Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Iberian woes

While Hungary might have had an easy ride getting the constitution passed its compliant legislature, things are not going quite so swimmingly on the western edge of the evil empire.

Portugal, already rocked by political chaos, has now had its constitutional referendum plans thrown into chaos by its own constitutional court. It has rejected the wording of the question laborious hammered out by a fractious parliament, agreed on 18 November after weeks of wrangling.

The question that all parties agreed on was the mind-bogglingly complex: "Do you agree with the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the rule of voting by qualified majority and the new institutional framework of the European Union, in the terms included in the European constitution?", which led the constitutional court to declare the judicial equivalent of "no way, hosay" – in Portuguese, of course.

The judges actually took a long hard look at the wording and decided that it was impossible to answer by a clear Yes or No, which made it unconstitutional.

However, with the Portuguese parliament about to be dissolved after the enforced resignation of the government, there is not now time for the government to propose new wording before elections, to be held on February 20. This means that the referendum, initially scheduled for April, will now almost certainly be pushed back.

This also adds uncertainty to the result for, while the Portuguese are generally pro-EU, their referendums traditionally suffer from low turn-out and there is concern about the consequences of a possible No vote as people dismiss the referendum as a farce and stay at home in their droves.

Meanwhile, across the border in sunny Spain, rain is clearly falling on the constitutional parade.

Having surmounted one hurdle by getting the constitutional court to declare that the EU constitution was compatible their own, the government is finding that nearly 60 percent of Spaniards are now telling pollsters that they fall into the “undecided” category, when it comes to casting their vote at the referendum. That is against 28 percent who said they planned to vote in favour of the constitutional text.

Planned in February, the referendum result looks distinctly shaky, as a similar poll carried out in October had 42.6 percent undecided, 36.5 in favour and 3.2 percent against.

What was particularly fascinating was that the poll also showed that 93.6 percent of those questioned said they planned to cast their ballot, a turnout rate which would be unheard of in Spain since democratic rule was installed 27 years ago. It would be seriously ironic if, after all the largess thrown at the Spanish, it was they who ditched the constitution.

We can always dream...

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