Gabriel Magalhães, Portuguese writer
You have to take care of a democracy as if it were a garden. I use this somewhat lyrical image because, in the Iberian Peninsula, from proclaiming that we have established democratic systems, some believe that democracies are something immovable, such as the Chinese wall or a concrete bunker where the constitutional text is kept. No, democracies work like gardens that must be worked patiently. If we don’t, they will become overgrown with weeds and eventually turn into a thicket.
In Portugal, we have recently had bad news when it comes to our democratic garden. A little over a month ago, the competent magistrate ruled on the file, already concluded, of the accusation of corruption, among other charges, against the former Prime Minister José Sócrates. The expectation was enormous, the country was in suspense and the informative television channels broadcast live the appreciation that Judge Ivo Rosa made of the file throughout more than three hours of reading.
The absence of readjustments of the Constitution contributes to transforming the democratic system into a thicket
The show was embarrassing and left the Portuguese justice on the ground. Ivo Rosa dedicated himself above all to submerging the work of the investigating judge in an inappropriate, ironic, sometimes joking tone, in which the citizens listened to the background rumor of the power struggles, the bitter rivalries that exist in the Portuguese judicial system, especially in its greatest heights. Although many of the charges against Socrates – who was present at the event – fell, the judge considered correct the accusation that this politician had “marketed” (this was the verb used by the magistrate) with his position as prime minister. The entities that have carried out the file against him have appealed this judicial decision and we are still far from the final ruling. But the Socrates case has already traveled quite a few corridors of its legal labyrinth and, in the following days, nothing else was talked about in Portugal, forgetting even the daily drip of the pandemic numbers. It does not seem trivial to know that we may have had a prime minister who sold his power. Nor is it insignificant to see that Portuguese justice is often not up to the task.
In Portugal, as in any democratic country, the independence of the courts is respected. But this principle, in itself good and correct, has given rise, over time, to what we could call an authentic judicial feudalism, before which the citizenry feels defenseless. Sheltered in their autonomy, judicial courts transformed into stately castles, many judges have settled on their own whim. Ivo Rosa could and should rigorously analyze the file of the trial against Socrates, but the way he did it, enjoying the opportunity to give a show while destroying the work of a colleague before a huge audience, revealed a prodigious lack of common sense.
And a few weeks later came another bad news: near the carnation revolution festival, which occurs every April 25, the result of a poll was known according to which only 10% of those surveyed believed that Portugal was a democracy in “Full”; furthermore, 36% considered that the current system has “many defects” and 47% attributed “small defects” to it. The Portuguese are not satisfied with the present state of their democracy. As democracies are gardens that must be cared for, some voices have been raised calling for a constitutional reform, which would be the eighth.
What does all this have to do with Spain? Actually, a lot. Much of the mess, of the enormous confusion that reigns in the Hispanic arena, derives from the inability to take care of the democratic garden, updating it according to the times. Almost 44 years after the approval of the Constitution –which has only been revised twice and briefly–, no one yet knows, for example, what is a nationality and what is a region.
In fact, this and other constitutional ideas should have been developed, deepened, and that has not been done. The strict struggle for power, which is an infinite game, devours everything. This absence of readjustments of the basic law contributes to the democratic system gradually becoming a thicket, full of brushwood, nettles and weeds.
We will see if the parties in Portugal advance towards that eighth constitutional reform. It would make it possible to change things that are not right, such as, for example, the judicial system, which, of course, must maintain its independence, but without this becoming a total indifference to the needs of the citizenry. In the Spanish case, this constitutional update has been necessary for a long time. And now it is frankly difficult to do it, with the two central parties hypnotized by their rivalry. However, the price to pay for this constitutional paralysis will be very high: an increasing part of the people will not feel the basic law as their own and serious breaches will be looming on the horizon. Constitutionalists, if you love the Constitution so much, reform it.