Spain opens stormy debate for vote on budget cap

2nd September 2011, Comments 0 comments

Spain's lower house lawmakers opened a stormy debate Friday to vote on changing the constitution to cap budget deficits, cheering markets but sparking ever-bigger protests at home.

Lawmakers are almost certain to get the three-fifths support needed to approve only the second change to the 1978 constitution, drawn up three years after General Francisco Franco's death.

In a first vote on Tuesday, they voted by 319 to 17 in favour of a fast-track process to consider it.

The reform push is a sign of Spain's desperation to prove to markets it will repay holders of its bonds and to shed its reputation as one of the usual suspects in the eurozone sovereign debt crisis.

Under the constitutional change, Spain must stick to a long-term deficit cap except in times of natural disaster, recession, or extraordinary emergencies and even then only with approval of the lower house.

An accompanying law to be enacted by June 30 next year would set the actual figure for the structural deficit -- 0.4 percent of annual gross domestic product from 2020.

The ruling Socialist party and conserative opposition Popular Party put aside their rivalry to draw up the proposed reform last week even as they battled in the run-up to November 20 elections.

Even as investors and major European powers welcome the planned reform, many in Spain are furious at the change and demand the right to a referendum before it goes ahead.

Unions, some civil groups and many smaller parties say it is a hasty change to please markets that ties the hands of the government and squashes the rights of the powerful regions.

"Who do you think you are?" Rosa Diez, founder of the small Union, Democracy and Progress Party, angrily asked lawmakers of the big ruling and opposition parties.

The Socialist and Popular Party groups had "expropriated the constitution," she charged."

Several thousand demonstrators from Spain's "indignant" social protest movement took to the streets of Madrid on the eve of the vote and scores rallied nearby as lawmakers arrived for the vote.

Spain's biggest unions have called for a major protest in Madrid September 6.

Lower house lawmakers will debate 18 proposed reforms before taking a vote on the constitutional reform itself Friday.

If cleared by the lawmakers, the reform goes to the upper house Senate next week for their approval.

Then there is a 15-day waiting period during which lawmakers can force a referendum if they can muster 10 percent support from either house of parliament.

Germany and France had called August 16 on all 17 eurozone countries to adopt a "golden rule" on keeping the books balanced.

Spain, which already has a similar law on the books but not in the constitution, is the first nation to respond.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero on the swift action when they met in a Paris summit to discuss Libya on Thursday.

Investors fear Spain's big budget deficits and feeble economy -- with a jobless rate of more than 20 percent and annual economic growth of 0.7 percent in the second quarter -- will make it harder to pay off its debts.

Latest figures Friday showed Spain's unemployment queue lengthened by 1.25 percent to 4.13 million people in August, snapping a four-month streak of job gains, as summer openings dried up.

Spain is seeking to slash the public deficit to 6.0 percent of gross domestic product by the end of 2011 from 9.2 percent in 2010. It aims to reach the EU-agreed ceiling of 3.0 percent by 2013.

© 2011 AFP

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