A worn-out system

Published in Expansión

A few years ago, one of the founding fathers of Spain’s 1978 Constitution told me that its text had been achieved through an on-going process of total improvisation. Back then I found this hard to accept because I had been swayed by the huge myth-building which surrounded the whole process. That’s no longer the case. In my opinion, the crisis has clearly revealed the mistakes and shortcomings of our constitutional text. Therefore, in Spain we are not speaking about an economic and financial crisis alone, but about a systemic political one as well. It remains unclear whether the main beneficiary of this exhausted system, our political class, which is so often cut off from reality, will perceive how annoyed and impotent the citizenry truly feels. I hope it does, because the weaknesses of our system are a dead weight that will burden our recovery.

Let’s go back for a moment to 1978. We need to understand what happened then. The proponents of the Constitution sought, and understandably so, the broadest possible support from all political parties. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry and there was little relevant experience available. So to achieve this broad consensus they wrote a very long, and sometimes confusing, equivocal and, paradoxical text (defending, for instance, a free market economy and also central planning in the same paragraph). That way, everyone would see his demands satisfied. This was achieved and all media and political parties became unanimously favorable towards the text in the referendum campaign. Having everyone in favor of and no one against, the Constitution received an overwhelming level of approval. However, one has to wonder if this consensus for which such a high price was paid was shallow rather than candid, more of a short term nature rather than longer term. The legislation approved thereafter, based on such a murky text, feeds that doubt, as do the actions of the nationalist parties in Catalonia and the Basque Country and a great many of the Socialist Party’s in recent times.

On the other hand, it would seem unfair to judge this event too harshly. It was bigger than us at the time: the real and imaginary uncertainties then prevalent and our little democratic tradition weighed far too heavily against it, on balance. Given the circumstances, it must be acknowledged that the Constitution played a good enough role. Also, people who lived through that period of time and were then active in public service remind me that “life can only be understood backwards; yet it must be lived forwards”. Well, they may have a point and I wouldn’t question Kierkegaard’s quote, but I do propose to discuss three fundamental issues concerning our Constitution that, in my view, require immediate action. With, it’s only fair to add, the benefit of hindsight.

First, the Constitution’s most improvised experiment, the system of autonomous regions , has proved to be a failure. The damage resulting from it has been both political and economic.  From the political standpoint, it created seventeen regions out of the blue, each equipped with its own flag, anthem, national day, real and invented heroes, parliaments and competencies typical of national states, worthy in fact of independent countries. No wonder they have ended up believing they were such. In the first draft, the Constitution didn’t even bother to apply the word “nation” to Spain, whereas it coined a term, “nationalities”, which was applicable to all regions. This fact speaks for itself, in my view. Well, the two “nationalities” which have their own language and historical restlessness, so to speak, saw with dismay that nothing would make them special from the other fifteen, even if they had never enjoyed such a high level of self-government in the past. They wanted to be different – well, superior, in fact. Therefore, their nationalist ruling classes adopted the simple yet politically expedient mantra of playing at being the victims of Central Government.

They provoked a relentless and extreme political tension, questioning the most basic pillars of coexistence and taking full advantage of the rivalry between the two major parties, supporting one or the other depending on which would give them more in return. Thus, we all lost precious energy and time in barren, unproductive disputes that would have been deemed puerile and ridiculous by any outsider.  From an economic standpoint, the regions were never responsible for taxing their citizens, so they could keep on cheerfully promising any amount of public expenditure without the burden of having to finance those promises, which the central government had to shoulder in their place. They turned into gigantic bureaucracies, regulating willy-nilly the smallest details concerning people and businesses alike. Moreover, they regulated independently from one another, creating seventeen different markets with contradictory, incompatible and nonsensical legislations, suffocating private initiative and making business’ life thoroughly miserable. Finally, let’s not forget the responsibility of regional governments for the calamitous management of the “cajas”, the 19th century model of regional public banks with no clear ownership – except that politicians had the upper hand over them -, and which are responsible for a great part of Spain’s current financial woes.

Secondly, the Constitution did not allow for a separation of powers. The judiciary was made dependent on the executive branch of the government and the Congress. This granted the political class, to a large extent, the privilege of being above the law. Therefore, you didn’t need to amend the Constitution if you wanted to go beyond it; you just had to control the Constitutional Court, which would use the equivocal and confusing text to justify a liberal interpretation of it. The political exploitation of this Court by the last administration has probably damaged its reputation beyond repair.  This is a fairly serious issue, as the basic mainstay of civilized society is people’s trust in the rule of law.

Thirdly, the Constitution gave too much power to the political parties and, as a matter of course, they have set about abusing. Even the shy demand that the Constitution makes of all political parties, that is, that they should be internally democratic, is not widely followed.  The members of Congress do not truly have freedom in the way they vote. Each of them has to follow their Parties’ voting diktats – or else face the consequences. It’s amazingly called “voting discipline”. Political parties should allow primaries, open lists for any candidate to be put forward, set a maximum number of terms to be in office and reform their financing, currently quite opaque and 100% fed by public funds.

The wise man writes the Constitution as if it will be the rival, not himself, who will use it when in power. Therefore, he establishes all types of checks and balances to prevent the abuse of power and the tyranny of the majority. Our Constitution has clearly failed in this regard.

When trouble comes and we all seek someone to blame, it is preferable to firstly try to identify the failings of the system, rather than focus on the individual who actually performed poorly. The reason any country has to have a robust system, with strong institutions, clear rules and effective counterbalances is to protect itself from a bad ruler. History shows us that sooner or later, or even quite often, an inept individual gets elected -and may even be reelected. I believe that the weaknesses of our 1978 political system have weighed our country down for the last thirty years. Today we seem to be sinking into a deep recession; we are taking on water fast. Getting rid of the ballast is a matter of survival. The Indian poet Tagore wrote: “if you shut the door to your errors, then the truth will also be kept out”. Let’s learn from our errors. Let’s reform the system for the better.

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