Spanish democracy dispossessed

Nicholas Lusiani is Senior Researcher at the Center for Economic and Social Rights. Luke Holland is a Researcher and Communications Officer at CESR. Photographs courtesy of Olmo Calvo.

“Real democracy now!” This has become the rallying cry of anti-austerity protesters in Spain, who are continuing their campaign to reverse what they see as unjust and undemocratic cut-backs in basic social services. Anger and frustration on the streets of Madrid, Barcelona and other Spanish cities doesn’t seem to be influencing decision-makers in the country, though, as a Constitutional reform putting a permanent ceiling on the country’s ability to finance itself through deficits has been rushed through parliament at breakneck speed. The move will tie the hands of future governments, limiting their capacity to invest in basic human rights to education, health care, housing and social protection. Moreover, the human rights principles of participation, non-discrimination and accountability have patently been ignored amidst the rush to appease Europe’s power brokers and assuage the anxieties of financial markets.

The questionable justifications proffered by politicians for this extreme and short-sighted measure vary. Some argue that the crisis calls for tough measures, which they assume ordinary citizens, rather than financial insitutions or the economic elite, will bear the brunt of. Solidarity is being demanded from the poor just as tax avoidance by the rich hits record levels and major financial institutions deliver massive bonuses to their executives. Others affirm that the amendment will avert the kind of EU-IMF bailout foisted upon Ireland, Greece and Portugal. This argument rings hollow too, however, given that the reforms were designed and implemented in immediate response to the demands of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Forestalling foreign pressure, by giving into it before it grows too strong, does not represent prevention in any meaningful sense.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the reform to the Spanish Constitution is the lightning speed at which it was drawn up and carried through parliament. The proposal was passed by Congress on September 2, with 316 votes in favor and five against, before being given the green light by the Senate just five days later, with 233 in favor to 3 against. The “express amendment”, as it has come to be known, inevitably provoked widespread consternation among politicians and voters alike who demanded to know why they had so little chance to participate in an alteration of the country’s foundational legal document. It was noted that such a legal process would take at least a year in Italy, where parliamentary procedures do not permit such quickfire changes to the constitution. But with Spain’s two leading political actors, the Socialist Party and the Popular Party, dominating the vast majority of seats in both the upper and lower houses, there was little that could be done to impede a bipartisan agreement hammered out between the two camps.

The amendment was driven by a skittish desire to convince speculators and credit rating agencies that Spain’s bonds can be relied upon. The very fact that the country’s Constitution should be amended to satisfy the capricious demands of international financial markets obliges us to ask fundamental questions about the state of democracy and human rights in Spain. What is the most central duty of government - guaranteeing the wellbeing of international bond markets or the wellbeing of its people? And who is it that determines a society’s most fundamental framework of rights and obligations as set out in its Magna Carta - engaged citizens or private financiers and credit rating agencies?

What is more, many are questioning whether the reform was really necessary in economic terms, given that the Spanish economy was running a surplus until recently and the current budgetary shortfall is circumstantial rather than structural in nature. Moreover, setting a ceiling on the country’s debt will serve only to limit future investments in social services, such as health and education, thus impeding the productivity and competitiveness of Spanish workers in the global economy. In the longer term this may lead to lower wages and associated decreases in tax revenues, in turn entrenching national debt.

From this perspective, the reform is not only wrong, it is wrong-headed too. In an ill-considered attempt to muddle through their current fiscal quagmire, Spain’s political leadership hasn’t given due regard to the long-lasting impacts of their actions on the very people and economy they claim to be protecting. One need only look to the budget slashing several US states were forced to undertake, due to debt limits set in state constitutions, to understand that hasty and unbalanced deals which legally guarantee limits on public debt limit the potential for governments to seek creative ways of financing fundamental economic and social rights. These lessons are especially pertinent to the type of economic crisis Spain finds itself in now. Smart deficit financing can, in contrast, create the human and infrastructural assets today which will drive a more just and robust economy tomorrow. With another wave of labor reforms having passed through parliament last week – this time paving the way for greater job insecurity – it is little wonder so many Spaniards are lamenting the lack of “real democracy” in their country.

  • CESR is working with other Spanish NGOs to address human rights violations stemming from the government's handling of the economic crisis. CESR presented a joint submission with Observatori DESC at the May 2011 pre-sessional working group of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR). Spain will be assessed by the Committee for the first time in eight years at the 48th session in 2012.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of CESR.

Posted by Luke Holland, Nicholas Lusiani on September 20th, 2011
Posted in Blog

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