Scan the global headlines these days, and the warning signs about democracy’s demise may feel like a throwback to Europe’s authoritarian turn of the 1930s. Belarus, Turkey, Venezuela, Hong Kong, you name it—these hotspots of turmoil lay bare democracy’s in-built vulnerability: it keeps power open to those who’d wish to keep it to themselves.
As it happens, constitutions need not be scrapped overnight to markedly lose their authority; they can be stealthily undermined, piecemeal, with cynical motives and on the backs of an unsuspecting public.
But there’s another shared lesson from these places: constitutional government can fail too, even when democracy (apparently) doesn’t. Purging public enemies, making government more effective, or enhancing popular sovereignty can be invoked by demagogues of all stripes to subvert the fundamental laws of a country’s public life. As it happens, constitutions need not be scrapped overnight to markedly lose their authority; they can be stealthily undermined, piecemeal, with cynical motives and on the backs of an unsuspecting public.
There’s an unforeseen addition to that list of constitutional casualties—Spain.
For most Spaniards, 1978 signifies a rock-solid consensus around their version of said constitutional norms. In that fateful year, shortly after the passing of right-wing strongman Francisco Franco that put an end to 40 years of Caudillo rule, a wide-ranging accord was reached by surrogates of all political sensibilities—most of which were theretofore illegal—around what would become the contours of a democratic Spain.
By most measures, the Constitution signed that year was the work of exceptional statecraft and has been hailed since as a model for other countries undergoing political transition from Latin America to Asia. It successfully unraveled a deep-seated regime, and willed into being a fully modern democratic state to replace it—all while commanding the loyalties of all parties and a near-totality of Spaniards, 91% of whom voted for the final draft of the new Constitution in a referendum that year.
But Spain’s democratic awakening was extraordinary for another reason. The Civil War of 1936-1939 that preceded Franco’s rule had been a full-on fratricidal Armageddon. For three wretched years, the country was split in two, food shortages were the norm, and virtually no Spaniard was spared the pain of losing loved ones to political extremism—often at the hands of friends and family members. Franco’s successful coup in 1939 had overthrown a fragile Republic dominated by Soviet-friendly forces, and the regime he imposed was, particularly in its early years, bent on retribution against the coalition of communists and anarchists that had waged war for the status quo ante.
Instead of beckoning revenge or retaliation, however, the transition away from Francoism 40 years later was marked by concord and a form of willful amnesia from both sides. In the interest of peace and a shared political destiny, signatories to the Constitution—and the Spaniards they represented—agreed not to have Franco’s crimes prosecuted, and granted full freedoms to leftist parties that had been illegal under Franco’s regime. Only Spaniards of a certain age can recall the dark precedents that democracy replaced. But even for a majority of the younger generations, the transición—as the process is endearingly called—still connotes not some reactionary adjustment but a moment of genuine renewal and reconciliation.
The settlement reached in 1978 is now undergoing assault. Having risen to office through the democratic conduits laid out then, a leftist government is now using the levers of power to undermine the unspoken reconciliation and compromise at the heart of the Constitution. It threatens to turn the page on a fragile (but successful) 40-year democratic experiment.
CONCILIATION, POLITICAL INNOVATION, AND, ABOVE ALL, CONSENSUS
The foundations laid in 1978 were marked by a general sense of giddiness about the onset of democracy, so they weren’t perfect by any means. And yet, on top of achieving the sublimation of old hatreds through democratic means, the Constitution has also proved a dependable basis for Spaniards to make further inroads towards consensus and modernization. This is likely why the text remains largely popular to this day: in late 2018, 91% of survey respondents told pollster Metroscopia that Spain had “a good Constitution,” four points higher than in 1978. These shared loyalties have become the beating heart of Spanish democracy and a foundational narrative that glues the nation together to this day.
The 1978 Constitution didn’t just stitch together a cohesive territorial identity—it also bore a shared sense of history.
A number of innovations were baked into this constitutional compact: the monarchy, a territorial division of power, and a historical narrative to make sense of the Civil War of 1936-1939.
While the King of Spain had endured exile under both Franco and the preceding Republic, the spectrum of political forces that convened in Franco’s aftermath agreed to restore Spain’s centuries-old monarchical tradition. They entrusted the office of head of state to the Bourbon monarch, whose ceremonial role as an ambassador of sorts shapes Spain’s global brand as a modern nation to this day. Granted, passing the torch to King Juan Carlos I, who had progressively earned Franco’s good graces, had been one of the Caudillo’s deathbed wishes. Despite this semblance of continuity with the Franco regime, however, a majority of Spaniards remain loyal to King Juan Carlos for his role shepherding the talks leading up to the reboot of 1978.
Nearly 70% described the King’s role as “important” in early August to pollster Sigma Dos—this despite a scandal over the summer, involving dubious payouts to a German mistress that sent the monarch fleeing media attention to Dubai. They are even fonder of Juan Carlos I’s son, King Philip VI, who has boosted the monarchy to even higher popularity. Philip VI has compensated for his father’s character flaws with a fame for competence and statesmanship, notably on account of his stellar studies in Spain and abroad.
