one item on the agenda, a seemingly obscure one but also important. Rajoy inferred that territorial issues would be considered. If that had been intended as a sort of sop to Catalonia, then it had no effect.

Rajoy's shaky hold on government gives this Constitution Day greater relevance than others over the past almost forty years. The Catalonia question and the legality of a referendum dominate the debate in which Podemos (and its friends) support the principle of separatism if a majority wishes it, while the PP and Ciudadanos want no truck with the idea. PSOE, its powers lessened, has an idea for a federal model, one that it has never satisfactorily elucidated. This, at least, was what Pedro Sánchez had been advocating.

There are other demands for reform. Juan Pedro Yllanes, the judge who now sits in Congress on behalf of Podemos in the Balearics, is one to call for a truly independent judiciary. In principle it is independent, but as an example of how it is deemed not to be, Rights International Spain last year referred the judicial system to the United Nations special rapporteur on independence; government meddling was the reason for doing so. Lurking in the wings is the monarchy and a referendum on that. Podemos's charter makes clear the party's demands for referendums on various constitutional matters, but then Podemos isn't in government.

A year ago, Rajoy said that a request from union leaders for Congress to debate constitutional reform was both sensible and necessary. How true he might now be to his words will be put to the test. He says he's open to more talks with Catalonia but not on independence. What the "territorial issues" might therefore be is anyone's guess; so are any other potential reforms.

In the Balearics the main call for reform is for the Sánchez federal model. Francina Armengol has referred to this many times, but her overriding concern is financing, something which doesn't require constitutional change. Rajoy knows that there is pressure for financial reform for the regions. He may feel that that this is a step worth taking in easing pressure to alter the constitution. He is, obviously, a conservative, for whom constitutional reform would be largely anathema, much as he might have said that a debate is necessary.

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