Well, of course the national press aren’t presenting it like that, but that’s what happened Tuesday after ZP realised he had no choice but to cede to French and German demands to change the Constitution to establish a debt ceiling for the state and the regions, despite having previous said that he didn’t think it was necessary.
The move rather trapped PP leader Mariano Rajoy, who had been calling for this for some time now, and had been planning to do it as one of his “brave new moves” after winning the elections to prove he had la crisis under control. He’s had to agree to back the PSOE in the vote, although he nastily asked how Rubalcaba -the PSOE candidate for the next general elections- can backtrack so quickly: Rubalcaba had previously said that he was against the idea, but is still backing ZP.
Of course, with the current turmoil in the markets, Spain has no option but to play ball with big boys, who are underwriting the national debt. If German says “change the Constitution”, ZP replies “by how much?”. Something which isn’t going down well with the most nationalist minded members of the bigger political parties.
The PSOE is in… possibly crisis is the wrong word but it’s getting close, as older members are starting to announce that they will vote against the plans or even vote in favour of calling a national referendum.
This is the second time that Spain has changed its constitution since ’77- the first time was also after EU prompting, to allow EU residents in Spain to vote in local elections and stand as candidates to their townhalls (1992). The government has more or less dropped a plan to include a change to allow women to accede to the Throne, after realising that if they extended the vote, the whole thing would become bogged down in murky politics. So Spain is in no danger of having a Queen any time soon.
It seems that it’s fairly easy to change the constitution in Spain. All you need are 60% of the votes in Congress, something that PSOE and the PP can do without too much trouble if they vote together.
However, it seems that if 10% of Congress or the Senate vote in favour of a national referendum, then the whole thing is thrown out and a national vote must be called. This is impossible, unless a rebellion by rogue MP’s swell the ranks of a mounting rebellion against the government. The PSOE & the PP have a total of 321 out of the 350 seats in Congress, and 226 out of the 264 in the Senate.
The IU has already announced a possible legal challenge against the change, but doesn’t seem ready to vote against the government. The PSC is, however, mooting the possibility of breaking ranks.
But yesterday things took a change for the worse, with a mounting public campaign for a national referendum to be called. The argument, which is being espoused by some of Spain’s heavyweight intellectuals, is that the Government should not be able to make changes to the Spanish Carta Magna without consulting the public. The PSOE has no manifesto promise to change the Constitution; the public has never been asked their opinion, and this is equivalent to a coup d´etat by Zapatero, runs the argument. Spain’s supreme law must not be changed without consulting us! is the chant.
Esquerra Unida, the regional nationalist party, has announced it is planning to create a new political platform in the Balearic Islands to demand a referendum on the issue. They say it will be a single issue movement, independent of party politics, designed to allow disaffected MP’s from all the spectrum to join under one flag to demand that the public has a voice in the issue. I doubt it will attract much attention.
More worrying for Zapatero is the fact that several PSOE figureheads, including Antonio Gutierrez [ex union boss, used to run CCOO], Patxi Lopez [the Lehendakari, leader of the Pais Vasco] or Josep Borell are all against the change, for different reasons, and have said that they will vote against the measure. Indeed, Antonio has announced that he intends to step down at national elections, and will return his party card, as he “can no longer support the PSOE”, a shuddering blow to the socialists ahead of the national election, as Antonio still weilds immense influence amongst their union affiliated heartland (that’s why he was given a top job in the first place!)
Meanwhile, an internet campaign by one of Spain’s leading economists, Professor Vicenç Navarro, head of Applied Economics at Barcelona University to collect enough votes to force 10% of the MP’s to vote for a national referendum, is gathering force, with over 54,000 signatures in just three days. You too can sign it using the form on the bottom right hand side of this website. We foresteros may not be able to actually vote in the referendum, but we can add our names to the petition!
Prof Vicenç says that in his opinion, this change is a frontal attack on the Spanish welfare system, and the proposed debt ceiling will force future governments to reduce welfare coverage across the board. He says that it is “unthinkable” that Spain in the near future can run the same level of schools, hospitals and pension coverage within the proposed debt ceiling, and the “savage cuts” will ensue. http://www.vnavarro.org/
“Imposing a debt ceiling is not something abstract” argues Vicenç. “It determines whether or not you receive free education, free health care, and more. It determines what we can invest into society, and determines what we can get back out. With this, this Goverment will leave people like you in the gutter”. He continued to say that “the spirit of the Constitution is not being adhered to. Article 167.3 allows for changes to be implemented via a national referendum, if 10% of MP’s vote for this, and this is what should happen”.
Sad thing is, I agree 100%.
Spain has an incredibly high welfare cost, one far in excess of its inherent capabilities to support. It has managed to build vast numbers of medical centres, schools and welfare centres using EU money, but that source of funds is now drying up (these funds are being channelled towards other, newer EU member states) and it must find the cash and resources to support this network. Currently, the network is first class, but how can Spain continue to find the money for the doctors, teachers, ambulances, pensions and the rest?
Added to this thorny problem is that the fact that Spain runs all of this via a federal system, in which several layers of burocracy impede any attempts to change things. Each region runs its own health and education systems, semi-independent of Madrid. We’ve already seen massive cutbacks in the health system in Barcelona -one of the richest areas in Spain- as it just can’t afford to keep medical centres open. It was one of the first austerity cuts the new government there imposed after winning regional elections earlier this year. What’s going to happen in Andalucia, which is much poorer than Barcelona but has more population and a larger [and much more expensive] network, after the regional elections next year, especially if it can’t keep getting cash in from Madrid? Say goodbye to your local medical centre in the smaller villages, that’s what. Say goodbye to your local library, or OAP centre, or Guadalinfo unit.
Of course, pundits airly say “welfare wont’ be cut back, co-payment for medical treatment will never be introduced, all this is protected by the Magna Carta”.
Well yes, free health care is enshrined in the Constitution, but soon, possibly with a higher priority, will be a conflicting need to observe an arbitrary “debt ceiling” imposed upon us in a panic during a market caused crash, and which one will take priority? Especially once the precedence of change the Constitution at the whim of the President is set?
Depressing, ain’t it?