Saturday, September 1, 2012

La Pepa

A constitution is a set of principles by which a country is governed. Constitutions are important because they often result from big social and political change in a country. The United States Constitution for instance was written shortly after the War of Independence. Not every country has a written constitution. The United Kingdom is an example where the constitutional principles come from a long history of law, custom and practice.

Spain has a written constitution. It was needed because Franco had died. At the time feelings were running high and it took some fancy footwork to come up with a document that the old hard-liners and the new liberals could agree to. It became law on 29 December 1978 after a referendum on 6 December. That's why we get the public holiday in early December

There have been eight Spanish Constitutions to date. The first was La Pepa, the 1812 Constitution of Cádiz. This is its bicentenary year. It was written by a parliament hiding out from a French occupier and it was published on San José. Traditionally Spaniards have been named for the saint on whose day they were born. Constitution is a feminine word in Spanish so the document took the affectionate nickname for a female José – Pepa – hence, La Pepa.

Two hundred years ago everything in Spain was a bit topsy turvy. The last couple of Kings, Ferdinand VII and Charles IV had abandoned the throne to Napoleon who handed it on to his brother Joseph. The Spanish people didn't take to having a foreign King and declared war on the French. Just for once the British and the Spanish were on the same side. The Spanish realised they were outclassed by the French army and mounted a guerilla campaign which supported Wellington's troops who fought head to head with the French.

This Spanish resistance organised an interim government, the Supreme Central Junta, which retreated before the French to Cádiz where they were protected by the Royal Navy. The Junta convened a parliament drawn from Spain's worldwide empire and that parliament drafted the constitution.

The parliament of Cádiz wasn't representative of the mainstream political thinking in Spain at the time. Maybe because of the peculiar circumstances of a parliament hiding from an occupying power, the representatives just happened to be more liberal. The constitution they wrote described a system of government where the supreme power was the people – acting through an elected government - not a king and where there was separation of powers. True, only men could vote but, unusually for the time, voting was not restricted to those who owned property. The constitution also set up a rationalized and centralized system of government administration. In many ways it reads like a modern, liberal constitution.

In 1813 Wellington beat Napoleon's army at Vittoria and Napoleon’s brother abdicated the Spanish throne. Soon after Ferdinand VII was re-instated as the Spanish King. At first he promised to uphold the new constitution but he found little support for it amongst ordinary people and there was a lot of bickering amongst the politicians who had written it. Eventually the restored king repealed the constitution and imprisoned several of the people who had been key in its drafting.

And that was it. Spain had to wait for another constitution but La Pepa was important because it contained principles and established a pattern for liberal constitutions that are now common throughout the World.

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