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Cortes Generales

The Cortes Generales (Spanish for General Courts or Cortes Españolas, Spanish Courts) is the legislature of Spain. 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 arose in the Middle Ages as part of feudalism. A Corte was an advisory council made up of the most powerful feudal lords closest to the king. The Cortes of the Kingdom of Castile and the Kingdom of León were combined from 1188 AD, first Hispanic government with some claim to being representative. Prelates, nobles and commoners remained separated in the three estates within the Cortes. The king had the ability to call and dismiss the Cortes, but, as the lords of the Cortes headed the army and controlled 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 Cortes members by itself) were permanent advisors to the King, even when the Cortes was not.

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 where they simply rubberstamped the 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 raising 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 royally 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, while some of the last Habsburg monarchs did not rule the country, leaving 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 directly oppose the King's decisions (or viceroys' decisions in the name of the King).

Cortes in the Realms of Aragon and Navarre

The states of the Crown of Aragon (Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia) and the Kingdom of Navarre were self-governing entities separate from Castile, until the Nueva Planta Decrees of 1707 abolished this autonomy and united Aragon with Castile in a centralised Spanish state. The abolition in the realms of Aragon was completed by 1716, whilst Navarre retained its autonomy until 1833.

A Cortes (or Corts in Catalonia and Valencia) existed in each of Aragon, Catalonia, Valencia and Navarre. It is thought that these legislatures exercised more real power over local affairs than the Castilian Cortes did. Executive councils also existed in each of these realms, overseeing the implementation of decisions made by the Cortes.

Cádiz Cortes (1808-14) and the Three Liberal Years (1820-23)

Cádiz Cortes operated as a government in exile. France under Napoleon had taken control of most of Spain during the Peninsular War after 1808. The Cortes found refuge in the fortified, coastal city of Cádiz. General Cortes were assembled in Cádiz, but since many provinces could not send representatives due to the French occupation, substitutes were chosen among the people of the city - thus the name Congress of Deputies. Liberal factions dominated the body and pushed through the Spanish Constitution of 1812. Ferdinand VII, however, tossed it aside upon his restoration in 1814 and pursued conservative policies, making the constitution an icon for liberal movements in Spain. Many military coups were attempted, and finally Col. Rafael del Riego's one succeeded and forced the King to accept the liberal constitution, which resulted in the Three Liberal Years (Trienio Liberal). The monarch not only did everything he could to obstruct the Government (vetoing nearly every law, for instance), but also asked many powers, including the Holy Alliance, to invade his own country and restore his absolutist powers. He finally received a French army (the Hundred Thousand Sons of Saint Louis) which only met resistance in the liberal cities, but easily crushed the National Militia and forced many liberals to exile to, ironically, France. In his second absolutist period up to his death in 1833, Ferdinand VII was more cautious and did not try a full restoration of the Ancien Regime.

The First Republic Parliament (1873–1874)

When the monarchy was overthrown in 1873, the King of Spain was forced into exile. The Senate was abolished because of its royally appointed nature. A republic was proclaimed and the Congress of Deputies members started writing a Constitution, supposedly that of 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 in 1874.

The Restoration Cortes (1874–1930)

The regime just after the First Republic is called the Restoration. It was formally a constitutional monarchy, with the monarch as a rubberstamp to the Cortes' acts but with some reserve powers, such as appointing and dismissing the Prime Minister and appointing senators for the new Senate, remade as an elected House.

Soon after the Soviet revolution (1917), the Spanish political parties started polarizing, and the left-wing PCE and PSOE blamed the Government for supposed election fraud in small towns (caciquismo), which was incorrectly supposed to have been wiped out in the 1900s by the failed regenerationist movement. In the meantime, spiralling violence started with the murders of many leaders by both sides. Deprived of those leaders, the regime entered a general crisis, with extreme police measures which led to a dictatorship (1921–1930) during which the Senate was again abolished.

The Second Republic Parliament (1931–1939)

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; also, some say that the republicans actually won nationally). The King left Spain, and a Republic was declared. The Second Spanish Republic was established as a presidential republic, with a unicameral Parliament and with a President of the Republic as the Head of State. He had the power to appoint and dismiss the Prime Minister on the advice of Parliament (or just hearing it before) and to dissolve the Parliament and call 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, a provision highly criticized by socialist leader Indalecio Prieto, who said the Republic had been backstabbed. Also, for the second time in Spanish history, some regions were granted autonomous governments within the unitary state. Many on the extreme right rose up with General José Sanjurjo in 1932 against the Government's social policies, but the coup was quickly defeated.

The elections for the second term were held in 1933 and 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 threat of rebellion if it did. But, in the middle of the term, corruption scandals sunk the Radical Party and the CEDA entered the Government in 1934. This led to rebellions by leftist parties that were quickly suffocated. In one of them, the left wing government of Catalonia (which had been granted home rule) rose against the central government (right wing). This provoked the dissolution of the Generalitat de Catalunya and the imprisonment of their leaders. Then, the leftist minority in the Cortes told Alcalá Zamora that the "rebellions were consequence of social rejection of the right-wing government" and advised him to call for new elections, which 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 electoral system (majority system instead of the old proportional) established by the right-wing government hoping to get a majority. The left coalition used a legal twist to dismiss Alcalá Zamora and replaced him with Azaña: the Constitution stated that if the President of the Republic dismissed Parliament twice and the newly elected Parliament thought that the last dismissal had been unjustified, Parliament could appoint a new President. In fact, Alcalá Zamora did dismiss the Parliament twice, but the first should not be counted, because it was the Constituent Parliament, whose acts and power ended the moment the Constitution it was assembled to write had been completed.

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

The Cortes Generales under the Franco regime (1939–1978)

Attending to his words, Francisco Franco's intention was to replace the unstable 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 a unicameral legislature (the Congress of Deputies, or Legislative Assembly), made up of more than 400 "representatives" (Spanish: procuradores, singular procurador) appointed by himself. There was little democracy during this period, but there was the possibility of referendums, where only the family heads could vote. The regime started a shy opening process by the 1960s, with the boom in tourism.

The Cortes today (1978 Constitution)

The Cortes are a bicameral parliament composed of a lower house (Congreso de los Diputados, congress of deputies) and an upper house (Senado, senate). Although they share legislative power, the Congress holds the power to ultimately override any decision of the Senate by a sufficient majority (usually absolute majority or three fifths majority).

The Congress is composed of 350 deputies (although that figure may change in the future as the constitution establishes a maximum of 400 and a minimum of 300) directly elected by universal suffrage approximately every four years.

The Senate is partly directly elected (four senators per province as a general rule) and partly appointed (by the legislative assemblies of the autonomous communities, two for each community and another one for every million inhabitants in their territory). Although the Senate was conceived as a territorial upper house, it has been argued by nationalist parties and the Socialist Party that it doesn't accomplish such a task. Proposals to reform the Senate have been discussed for at least ten years as of November 2007.


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