Poor sailing for Spain

Fritz (Ricardo Olivera)
Why is Spain in such a mess?
  • Catalonia, with almost 1/6 of the population and the highest GDP in Spain, is threatening to secede;
  • Nationwide, unemployment is surpassed in the Eurozone only by Greece;
  • Social services including health, education, and aid to caregivers of dependent relatives are being slashed, generating enormous "tides" of protest almost every day;
  • Thousands of families are homeless due to evictions for nonpayment of mortgages while the banks are stuck with millions of empty new homes:
  • The bankers that set up those unpayable mortgages and drove their banks to ruin claim and usually get multimillion euro bonuses;
  • Corruption scandals among the political elite are multiplying, but few are punished and nobody ever resigns;
  • The government is not only refusing to investigate Franco era crimes (despite UN and World Court demands), it is also reviving Franco era repressive legislation;
  • The Catholic Church continues to use its state subsidies to return Spain to the middle ages.
And all this occurring just as Spain is supposedly celebrating, or at least commemorating, 35 years of what here is called democracy, since the approval in 1978 of the Constitution that was supposed to bring post-Franco Spain into the the modern world. And there, in that Constitution and the way it was hammered out, and how it has been interpreted in the years since, lie the keys to almost all of Spain's current dilemmas. With the added complication of something completely unforeseen in 1978: the loss of fiscal autonomy to the European Central Bank + associates (especially the Bundesbank), dictating deficit, tax and public spending rules that make it more difficult to solve any of those problems.

The most divisive issues in Spain were not really resolved in the 1978 Constitution, but simply covered over in deliberately ambiguous language to achieve the broadest consensus. These divisive issues were mainly:
  1. Representative government —If the people were to be sovereign, who were "the people" and how direct could be their participation in government? Powerful forces wanted to maintain the institutions set up by Franco, including the supremacy of the military hierarchy and of the recently restored monarchy. With so many rival political parties — including Franco's arch enemies, the Communist Party and newly reorganized and re-invigorated Socialist Party, plus all the new regional parties that were springing up, all facing the die-hard Franco-heirs in Alianza Popular — how could the government remain stable and avoid a resumption of civil war, perhaps by other means? The expedient decided upon was an electoral system skewing votes so that one or another party's electoral advantage would be multiplied to give it enough parliamentary seats that it could not easily be overturned.
  2. Territorial and ethnic divisions —Large regions remained attached to languages and traditions that had been suppressed by Franco, the largest being the Galicians (gallegos or galegos), the Basques and Catalan-speakers (including not only those of Catalonia but those speaking related dialects in Valencia and Baleares). Was Spain one nation, or a union of nations with distinct laws, though gathered under a federal state? The pseudo-solution was regional "autonomy," understood differently by the different parties and subject to future determination by the courts.
  3. Monarchy or Republic? The ad-hoc solution (after much fierce debate) was a sort of republican monarchy, where the king reigns but does not rule. This was a major symbolic concession by the Left, standard-bearer of the Spanish Republic, but considered acceptable because of the apparently peaceable and pro-democratic posture of Juan Carlos — who owed his investiture to Franco.
  4. Church and State: Franco had defined his government and the country as "National Catholic" meaning that, for him, Fascism and Catholicism were two faces of the same reality, and a "Concordat" with the Vatican assured state funding of the Church. The Left representatives wanted to cut that funding entirely. The compromise was that "all" creeds would be recognized, the country was declared officially laic (id est, with no official religion), but the state continued to exempt the Catholic Church from taxes (even on commercial property) and to pay the salaries of teachers of religion in the public schools and of priests in military.
The pseudo-democratic procedure cobbled together to solve the first of these issues has left most Spaniards feeling that they are not represented by any party — especially because although the parties make promises to compete for votes, they don't feel obliged to fulfill those promises once elected and exercise such discipline within their ranks that no dissidence is allowed.

The ambiguity on the second point allowed pressure from the centralizing, conservative Partido Popular, through its influence on the courts, to overturn a reform of Catalonia's governing statutes (involving the relative emphasis on the national language, castellano — what we call "Spanish" — and Catalan and other issues of self-determination), taken in Catalonia as unpardonable meddling (intromisión), especially since a very similar statute was approved in neighboring Valencia (which also speaks a variety of Catalan, but was governed by the conservatives whereas Catalonia had at the time a coalition leftist government).

The other problems listed above stem mainly from the rigidity and inconclusiveness on the territorial and democratic procedure issues. There are too many courts (Audiencia Nacional, Tribunal Supremo, Tribunal Constitutional all top-ranked in the justice system, and all the regional courts) with different criteria and stacked with judges placed there by political pressure or, in some notorious cases, removed when they take justice issues too seriously: Baltasar Garzón is the best known, but there have been others. This makes it very difficult to prosecute corruption cases against politicians who have their party's support. And has for similar reasons made it almost impossible to control the banks and financial markets — since the people supposed to do the controlling are part of the problem.

As for the Church — well, we'll save that for later. (Though I've already discussed the issue in earlier notes, for example Claiming the soul of Spain (2008/02/10).  If you're curious about other thoughts I've had on these themes, just click the link "Spain" below and the blog notes will pop up.