Cortes Generales

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The Cortes Generales (English: "General Courts") is the Spanish legislature. It is a bicameral parliament, composed of the Congress of Deputies, the lower house, and the Senate, the upper house. The Cortes has power to enact any law and to amend the constitution. Moreover, the lower house has the power to appoint and dismiss the Prime Minister. However, because Spain is a European Union (EU) member-state, it shares its legislative authority with the council and parliament of the EU.


History of the Cortes

Origins: the Feudal Age (8th-12th centuries)

The system of Cortes started in the Middle Age with the appearance of the feudalism. A Corte was an advisory council made up by the feudal lords. The King had the ability to call and dismiss them, but, as the lords of the Corte had the army and the money, the King usually signed treaties with them to pass bills for war at the cost of concessions to the lords and the Cortes.

The rise of the bourgeoisie (12th-15th centuries)

With the reappearance of the cities near the 12th century, a new social class started to grow: people living in the cities were neither vassals (servants of feudal lords) nor nobles themselves. Furthermore, the nobles were experiencing very hard economic times due to the Reconquista; so now the bourgeoisie (Spanish burguesía, from burgo, city) had the money and thus the power. So the King started admitting representatives from the cities to the Cortes in order to get more money for the Reconquista. The frequent payoffs were the Fueros, grants of autonomy to the cities and their inhabitants. At this time the Cortes already had the power to oppose the King's decisions, thus effectively vetoing them. In addition, some representatives (elected from the Corte members by itself) were permanent advisors to the King, even when the Corte was not in session.

The Catholic Monarchs (15th century)

Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, the Catholic Monarchs, started a specific policy to diminish the power of the bourgeoisie and nobility. They greatly reduced the powers of the Cortes to the point they simply rubberstamped monarch's acts, and brought the nobility to their side. One of the major points of friction between the Cortes and the monarchs was the power of rising and lowering taxes. It was the only matter that the Cortes had under some direct control; when Queen Isabella wanted to fund Christopher Columbus's trip, she had a hard time battling with the bourgeoisie to get the Cortes' approval.

The Imperial Cortes (16th-17th centuries)

The role of the Cortes during the Spanish Empire was mainly to rubberstamp the decisions of the ruling monarch. However, they had some power over economic and American affairs, especially taxes. The Senate appeared here, as a king-appointed legislature, in contrast to the bourgueois lower house. The Siglo de oro, Spanish Golden Age of literacy, was a Dark Age in Spanish politics: Netherlands declared itself independent and started a war. Some of the last Habsburg monarchs did not rule the country, but left this task in the hands of viceroys governing in their name, the most famous being the Count-Duke of Olivares, Philip IV's viceroy. This allowed the Cortes to become more influential, even when they did not oppose to King's decisions (or viceroys' decisions in the name of the King).

The First Republic Parliament (1873-1874)

When the monarchy was overthrown, the King of Spain was forced into exile. The Senate was abolished because it had been appointed by the King. A republic was proclaimed and the Congress of Deputies members started writing a Constitution. The new regime was supposed to become a federal republic, with the power of Parliament being nearly supreme (see parliamentary supremacy, although Spain did not use the Westminster system). However, due to many problems (mainly illiteracy of the people) Spain was not ready to become a republic; after several crises the republic collapsed, and the monarchy was restored.

The Restoration Cortes (1874-1930)

The regime just after the First Republic is called the Restoration. It was a constitutional monarchy, with the King as a rubberstamp to the Cortes' acts. The Senate was restored as an elected House the King could appoint senators for.

Little after the Soviet revolution, the Spanish politic parties started polarizing, and the left-winged PCE and PSOE blamed the Government for supposed election cheating in small towns (caciquismo), which was incorrectly supposed to have been wiped out in the 1900s. In the meantime, a violence spire started with the murders of many leaders of both sides. Deprived of that leaders, the regime entered a general crisis, with extreme police use which led to a dictatorship (1921-1930) during which the Senate was abolished.

The Second Republic Parliament (1930-1939)

In the first elections after the dictatorship, the republican parties lost by almost two thirds, but won in all province capitals and big cities (where caciquismo was not present). The King left Spain, and a Republic was declared. The Second Spanish Republic was established as a presidential republic, with the President of Republic being the Head of State. He had the power to appoint and dismiss the Prime Minister (although he had to "listen to the Parliament" (which was unicameral) before an appointment) and to dissolve the Parliament, thus calling for new elections. The first term was the constituent term, with the ex-monarchist leader Niceto Alcalá Zamora as President of the Republic and the Jacobin leader Manuel Azaña as Prime Minister. The majority in the Cortes (and thus, the Government) was held by a coalition between Azaña's party and the PSOE. A remarkable deed is universal suffrage, allowing women to vote. Also, for the second time in Spanish history, some regions were granted autonomous goverments within the unitary state. Many extreme-right supporters rose in Sanjurjo against the Govern social policies, but the revolution was quickly wiped out.

The elections for the second term were won by the coalition between the Radical Party (center) and the CEDA (right). Initially, only the Radical Party entered the Government, with the parliamentary support of the CEDA because of the rebellion threat if it did. But, at the middle of the term, some corruption scandals sunk the Radical Party and the CEDA entered the Government. This led to rebellions by leftist parties that were quickly suffocated. In one of them, the left winged government of Catalonia (which had been granted home rule) rose against the central government (right winged). This led to the disollution of the Generalitat de Catalunya and the imprisonment of their leaders. Then, the leftist minority in the Cortes told Alcalá Zamora "rebellions were consequence of social refusement to right-winged government" and advised him to call for new elections, what he did.

The third elections were won by a small margin by the leftist parties, but the difference in seats was big due to the new system established by the right-winged government hoping to get a majority. The left coalition used a legal twist to dismiss Alcalá Zamora and put Azaña in his office: the Constitution said that, if the President of the Republic dismisses the Parliament twice, and the newly elected Parliament thinks the last was unjustified, it can appoint a new President. In fact, Alcalá Zamora dismissed the Parliament twice, but the first should not be counted because it was the Constituent Parliament, whose works (and power) should end the moment the Constitution it was assembled to make is finished.

During the third term, the leftist coalition (called the Frente Popular) tried to wipe out right-winged opposition (including death menaces in the Parliament, readable today in the parliamentary Session Log). The already bad politic and social climate created by the long term left-right confrontation worsened, and many right-winged rebellions started. Then, in 1936, the Army's failed coup degenerated into the Spanish Civil War, putting the end to the Second Republic.

The Cortes Generales under the Franco's regime (1939-1978)

Attending to his words, Franco's intention was to replace the always-crashing party system with an "organic democracy", where the people could participate directly in the nation's politics without any parties.

However, such "good" intentions were never materialized. Franco assumed the office of Head of State for life, and established an unicameral legislature (the Congress of Deputies, or Legislative Assembly), made up by more than 400 "representants" (Spanish procuradores, singular procurador) appointed by himself. There was little democracy during this period, but there was the possibility of referenda, where only the family heads could vote. The regime started a "shy" opening process by the 1960s, with the boom in tourism.

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