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Editorial:

Eliminate or reform?

Doing away with provincial government requires cross-party support and a constitutional change

The proposal by Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the former interior minister and now the Socialist Party's prime-ministerial candidate in the November general elections, to reform the running of the country's provincial administrations, is based on the perceived need to reduce spending at a time of significant cutbacks. But the crisis has also seen unemployment soar, and with it, a strong incentive by provincial and regional governments to further indulge in pork-barrel politics.

It now seems that the Socialists, who in the May local elections lost control of just about every regional administration, want to end these kind of practices, or at least reduce the extent to which administrations can indulge in them. The conservative Popular Party (PP), which now controls 24 of the 38 provincial administrations, has serious doubts about reform.

This reticence somewhat contradicts the PP's recent line on the way that the regions should be run. Party leader Mariano Rajoy has recently been arguing in favor of greater efficiency, and doing away with overlapping authorities in a bid to save taxpayers' money at a time of crisis. He may not have mentioned the provincial government delegations specifically, but it is obvious that doing away with them would fit perfectly with his current thinking. One suggestion that has come out of the talk of greater administrative efficiency in the regions has been to simply return control over some policy areas to the central government.

To do this would require changes to the Constitution and to the statutes governing relations between the central state and the regions; but this does not change the fact that if the PP is proposing such changes, it is because fewer voters are bothered about their regions having greater power. Reflecting this growing trend, the Socialist Party has also recently begun to talk more loudly about the need to save money and improve efficiency.

Getting rid of provincial administrations would, in theory, be the perfect solution to improving the running of the different levels of government. But the Socialist Party turned down just such a proposal in 2006. But doing away with the tier of provincial government would not be easy; it would require agreement over the issue between the two main parties.

For the moment then, reform is likely to remain on the drawing board: no government would be able to push it through without the support of Congress. Before it was proposed, lengthy and detailed studies on the likely impact would be required. Surveys carried out 30 years ago showed that many people felt a great affinity to their province than they did to their region or nation. One solution would be for a cross-party agreement on reducing spending and increasing efficiency without actually doing away with provincial representation.