Constitutional Periods (1810-1978)

Last revisio 02/01/2024

Unicameral Parliament


Beginnings of Constitutionalism (1810-1823)


The Napoleonic invasion of 1808 had two highly importantly consequences: on the one hand, the start of the War of Independence, and on the other hand, the end of the Ancien Regime and the start of liberal constitutionalism.
The crisis provoked by this invasion led to the convening of Parliament by means of restricted suffrage, abandoning the society of estates of previous centuries. Parliament met in Cadiz as of 1810 and undertook significant reforms, including the passing of the Constitution of 1812, after long periods of deliberation.
The new Constitution responded to liberal principles: national sovereignty, division of powers and the Cortes as the representative Parliament. Parliament was unicameral (one house), elected by the population by means of indirect suffrage, and took on the legislative function together with the King. The King retained executive power, but lost his previous status as the source of all power.
The Constitution had a very short life span. The continuation of the war and the absence of Ferdinand VII made it impossible to put into practice. Once the King had returned from his forced exile in 1814, he immediately abolished it.
It was re-established in the period known as the constitutional triennium (1820-1823). In this last year, invasion by a foreign army determined a new return to absolutism, which lasted until the death of Ferdinand VII in 1833.





The Senate between 1834 and 1923


Renewal of Constitutionalism (1834-1868)


Following the death of Ferdinand VII, and against a background of open opposition, the Regent María Cristina was obliged to make certain concessions to those demanding a return to the constitutionalism of 1812 and passed the Royal Statute of 1834, a kind of granted constitution. This statute established Parliament as the representative Body, but in terms of its composition it was extremely conservative. For the first time it was divided into two houses: the Estamento de Próceres or Upper House, and the Estamento de Procuradores or Lower House. These two Houses of Parliament had very limited legislative and budgetary functions. In spite of its limitations, this Statute allowed in practice for parliamentary life to develop, including the mechanism of ministerial responsibility, which obliged ministers appointed by the Crown to be accountable to Parliament for their actions. It remained in place for just two years.


ROYAL STATUTE OF 1834. Rules and Legislatures


Under the reign of Isabella II, the new Parliament, convened with the aim of re-establishing the Constitution of 1812, and given the practical difficulty of this goal, approved a new text, the Constitution of 1837, a shorter more pared-down version, which widely reflected the ideals of the progressive party, including the recognition of national sovereignty and the inclusion of a tentative declaration of rights. Parliament was made up of two houses, the Senate and the Congress of Deputies, names that have been maintained practically since then. The Senate represented the conservative and aristocratic element, since special requirements were imposed to stand as a candidate and to vote. Congress was the house that represented the people, designed to be a driving force for the State. Deputies were elected for a period of three years by means of direct suffrage. The legislative function was shared between these two Houses of Parliament and the King, who also retained executive power. Parliament should also annually approve the State budget.


CONSTITUTION OF 1837. Rules and Legislatures


In 1844, new Parliamentary elections were held with a view to reforming the Constitution of 1837. However, far from amending its critical points, a new document was drafted, the Constitution of 1845, which in the end reflected the ideals of the moderate party: all references to the idea of national sovereignty were omitted, and the idea of constitutive power was shared between the Crown and Parliament. Some of the fundamental rights were suppressed, the Senate was reconfigured in a more conservative sense, with its entire composition dependent on the will of the monarch, whilst access to Congress also became more restrictive. The King retained significant executive powers. Parliament retained its legislative and budgetary powers.


CONSTITUTION OF 1845. Rules and Legislatures


In a new political swing, 1854 marked the start of the so-called progressive biennial (named after the party in power) in which a new Constitution was drafted, along similar principles to that of 1837, but it never came to fruition since, before it entered into force, there was another swing, this time towards the more conservative end of the spectrum, which led to the text being shelved. By a simple decree, the Constitution of 1845 was re-established.





Late 19th century Constitutionalism


In subsequent decades, there was a climate of governmental instability and clashes between the political parties. This brought about a military declaration in September of 1868 which ended the existing constitutional regime, and marked the start of a new political and social revolution.
Following the exile of Queen Isabella II, a provisional government was constituted, which immediately called elections for a constituent Parliament. For the first time, these elections were by universal male suffrage.
The resulting text, the Constitution of 1869, reflected the progressive and democratic set of ideals: it returned to the concept of national sovereignty as its source, which strengthened representative institutions, and an ambitious declaration of rights was included which, for the first time, stipulated the freedom of worship. The bicameral Parliamentary system was maintained: the Senate was voted for by the people, albeit through delegated electors and people who met certain minimum criteria. Congress, on the other hand, was elected via universal suffrage. Furthermore, although the King retained his powers, the responsibility of ministers to Parliament was declared expressly. Specifically, it recognised the interpellation right of both Houses and the right to censure for the entire Government and individual ministers.
One of the first decisions tackled by the new regime was the election of a monarch, which was achieved in 1870 with the appointment of Amadeus of Savoy.




