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Spain's Constitutional Crisis Raises Concerns Over Polarization

FILE - A plaque is seen at the entrance of Spain's Constitutional Court building in Madrid, Sept. 6, 2017.
FILE - A plaque is seen at the entrance of Spain's Constitutional Court building in Madrid, Sept. 6, 2017.

Spain was plunged into an unprecedented constitutional crisis this month after judges blocked a law for the first time since the return of democracy.

This young democracy was facing its first major upheaval since the illegal Catalan independence referendum in 2017 caused the deepest political crisis in decades.

Growing political polarization ahead of elections next year meant Spain was embroiled in the same problems which have beset the United States and Britain, observers said.

Lawmakers last week approved a government bill to change how the judiciary’s governing council, known as General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ), operates, paving the way for the leftist government’s two nominees to get onto the Constitutional Court.

But judges in the Constitutional Court Monday voted by six votes to five to grant an order sought by the opposition People’s Party (PP) which paralyzed the bill. The PP had argued that the way the law had been framed was not legal.

Legislative process interrupted

It is the first time the legislative process has been interrupted by the court since Spain returned to democracy in 1978, three years after the death of longtime ruler General Francisco Franco.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said he respected the court’s ruling but was determined to push through a change to alter the way the CGPJ is made up. He did not specify what this would be.

“These events are unprecedented in the democratic history of our country but also in the history of any other country in the European institutional area,” he said Tuesday.

Opposition parties countered that the government had tried to rush through emergency reforms of an institution which was key to the country's democracy.

“Sanchez and his supporters are presenting this as an attack on parliament (but) it’s actually a defense,” said Alberto Nunez Feijoo, the PP leader.

Known as Spain's legal watchdog, the CGPJ has 20 members made up of 12 judges and eight lawyers, who are elected by both chambers of the Spanish parliament.

The mandates of one-third of the constitutional court’s judges, three conservatives and one liberal, have expired. Political disagreements over their replacements have dragged on for four years as the main political parties cannot agree on how this should take place.

The government’s proposed reforms would have renewed the mandates of the four members of the constitutional court in a move which Sanchez said was necessary to end the deadlock and free up a court system which was hamstrung because of the dispute.

However, the PP accused the government of trying to fill the courts with leftist allies and it argues that judges, not politicians, should vote on new judges.

Concern in the region

The stalemate over a key body controlling the judiciary has prompted criticism from the European Commission, or EC. The commission has urged Spain to find a solution because it believes a key democratic institution has been damaged.

The bill passed last week also seeks to lower jail terms for crimes of sedition and misuse of public funds. Opponents in the PP and far-right Vox party claim this will benefit the leaders of Catalan separatist parties who backed a failed independence declaration in 2017.

Sanchez relies on the votes of the separatist Catalan Esquerra Republicana (ERC) party to pass legislation and may depend on the party at next year’s election.

Last year, the Spanish prime minister pardoned nine Catalan separatists for their role in the illegal referendum which caused the deepest crisis in Spain for decades.

Camino Mortera, of the Center for European Reform, a research institution, said the Spanish government’s attempts to interfere in the composition of the judiciary had worrying overtones of events in Poland and Hungary.

Warsaw and Budapest have muzzled the independent judiciary in moves which have concerned the European Commission and civil rights groups.

“Given what is happening with Poland and Hungary, just a mere suspicion that a government is trying to intervene in any way in the composition of a court through emergency legislation raises suspicions,” she told VOA.

She said Brussels has been concerned that after the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries have tried to use emergency legislation to make important changes, as happened in Spain over the constitutional court.

Growing polarization

“Polarization in Spain is very worrying. This has happened in other countries. I am talking about the U.S. and the U.K. It worries me because we are not a country that deals with drama well,” she said.

“When (this translates) to the political world, you have (the far-right) Vox and (far-left) Podemos. I worry what is going to happen if the Socialist government loses the next election. Feijoo is a calming figure, but I don’t think he will be able to govern on his own. The most radical thing you can be in Spain is to be centrist and moderate.”

Polls have shown that the PP is expected to win the election, but Feijoo will not be able to govern without the help of Vox.

Pablo Simon, a political expert at the University Carlos III in Madrid, said the fallout from the clash between parliament and the court showed how fractured Spain’s political life had become.

“Polarization is damaging the democracy in Spain as is happening in the U.S.,” he told VOA.

Some information in this report came from Agence France-Presse.