Tue, Feb 22, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Spaniards approve European Constitution

POPULAR WILL Despite poor turnout, the referendum -- on which the prime minister had staked his credibility -- made Spain the first country to approve the document

DPA , Madrid

Spaniards overwhelmingly endorsed the European Constitution Sunday in a referendum overshadowed by low voter turnout.

About 76.7 per cent of voters backed the constitution, and 17.3 per cent voted against, with 99 per cent of the vote counted.

Interior Minister Jose Antonio Alonso put voter turnout at 42.4 percent.

Spaniards had "said a loud and clear yes to Europe," Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said, "opening the way" to ratification of the constitution in other countries which will stage similar referendums.

She said Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's government was "satisfied" with the referendum, though it would have liked higher voter turnout.

Socialist representative Jose Blanco said that turnout was "considerable" given that nearly all the main parties had campaigned in favor of the constitution and that many voters saw the result as a foregone conclusion.

European Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Joaquin Almunia described the turnout as "more than acceptable."

Angel Acebes of the main opposition conservative Popular Party said the turnout reflected a "failure" by Zapatero to mobilize voters.

Joan Josep Nuet of the far-left Izquierda Unida (United Left) said that the "very high level of abstention" reflected criticism of the constitution, which his party opposed.

Zapatero had staked much of his credibility on making Spain the first country to ratify the constitution in a popular vote. Zapatero adopted a strongly pro-European foreign policy after ousting a pro-US conservative government in elections 11 months ago.

The parliaments of Hungary, Lithuania and Slovenia have ratified the constitution, but the Spanish referendum was an important precedent for about 10 other EU countries, which will submit the treaty to popular votes.

They include France, Britain and Denmark, where an affirmative result is less certain than in Spain.

Spanish conservatives said at least 50 percent of those eligible should vote for the referendum to be credible, but reports said a 40 percent turnout would be deemed satisfactory by the government.

Turnout in European elections has traditionally been low in Spain, barely topping 45 percent last year.

The government spent about 7 million euros (US$9 million) on an information campaign, which failed to arouse interest in the constitution, with one poll saying that 90 percent of Spaniards knew little or nothing about the treaty.

Turnout was considerably lower than in Spain's three previous referendums since the country became a democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. The referendums concerned the return to democracy in 1976, the Spanish constitution in 1978 and NATO membership in 1986.

Some 34.5 million voters were asked to answer the question: "Do you approve the treaty instituting a constitution for Europe?"

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