Against a background of open political confrontation, the King was forced to give up the Crown in 1873, leading Parliament to establish the Republic. A new draft Constitution was drawn up which, as well as the Republican format, configured a federal State. The unfolding of events - with the succession of four presidents in less than a year - led to a military coup at the start of 1874, the abolition of the Republic and the proclamation of Alfonso XII as the new King.
This ushered in a new period of conservatism under the guidance of the politician Cánovas del Castillo. Having convened the constituent Parliament, by means of universal suffrage, the Constitution of 1876 was passed, which remained in force until 1923. It was a short text, conservative in its inspiration, which returned to the concept of constituent power shared between the King and the Nation. A declaration of rights was maintained, albeit it more restricted than in the Constitution of 1869. The Senate was once again aristocratic in profile: there were Senators under their own right, others appointed by the King, and others elected by State corporations. The election of Congress, on the other hand, was dictated by law. This meant that elections were restricted until 1890 and then by universal male suffrage after then.


CONSTITUTION OF 1876. Rules and Legislatures





1923-1977. Absence of a Senate


Crisis in the 20th century


In accordance with the Constitution of 1876, power alternated between the two major political parties, conservatives and liberals, which endowed the system with stability. However, the major political and social problems at the end of the century, together with the manipulations and adulterations of suffrage, gradually deprived the system of its legitimacy. From the early 20th Century onwards, a process of crisis began to gather speed, with major protests in 1909 in the form of the tragic week, and a general strike in 1917. In 1923, another coup d'état ended this period and marked the establishment of Dictatorship under General Primo de Rivera, which lasted until 1930.





The Second Republic and the Civil War (1931-1936)


Local elections held in April of 1931 acted as a kind of plebiscite against the monarchy and the current political system. Once the Republic had been declared, elections for a constituent Parliament were called. This Parliament passed a new Constitution, which was very different to the previous ones. It was based on the following principles: firstly, the Republican form and democratic nature of the State, expressed with the affirmation of the popular origin of all power; secondly, laicism, with a strict separation between Church and State; thirdly, an integral State, with political decentralisation, to enable the constitution of self-governing communities; and finally, recognition of fundamental socioeconomic rights. In organic terms, a unicameral Parliament was established, along with a President of the Republic and a Government led by a President, subject to the confidence of Parliament. Three democratic elections were held, albeit it within a climate of major polarisation.
The Second Republic fell victim to a coup d’état in 1936, which soon became a civil war lasting almost three years.







Once the civil war was over, General Franco led a personal dictatorship throughout the country, which lasted until his death in 1975. Institutionalised through Fundamental Laws, the entire organic structure revolved around the person of Franco, who enjoyed maximum authority and was declared accountable only to God and History.
Institutions (Parliament, Council of the Kingdom, etc.) had a very limited influence. Freedoms, especially political ones, were not recognised, or when they were they remained subordinate to the principles of the regime. Specifically, political parties were prohibited. There was also not a true Parliament, as the organic 'Cortes' responded to an authoritarian corporate model and were dominated by different sectors of Francoism.
In territorial terms, centralism dominated.





Transition to Democracy


When General Franco died in 1975, there was broad social demand in Spain to implement a new political system, on the basis of a Western style democracy, which recognised rights and freedoms, integrated into Europe and politically decentralised. This impelled the transition to democracy.
This transition was carried out peacefully and legally, respecting Francoist legality. However, whilst respecting forms, it broke away from past content. The previous system was not reformed; rather a new system was established with opposing values. Consequently, the process was slow and complicated, having simultaneously to deal with an economic crisis and the fight against terrorism.
King Juan Carlos I was one of the driving forces behind change. In July 1976 he appointed Adolfo Suárez as President of the Government, who managed to pass the Political Reform Act through the last Francoist Parliament, which was subsequently ratified in a referendum in December of 1976. This Act signified the definitive disappearance of the Francoist system, enabling the enforceability of freedoms and calling the first free elections in a long time. These elections were held in June 1977, which gave rise to a Congress of Deputies and a Senate which immediately drew up a new Constitution.
Work began in July of 1977, with the formation of a multi-party reporting body in the Congress, responsible for drafting the bill. It was debated and approved first in Congress, then transferred to the Senate, where it was redrafted considerably. Finally, a mixed Committee of Congress Members and Senators presented a unified text, which was raised with both Houses for its ultimate approval, which was granted with almost no votes against. Finally, on 6th December 1978 it was put to a referendum, and the new Constitution of 1978 was passed with a very large majority.





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