The 1978 Constitution also had to grapple with deep-seated regionalist sentiments in some parts of the country. To better balance out power and representation, the successor to Franco’s highly centralized state was a quasi-federal assemblage of Comunidades Autónomas (CCAA)—17 regional units that make the equivalent to Germany’s länder or régions in France. Turning the page on Franco’s suppression of regional identities, these CCAAs were tasked with promoting Spain’s various romance dialects in public broadcasting and school curricula.
But the cultural and linguistic diversity that the Constitution of 1978 celebrates was in no way meant to dilute Spain’s unity and integrity as a single polity. Sovereignty, as in any other nation-state, is anchored in the Spanish people as a whole. As such, any further devolutions of autonomy to the CCAAs are conditioned on large parliamentary and plebiscitary majorities, both nationally and in the region in question.
In CCAAs historically rife with regionalism, such as Catalonia and the Basque Country, further delegations of power were achieved in areas like education and taxes. The Basques stitched up a deal for larger fiscal autonomy in 1981, while Catalan overtook Spanish as that region’s predominant dialect. These transfers of autonomy flowed precisely from the power-sharing procedures of the new democratic system—through open parliamentary negotiations and by putting the resulting deal to a vote. (They were achieved in spite of the horrifying trail of blood and tears left by the ETA, a pro-independence Basque terrorist group, whose brute violence claimed the lives of 830 innocent Spaniards before dissolving in 2010.)
The 1978 Constitution didn’t just stitch together a cohesive territorial identity—it also bore a shared sense of history. For a share of the left, however, honoring the memory of those Franco killed and repressed remains unfinished business. The term of art “historical memory” channels the longing to anchor Spain’s democratic progress post-1978 to the memory of those who became its forerunners by denouncing Franco’s autocracy. But a crucial difference exists between pro-democracy dissent under Francoism and the fratricidal Civil War that preceded it, and success at achieving even symbolic reparations (such as a law in 2007 that supported the exhuming of victims’ remains to facilitate proper burial) has hinged on leaving the moral balance of the 1936-1930 War behind. Even as they decry Franco’s iron-fisted abuses, paying homage to his wartime adversaries feels anathema to most Spaniards, who instinctively grasp that a war so depraved as their forebears’ has no good or bad side to it. (In fact, many of these symbolic reparations were made to avoid triggering nation-wide debate on who was on the right side of what—a debate that the left now seems eager to have.)
This is the sum total of tacit settlements that Spain now seems to be transitioning away from. Territorial integrity, national reconciliation and monarchical legitimacy are all beginning to unravel, piece by piece, and with little in the way of the news splash this profound turn of events deserves. Though peaceful, the saboteurs are no less determined—and in plain view.
In January 2020, after months of a hung parliament that failed to produce a government and a repeat election that left again no clear winner, a coalition of the center-left PSOE and the far-left Podemos was finally sworn in to govern Spain. Though still a parliamentary minority, being in government has allowed this coalition to quietly chip away at the order devised in 1978.
Though still a parliamentary minority, being in government has allowed this coalition to quietly chip away at the order devised in 1978.
To be sure, Podemos was never too gung-ho about 1978, claiming that later generations of Spaniards, beset by new challenges, had far outgrown the climate of necessary compromise that marked 1978. Famous for their square sit-ins in 2011 when a combination of rampant corruption and the devastating fallout from the 2008 crash shook them out of political apathy, the largely underemployed 20-somethings that went on to form the party’s base had long felt politically homeless. Podemos derited the bipartisan duopoly in place of the center-right People’s Party (PP) and the center-left PSOE as a single clique of crony insiders.
The party’s pony-tailed leader and now Spain’s deputy PM Pablo Iglesias has promoted to ministerial ranks two of his colleagues from the party’s leftist flank—a revamp of the old Communist Party. Despite being signatories in 1978, Spain’s Communists have long lambasted the Constitution for granting clemency to Franco’s props, championing instead a republic modeled on that which preceded Franco, from 1931 to 1939. That system had been co-opted by a Popular Front of Soviet-friendly radicals, against whom Franco rallied a substantial share of Spaniards who feared the onset of full-on communism.
While Podemos remained committed to expanding opportunity and rooting out corruption, larger concerns about constitutional architecture stayed on the back burner. As a junior partner to the center-left PSOE, the party has seized on COVID-19 to enact some of its statist agenda, such as a generous version of Universal Basic Income (UBI) and stricter labor laws. But paradoxically, as the country reels from one of the world’s most dire bouts of the pandemic, Podemos is not tempering its anti-1978 zeal; it’s bringing it to the fore. The trouble for the constitutionalist majority of Spaniards is that the presumably pro-1978 PSOE of PM Pedro Sánchez seems all too happy to capitulate to Podemos, as long as it remains the bigger fish of the coalition.
Spain’s territorial integrity may be the first and immediate victim of this constitutional unraveling. Though regional identities and the just balance of power between Madrid and the CCAAs have been a perennial battleground between unitarians and federalists, their differences had largely been hashed out through legal means within the remit of the Constitution. Through combinations of parliamentary haggling and regional plebiscites, Catalonia, for instance, achieved a windfall of autonomy in 2006 in the form of a new regional quasi-constitution.
