Antoni Soy – The shortcomings of Spanish ‘democracy’

It is common knowledge that Spain is having great difficulty maintaining its democratic legitimacy. Antoni Soy explains why.

Antoni Soy is Honorary Professor in Economic Policy at the University of Barcelona


Puede leer este artículo en catalan aqui

Originally published in Catalan in La Directa on 16 November 2022

File:Franco en Juan Carlos, Bestanddeelnr 928-2237.jpg

Photo made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Utopias do not really exist. According to the metaphor used by Eduardo Galeano, utopia is like the horizon: when you arrive, the horizon has already moved and is further away. You never quite get there. But utopia is very useful to us because it shows us the path we have to follow to try to achieve it. Democracy is one of these utopias. Perfect democracy does not exist, but we try to get as close as possible.

There are different conceptions of what democracy is and what it should be in order to get as close as possible to perfection, to utopia. From my point of view, the most serious and rigorous attempt to come closer is that of Antoni Domènech with his fraternal republican and revolutionary democracy. Obviously, he does so in his main work – “The Eclipse of Fraternity” – but also in many other writings, lectures and interviews. And his lecture in La Havana in February 2010 is a little gem: “The metaphor of revolutionary republican-democratic fraternity and its legacy to contemporary socialism”.

He made it clear that political or republican freedom meant that no one would have to ask anyone for permission to subsist, and also that free peoples would not have to ask anyone for permission to exist socially. And this meant the abolition of the political law of the bureaucratic state inherited from the absolute monarchies. Moreover, republican fraternal democracy implied that the poor (slaves, part-time or wage slaves, colonised peoples, women) would also become emancipated and enter civil life as fully free and equal to everyone else. And this implied the abolition of family law, which implied the end of patriarchal private despotism (to families) and patrimonial despotism (to companies).

With the advent of socialist ideas, says Domènech: “The political socialists considered … that, in the age of industrialisation, the old revolutionary fraternal democratic programme of a civil society based above all on the universalisation of republican freedom by universalising private property was no longer viable. For them … it was … about … the creation of a civil life no longer based on the private appropriation of the basis of existence, but, as Marx put it, based on a “republican system of association of free and equal producers”. That is to say, on a system of free and equal common appropriation of the material bases of existence of individuals. Marx and Engels – and even Bakunin… – never lost sight of the connection of this socialist ideal with the old fraternal republican-democratic ideal”.

And Domènech ends by pointing out that an anti-capitalist socialism today will have a future if it updates the programme of fraternal republican and revolutionary democracy in its firm, determined and realistic struggle against all despotisms. First, that of states that are increasingly difficult for citizens to control democratically. Secondly, the despotism of employers/managers who cannot be democratically controlled by workers, consumers and citizens as a whole. Third, domestic despotism within the family. Fourth, that of markets dominated by large transnational oligopolies, by large private powers, financial or otherwise, with plutocratic privileges, with the capacity to challenge republics and dispute the inalienable rights of the public authorities to determine the public interest. Fifth, that of imperialism and aggressive nationalism, confronted by the demand for the internationalism of the working and popular classes.

And now we come down to the Spanish and Catalan reality. From my point of view, the so called Spanish “democracy”, and on the rebound of the Països Catalans (PPCC) as long as we are dependent, is very far from any ideal/utopia of democracy as we have considered it. And I will basically focus on two issues, essential and interrelated, as several constitutionalists have shown, particularly Javier Pérez Royo (see especially “La reforma constitucional inviable”): the origins of this “democracy” in Francoism and the electoral law still in force.

It must be made clear that the so-called “transition”, in the words of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, was not the result of “a certain correlation of forces, but of a correlation of reciprocal weaknesses” between Francoism and those who until then had advocated a break with the regime. This meant that the monarchy was not called into question (a monarchical restoration which, incidentally, did not take place when Franco died, but after the Law of Succession of the Head of State (1947) and the subsequent appointment of Prince Juan Carlos as heir to the crown in 1969) and, moreover, was constitutionally legitimised as a parliamentary monarchy.

Both the party system and the regulation of the rights of political participation have a pre-constitutional origin. What Pérez Royo has called the “pre-constitutional regulatory block” – the Law for Political Reform and the Royal Decree Law on electoral rules – was approved in 1977, long before the Constitution, and the first elections (15/06/1977) were held without the existence of a law on parties, i.e. the parties that participated did not do so by exercising a right (they could not decide to do so) but rather it was the government that decided who could and could not participate. And it is the Cortes Generales that came out of these elections that will draw up the Constitution and also the law on parties (which, by the way, is also pre-constitutional, like the regulations of the Congress of Deputies and the Senate), since they were approved before the Constitution was published and came into force.

But what is probably most shocking is that once the Constitution was approved, “a ‘regulatory bloc of constitutionality’ was approved which reproduced everything that was essential, and without any notable modification, in the ‘pre-constitutional regulatory bloc'” (Pérez Royo). The Spanish “transition to democracy” was based on the reform of Franco’s “Fundamental Laws”. It was therefore those in power under Franco who took the initiative on what kind of democracy Spain would have. They were the ones who established the regulatory framework for exercising the right of suffrage. In fact, the restoration of the monarchy and the normative framework of the right to political participation, on which the composition of the Cortes Generales would depend, were deeply related. There had to be universal suffrage to give “democratic” credibility to the monarchical restoration, but it had to be limited in a way that guaranteed the continuity of the monarchy. In other words, “the ‘calculated deviation from the principle of equality’, i.e. a partial recognition of the principle of democratic legitimation, defined in essence … ‘the Transition'” (Pérez Pérez Pérez). In other words, the government that called the elections provided for in the political reform law had to win them. Otherwise the whole operation of monarchical restoration would fail.

That is why the two aforementioned rules of the “pre-constitutional regulatory framework” provided for the “free, universal, direct and secret” nature of the right to vote, but did not include the fact that it also had to be “equal”. Precisely because there was to be “a calculated deviation from the principle of equality”, separating “in a statistically significant way, the number of seats in each constituency (province) from its number of inhabitants” (Pérez Royo). Thus, in each province the vote would be equal, but it would be different in Soria (where fewer votes would be needed to win a seat) than in Barcelona (where almost four times as many votes would be needed per seat). This in the Congress of Deputies because in the Senate – four senators per province – any principle of equality disappears. That is why Pérez Royo concludes: “On the ‘material constitutionality’ of (that) Congress of Deputies … one can argue. On the ‘unconstitutionality’ of (that) Senate, no”.

And all this is completed with “complete, blocked and closed candidacies”, with an attribution of seats according to the “De Hondt” rule and the need to obtain 3% of the votes of the province in order to be able to have seats. And what is more serious, as has been pointed out above, is that in the drafting of the Constitution no essential and significant changes were made and the “pre-constitutional normative block” was accepted almost in its entirety. As Pérez Royo concludes, the transition was to a “monarchical, bipartisan and anti-federal democracy”. And since constitutional reform is unfeasible and, at least according to him, impossible today, Spanish elections and those of the different regions continue to be held with these pre-constitutional and dubiously democratic rules (electoral system) in Congress and clearly anti-democratic in the Senate.

In short, both because of its Francoist origin and because it was made with a dubiously democratic “pre-constitutional normative block” (which later became “constitutional” without essential changes), Spanish “democracy” has substantial defects that distance it from any ideal and, very specifically, from the aforementioned fraternal republican and revolutionary democracy.

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