An Englishman in Catalonia: On Reforming Spanish Democracy in Cities and the ‘Aforados’

I’m currently sitting in the street next to the offices of the newspaper La Vanguardia, reading its analysis of the current debate on democratic regeneration here in Spain, whilst nursing a cup of bitter coffee and eating a crêpe (classy, I know). Some of the situation is fairly familiar as it mirrors debates from recent years in the UK (elected mayors and democratic regeneration), whilst there are other parts that are quite frankly bewildering, such as the debate surrounding the ‘aforados/aforats’. This post will analyse both the familiar and the bewildering in turn, giving an English perspective on the attempt at democratic regeneration in Spain.

Firstly, the familiar: it is important to note that the debate surrounding democratic regeneration is not something new for any British political analyst; it exists in the UK too. Enric Juliana, a influential political analyst for the Barcelona-based daily La Vanguardia, has written in today’s edition that the ideas of the current PP government, although it is seen as something ‘new’ by many as it aims to regenerate municipal democracy, are surprising similar to what the now-defunct UCD proposed, way back in the early 1980s.

Juliana writes in today’s La Vanguardia that the failure to have elected mayors in contemporary Spain was an oversight of the democratic transition, as the King decided to hold general elections before holding regional and municipal elections, meaning that the issue was effectively side-lined ().

In the UK, we have also been promised a regeneration of democracy at a national and municipal level, with the Labour government of Tony Blair devolving power to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but failing to hand power of any great significance to the English regions and municipal government:

Demand for directly elected regional government so varies across England that it would be wrong to impose a uniform system. In time we will introduce legislation to allow the people, region by region, to decide in a referendum whether they want directly elected regional government. 

The current centre-right Conservative-led government has devolved some decision-making powers to municipal governments via the city deals, but it has also cut regional development agencies and its reforms to strengthen democracy and accountability at a regional level have had little success (see below).

Moreover, the debate regarding elected metropolitan mayors is also something we’ve had in England. The first directly elected city-wide mayor in the UK was the left-leaning Labour Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, in 2000 , where the idea has proved a popular part of democratic regeneration – the election has drawn interest from a national and international level and the Mayors of London (both Ken and Boris) have become household names nationwide.

The federal government in Westminster left it down to the big cities to decide. Some, including Bristol, voted in favour in city-wide referendums; one or two, such as Liverpool, didn’t hold referenda (rather they went straight to the electoral stage); nine other English cities held referendums, where the idea was rejected.

Returning to Spain, the peculiar part of the current debate for a foreigner surrounds the situation of the ‘aforados’ or those within the political class and the judiciary whose status affords them immunity from ordinary prosecution, as ‘aforados’ have to be tried by special courts, rather than ordinary civilian courtss. This is very, very difficult for me to understand, as in the UK, nobody is above the law (as shown by prosecutions of MPs and other senior political figures in recent years), yet in contemporary Spain, thousands of people are above the ordinary law, simply by virtue of their status in the political class (Democracia en reformas, La Vanguardia, 06/07/14). Utterly incomprehensible and urgently in need of reform.

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