These ground rules are slowly shifting underfoot, however, as the government announced last week it is preparing a bill to pardon the orchestrators of a failed attempt at Catalan secession as a negotiating tool to secure votes for a forthcoming annual budget.
The number of Catalans opposing independence is on the up in recent years: 51% in July. Nonetheless, and against a preemptive ruling by the Constitutional Court, a pro-secession regional leadership held a sham referendum in October 2017. It forced a unilateral declaration of independence through the regional legislature shortly after—despite the vote being boycotted by Catalonia’s unionist majority.
The just punishments for what were clearly crimes of sedition are best adjudicated by the national High Court, which it did in February 2019 by meting out sentences of 9 to 13 years in prison for all 12 of the accused. Allowing them a right to appeal is one thing. Altogether whitewashing their serious attack against Spain’s constitutional integrity, as the government’s pardon bill would do, undermines the rule of law entirely and sends a message that future seditious attempts may be similarly given a pass.
The constitutional monarchy, as Spaniards have come to describe their system, is also under threat. On April 14th, as the country’s death toll and case count from COVID-19 neared highs of 20,000 and 170,000, respectively, Podemos‘ leader Pablo Iglesias made his dislike of the 1978 regime more palpable than ever by celebrating the 91st anniversary of the pre-Franco 2nd Republic on Twitter. Symbolic though his tweet was, it proves his party’s growingly overt intention to seize on a climate of crisis to subvert the 1978-era institutions, and how out-of-touch it is with the public at a time when stopping the virus and saving the economy remain of overwhelming concern.
14 de abril, memoria, democracia, justicia social, futuro, República pic.twitter.com/TmMK31PdI8
— Pablo Iglesias ? (@PabloIglesias) April 14, 2020
For Iglesias—long a self-avowed communist himself—this isn’t just about scrapping an entire body of law. His talk of “democracy fighters” in reference to the Republican camp of 1936-1939 reeks of a thinly veiled attempt to rewrite history by re-settling the scores between two warring sides that, as a matter of historical record, were as atrocious to each other as they were to Spain as a whole. For all of Podemos’ pandering to the young, Spaniards of all ages are likely to see through this revisionism for what it is: a sectarian plot to elevate a partial reading of History that undermines national reconciliation.
THE SECTARIAN PLOT UNDOING SPAIN’S CONSTITUTION
The signs of a looming soft coup got a lot worse over the last month. At his party’s annual conference, Iglesias spoke in the clearest terms of “advancing towards a Republican horizon” in the “short to medium term.” Statements so boldly at odds with the law of the land go to show how far the rhetoric and intentions of those in power can go towards undermining constitutional norms, even as the institutions remain nominally in place.
“A Republic, if you can keep it.”
This warning isn’t merely in the abstract. Three weeks ago, the Ministry of Justice sidelined the King from a ceremony inaugurating a new cohort of judges on a bench that oversees the entire judiciary—Consejo General del Poder Judicial (CGPJ), where his attendance had been a 20-year-old tradition. At the event, Carlos Lesmes Serrno, the CGPJ’s president, made his displeasure apparent by closing off his remarks with an impassioned “Viva el Rey!” (Hail the King!).
For many, the exclamation served as reassurance that the constitutionalist majority of Spaniards and their civil servants won’t go down without a fight. Still, the damage from the government’s machination to diminish the King was already done. Iglesias and his communist ministerial colleague Alberto Garzón upped the ante soon after. Following reports that the King had phoned Lesmes Serrno to share in his vexation, they accused King Philip VI of “maneuvering against the government,” putting the executive branch and the monarch at greater odds than ever.
The fault for “maneuvering” is in the eyes of the beholder, but a majority of Spaniards have their eyes set on the constitutional order that Iglesias and his allies are now overtly intent on subverting. The significance and success of their attempts will be revealed only in the fullness of time, but Spaniards can’t be expected to stand still if the undermining of democratic norms, innuendos, and bureaucratic plotting persists.
To beat PSOE and Podemos to the punch, the right-of-center Partido Popular (PP) filed a bill a month ago to preempt the pardoning of seditious acts. But the pro-1978 constitutionalist mantle is being mostly picked up by the conservative Vox party, which has gone further with a motion of no confidence against Sánchez’s government, being debated this week, for the damage it has overseen both to institutional norms and to public health (nowhere has COVID-19 been more recklessly mismanaged, they argue). The looming question is whether any of this will suffice to halt the slow undoing of constitutional norms. Podemos and its enablers in PSOE, for their part, seem not one bit dissuaded. Their record of norm-rigging was compounded just last week with a bill to fast-track the filling of judicial vacancies at the CGPJ that PP and Vox have unanimously denounced as court-packing.
Upon walking out of the Constitutional Convention for a break in 1787, Benjamin Franklin is famously quoted for answering a bystander around Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, who inquired what the authors of the US Constitution had been scheming inside those walls: “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Spaniards no doubt wish to keep the constitutional compact of 1978, but will they wake up to the scale of the threat?