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The trouble with constitutions…

Posted by Richard Sunday, November 14, 2004

It is not only Spain that is having to confront legal problems in order to ratify the EU constitution. Its neighbour, Portugal, is also finding it tough going. And the main problem, it seems, is er… the constitution – the Portuguese constitution that is. It does not allow the exact text of a treaty to be put to a referendum.

To get round this rather strange prohibition, the government has a choice. It can either alter the constitution, although that needs a two-thirds parliamentary majority to do that, or it can word the referendum question in such a way that voters can make their feelings about the treaty clear without being asked to vote directly on the text of the constitution.

Despite both main parties favouring ratification, however, the opposition is not giving the government an easy ride on this. The issue has become bogged down by squabbling over the wording of the question to be put, which means a date for the referendum cannot yet be set. And before matters can be resolved, the constitutional court must rule on the wording, possibly leading to more delay.

Nonetheless, the government is still confident that it can hold the referendum at the end of March or the beginning of April. The worry is though that the question will be so unclear that confused voters will stay away from the polls, in a country that traditionally suffers from a low turnout in referendums. Some commentators believe that this combination could even result in a "no" vote.