An old truism says that in periods of crisis, politics speeds up.
That is being strikingly confirmed in the Spanish state after the June 2 abdication of King Juan Carlos. So too is its corollary ― that institutions that seemed solid and long-lasting suddenly look out-of-date and fragile.
After recent events in the Spanish state, the institution that looks most antiquated ― apart from the monarchy itself ― is the Congress of Deputies. On June 11, an 86% majority of the “people’s representatives” adopted a law to formalise the transition of the monarchy from Juan Carlos to his son Felipe.
At the same time, they rejected an amendment from the Plural Left ― comprising the United Left, Initiative for Catalonia and the Aragonist Union ― to hold a referendum on whether to become a republic.
Those voting in favour of installing Felipe VI were the ruling People’s Party (PP), the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), the Spanish centralist Union for Progress and Democracy, and reactionary regionalists the Union of the People of Navarra and Forum Asturias.
Those against were the Plural Left and various left and centre-left nationalist and regionalist groups.
Abstaining were the two main right-nationalist formations, the Catalan Convergence and Union and the Basque Nationalist Party. They were joined by the Canary Islands Coalition and one lone brave PSOE deputy, Odon Olorza, former mayor of San Sebastian.
Two other PSOE MPs disappeared from the chamber before the voting took place. They joined seven Basque left-nationalist deputies of Amaiur, who refused to “participate in this farce”.
The congress’s reaffirmation of the monarchy took place three days after a poll showed 49% in favour of the monarchy continuing, but 36% in favour of a republic.
More strikingly, 62% ― including 68% of PSOE voters ― supported the proposition that “a referendum should be held at some time, so that the Spanish can say if they prefer Spain to continue being a monarchy”.
The next day, two separate polls revealed that if a Spanish national election were held now, the combined vote of the ruling PP and PSOE would fall to 45-55%, down from 83% in 2008.
Podemos, the radical indignado force that won 8% at the May 25 European poll, would jump into the 350-seat parliament with 1415%, becoming the third largest group with between 28 and 58 seats.
The rise of Podemos would largely be at the expense of the PSOE (losing between 12 and 23 seats). The United Left would gain only four more than the 11 seats it now holds. Before the advent of Podemos, polls showed it winning up to 50 seats.
The poll also revealed that, though the PP government continues to pretend that the November 9 Catalan consultation on Catalonia’s future status is unconstitutional, a majority in the rest of the Spanish state would now accept such a consultation.
Moreover, for the first time since the end of the Franco dictatorship and adoption of the 1978 constitution, the European election results saw the Catalan Convergence and Union and the Basque Nationalist Party overtaken by the centre-left and left-nationalist forces, ERC and EH Bildu (equivalent to Amaiur for elections in the Spanish Basque Country and Navarra).
Spectres haunting debate
In such a context, try as the PP and its allies might, it was impossible to pretend the vote on the transition from Juan Carlos to Felipe (to be crowned as Felipe VI) was a formality.
This was despite Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, in his opening address, insisting: “Spain remains calm because it rests on the stability of its political system and the solidity of its constitutional institutions.”
The nerves of the PP-PSOE majority showed from the outset in their decision to ram through the bill after a single reading, cutting debate to an absolute minimum.
In opposing this move, Plural Left spokesperson Joan Coscubiela said: “You are constructing a dangerous political theorem that weakens democracy ― the more important a law, the less the social debate, the less the parliamentary and political debate.”
The bulk of Rajoy’s speech, apart from praising the “responsibility, serenity, character, preparation, competence and maturity” of the outgoing king and insisting these qualities had been passed on to his offspring, was given over to praising the constitution. He called on MPs to treat the day as one demanding dignity “in the name of all Spanish people”.
The speech of PSOE leader Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, who will resign his position in July after the party’s disastrous European election results, was directed against the rising skepticism and dismay among PSOE members. Many PSOE members, including local councilors, support the call for a referendum on the future of the monarchy.
Rubalcaba said: “With this vote in favour, we socialists reaffirm our loyalty to the constitutional agreement … which allowed us to produce the 1978 Constitution and begin the road to peace, to coexistence, to freedom and progress which has brought us to where we are today ...
“Spain has had monarchy with democracy.”
However, the PSOE leader also acknowledged reality: “Spain is suffering from three simultaneous crises: one social, one political, whose chief expression is distrust of its institutions, and one territorial ― three crises that demand not a new constitutional process but a constitutional reform.”
He presented the PSOE’s pro-monarchy vote as “an expression of the desire to collaborate [with the new king] in starting a period that will allow us to confront the social, political and economic crises our country is living through”.
As Plural Left members stood with placards demanding “referendum now!”, United Left national coordinator Cayo Lara attacked the way the abdication had been carried out. Lara called it “a sort of palace manoeuvre between some of the dynastic parties, leaving the parliament deaf and dumb”.
“They have treated the citizens as subjects, bombarding public opinion with praise for the heir, and prettifying the manoeuvre so as to present it as a regeneration of the system,” he said.
“Succession by bloodline has nothing to do with regeneration. Rather, it’s the opposite: new blood for a decrepit dynasty.”
Reminding the congress that several referenda had already been carried out under the present constitution, Lara added: “The Plural Left is not proposing that our republican outlook be extended to the rest of society and other parties … we simply want a referendum to be called and that the people of Spain be asked what they want at this critical moment in our history.
“Seventy per cent of the country’s citizens did not vote for this constitution … The recent European elections made it clear that the citizens of this country have changed their opinion … saying they are fed up with the two-party system that props up the monarchy.
“They have said that they are tired of an institutional system mired in corruption at all levels, from which a few have benefited at the cost of the rest; corruption from which the monarchy itself has not escaped.”
The 1978 constitution underpinning the monarchy was the target of the speakers from Amaiur and the Basque Nationalist Party, whose deputy Estaban Bravo said: “Those who uncritically praise the constitutional agreement forget in a self-interested way its preconstitutional constraints.
“That agreement was constrained by the reality of a dictatorial regime whose forces controlled the levers of power and which threatened regression and repression if the process overflowed its banks.
“In that agreement there were questions that were imposed, not open to discussion. From the maintenance of judges, military and senior public servants who had participated in the regime’s repression through to the form of state, monarchy …
“A republic would never have been accepted by the powers-that-be. Let’s be honest: the republic never had a chance.”
Amaiur speaker Sabino Cuadra was even blunter: “Amaiur doesn't want to see monarchy anywhere, neither in the Basque Country nor in any country in the world … But we immediately have to say that first and foremost the republic we fight for is the Basque republic.
“When people start talking about the need for a second transition, of a constituent process, we say, constituent process, yes, but in the plural: a constituent process for every one of the nations that form part of this state that is a prison-house of nations.”
It was left to Republican Left of Catalonia speaker Alfred Bosch to spell out the alliance that could be counterposed to the PP-PSOE imposition of monarchy ― and of the need for solidarity between republicans in the Spanish state and those struggling for Catalonia’s right to decide.
“We appeal to Spanish democrats, to the republicans of Spain,” Bosch said, “and we say: ‘Do you want to vote on your future? Of course, like us. Do you want to be sovereign? Of course, like us. That’s why we say: 'Let’s give each other a helping hand …
“After the imposition of the new monarch, your hope, Spanish democrats, republicans by heartfelt conviction, is called the Catalan republic.”
[Dick Nichols is the Green Left Weekly European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]