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Catalonia crisis shows Spain's constitution is no longer fit for purpose

For Puigdemont, calling new elections would be a high-risk tactic

Emmy Eklundh | The Conversation 

Catalonia, Spain, Catalonians' independence vote, referendum, banned poll, banned referendum, Catalonia
Demonstrators holding a banner that reads "Catalonia is Spain" march defending the unity of Spain and against a disputed referendum on the region's independence that separatist politicians want to hold Sunday, in Barcelona. (Photo: PTI)

Amid reports swirling that Catalonia’s president, Carles Puigdemont, was either set to call new elections to the Catalan or declare full from Spain, he abruptly cancelled a scheduled press conference on October 26. When he did speak, he did not call elections and said it was up to Catalonia’s to decide how to act.

For Puigdemont, calling new elections would be a high-risk tactic. Even though many have come to deeply dislike the government’s violent response to Catalonia’s referendum on October 1, there is also dissatisfaction among Catalans who do not want Puigdemont cannot guarantee that another poll will deal him a stronger hand. It could be seen as a tactic to remove the threat of an imposition of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which would revoke Catalonia’s powers of autonomy – although the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has not officially confirmed that this would be the case.

Following Puigdemont’s semi-declaration of independence on October 10, he called for an opening of negotiations with Rajoy. But due to errors on both sides, the possibility for constructive dialogue remains feeble.

The decision of Catalan nationalists to commit to a legally binding referendum, despite the Constitutional Court ruling it to be illegal, was a statement intended to draw a line in the sand. The Rajoy government, however, fanned the fire rather than put it out. By bringing the Civil Guard onto the streets of Barcelona, and using every little bit of the crowd control legislation passed in July 2015, the government succeeded in turning an increasing amount of Catalans against them. The arrests of Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez, the leaders of the two main nationalist organisations in Catalonia, also sparked further outrage.

If, against the current tide, the parties do manage to open negotiations, there would immediately be pressure for a new referendum that has the support of the Spanish But, after a turbulent period with two general elections in the span of six months in 2016, the Spanish is highly divided and fragmented. The two main parties, Rajoy’s Partido Popular (PP) and the socialist Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), are facing a rising challenge from the newcomers Podemos, on the left, and the centre-right Cuidadanos party.

The current circumstances could spur calls for new elections to the Spanish central too. Rajoy, who is in a weak position and presides over a minority government, technically has little interest in causing a great stir. At the same time, he is afraid of being seen as weak in a term which has seen prominent members of his party on trial for corruption and Rajoy called as a witness.

The electoral base of Rajoy’s PP, which has some uncomfortable connections to the Francoist past, has little patience for the nationalities question and has often resisted increased autonomy for Spain’s regions. However, even the PSOE – led by the newly re-elected Pedro Sanchez – is largely unwilling to make great concessions to the nations: Catalonia, the Basque country and Galicia.

The GAL scandal of the 1990s, when it emerged that the PSOE government had funded a death squad against the Basque-separatist group ETA, is a reminder of how toxic the issue of national remains, both on the left and on the right.

Revoking autonomous powers

Rajoy’s government plans to invoke Article 155, a paragraph of the Spanish constitution which allows the central government to revoke the powers of autonomous communities if the: “autonomous community does not fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution or other laws, or acts in a way seriously prejudicing the general interests of

This article has only ever been seriously considered once before, when the Gonzalez government in the late 1980s required the Canary Islands to comply with new fiscal rules as per EU regulation. In this instance, Article 155 was never actually imposed since the Canary Islands complied with the request and the government did not suspend the powers of the autonomous community. Its imminent invocation is terra incognita for Rajoy.

Article 155 does not enable a complete elimination of the autonomous community, simply a circumscription of its powers, be that or economic. These powers could be related to the fiscal autonomy of the region, effectively rendering the Catalan superfluous. Rajoy might also opt to take charge of the Catalan police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra. If the Mossos choose to remain loyal to the region, further intervention by the Guardia Civil, which answers to the central state, may seem necessary to Rajoy.

Need for constitutional reform

When Franco died in 1975, there were high hopes that would successfully transition to democracy. In many ways, this is what has happened, and consistently performs well in Freedom House rankings on the quality of democracy. But the recent crisis in Catalonia has raised questions about whether has really moved on from its violent past – and whether the Spanish constitution remains fit for purpose. It has proved rigid and out of touch with people’s lives, and is losing legitimacy.

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The Constitutional Court is a heavily politicised body, and several of its members have strong ties to Rajoy’s PP. Of its 12 members, eight are chosen by parliament, two by the government, and two by the Consejo General del Poder Judicial, the highest judicial body in With a third of the members on the Constitutional Tribunal being renewed every three years, this gives a government with a parliamentary majority ample room to influence the membership of the court.

The Spanish constitution is being read through a particular prism, reflecting the hostility of the Spanish right towards the nationalities. Constitutional reform is necessary, but will be impossible to realise without support from both the PP and PSOE.

This piece was commissioned in collaboration with the Campaign for Social Science.

Emmy Eklundh, Lecturer in Spanish and International Politics, King's College London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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First Published: Mon, October 30 2017. 10:53 IST