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Mediterranean Quarterly 15.1 (2004) 58-74

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Democracy and Federalism in Spain

Omar G. Encarnación

In recent years, interest in federalism has appreciably increased, as reflected not only in the scores of books and articles devoted to the subject but, more importantly, in the number of countries where federal institutions are now part of the political landscape.1 Within just the past two decades, countries as diverse as Italy, Belgium, Ethiopia, South Africa, Spain, Britain, and India have adopted or expanded federal institutions. Many others, including the Philippines, Burma, Uganda, and Indonesia, are debating the merits of their creation. In war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq, occupying American forces are banking on the erection of some type of federal system as the key to the creation of modern, democratic states.

This new-found interest in federalism as both a subject of inquiry and a particular political arrangement has several explanations. At the broadest level, it can be regarded as a response of governments to demands from the citizenry for greater proximity to democratic institutions. Federalist structures are generally thought to provide an additional layer of government that affords people greater opportunity to affect and participate in the democratic process. A more pressing factor is the global rise and assertion of regionally based ethnic identities and corresponding demands for self-determination and autonomy. These pressures have been felt most strongly in newly democratic states characterized by their ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity. For many of them, the path from authoritarian to democratic rule has been [End Page 58] dominated by the thorny question of how to deal with the repression of ethnic minorities and/or culturally distinct regions and their desire for home rule and in some cases outright independence from the central state. Indeed, in such states, federalism has come to be regarded as the only viable option for organizing a democratic polity.2

Unfortunately, few experiments with federalism in newly democratic states have succeeded in getting off the ground, much less in gaining some resemblance of stability. Either the existence of federalist structures prior to the transition to democracy or their installation following the introduction of democracy has often served to exacerbate rather than ameliorate ethnic conflict and tension. This has left many scholars and political commentators wondering whether federalism when paired with political liberalization is a source of rather than a cure for political conflict.3 The horrors of the Yugoslav experience resonate most powerfully among detractors of federalism. As observed by Nancy Bermeo writing in the Journal of Democracy, "The tragedies emerging from the breakup of Yugoslavia seem to suggest that federal formulas for accommodation are at best ineffectual and at worst deeply damaging."4

One possible exception to the negative generalizations currently being attributed to federalism is the case of Spain, a country that in the past two decades has experienced a significant degree of federalization. At least within the context of democratizing societies, one is hard pressed to think of a country where federalism has been more intensely embraced than in Spain. Since the demise of the Francisco Franco regime in the late 1970s, Spain has created seventeen self-governing regions, each with its own government and parliament.5 More important is the fact that federalist solutions to the dilemmas posed by ethnic-based territorial cleavages have kept Spain unified and democratic. [End Page 59]

Spain in Comparative Perspective

To be sure, federalism in the post-Franco era has hardly been a political panacea, as attested by the persistent violence in the Basque country.6 The conflict generated by demands for independence by Basque separatists has turned Spain into the principal setting for domestic terrorism in all of Western Europe. Since it began its violent campaign on behalf of the creation of an independent Basque nation, Euskadia Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Liberty, better known as ETA), the armed branch of the Basque separatist movement, has imposed a veritable reign of terror upon the Spanish people.7 It was launched in a spectacular fashion with the assassination of Franco's prime minister Luis Carrero Blanco in 1973, a bold act...


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