MADRID — When seven men gathered in 1977 around a long green table in the Spanish Congress to write a Constitution for a new, democratic Spain, they spent a month, on and off, arguing over a single word.
It was just two years after the death of Gen. Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator who had suppressed attempts to create regional autonomy.
The two Catalans at the table, Miquel Roca and Jordi Solé Tura, wanted the text to grant the right of self-government to Spain’s constituent “nations” — an implicit reference to Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country — Mr. Roca recalled in an interview. The other five, who included one of Franco’s former ministers, refused.
Eventually, they reached a compromise. The final text spoke not of nations — but of regions and nationalities.
“We wanted a bit more, and some others wanted much less,” Mr. Roca said. But all in all, “it was a success.”
Forty-one years after the Constitution was passed in a 1978 referendum, that remains a widely shared opinion. For a text written while Spain was still governed by Franco’s acolytes, the Constitution, as well as the democratic transition in general, is considered a remarkable achievement.
But today’s Spaniards are increasingly questioning whether what was a triumph when it was written may, four decades later, have left the country in a deadlock.
Complications with the Constitution gave momentum to the Catalan independence movement — which has itself spurred the emergence of Spain’s first far-right party since Franco — and contributed to the downfall of two national governments in less than a year, the latest just last month.
Those growing pains of the young democracy have left Spain — whose mesmerizing transition became a talisman of European progress in the late 20th century — an emblem of the Continent’s disarray in the 21st.
“The Constitution was a great achievement for the time, as it was very unusual to get different parties to agree in that moment,” said Virginia Pérez Alonso, the editor of Público, a Madrid-based news website.
“But that consensus is what we don’t now have,” Ms. Alonso added. Today, “there are probably as many approaches to the Constitution as there are political parties in Spain.”
For some on the left, the Constitution has proved to be too vague in its promises about housing, employment, health care and pensions.
For some on the right, the Constitution has prove to be too flexible, allowing Catalan nationalists to demand more and more autonomy until attempting to break away entirely in 2017.
The decentralized state permitted by the Constitution is “a focus of instability and anti-Spanishness,” said Santiago Abascal, leader of Vox, the emergent far-right party that would scrap clauses devoted to regional autonomy.
Yet for the Catalan separatists, the text has not been flexible enough: It bars them from organizing a legal referendum on independence without the support of the Spanish government.
Even the word “nationality,” seen as such a victory 41 years ago, has been a fickle friend.
In 2010, when the Constitutional Court pared back aspects of Catalan self-rule, the court’s judgment relied partly on the fact that the Constitution referred to nationalities rather than nations.
And it was that decision that helped turn the idea of Catalan independence, previously a minority pursuit, into one that would eventually hold the support of something approaching half the Catalan electorate.
When the charter was written by the seven “Fathers of the Constitution” (there were no women), Mr. Roca never expected it would be treated as the straitjacket that some now consider it.
Even with the Constitution’s current wording, Mr. Roca believes it allows for as much self-government as can be achieved without actually seceding from Spain.
Though the text makes military conscription “compulsory,” it was interpreted in 2001 in such a way as to abolish it. Though the text grants only “man and woman” the right to marry, it was interpreted in 2005 in a way that allowed same-sex unions.
Sections on regional autonomy had a similarly “flexible interpretation that allowed for adaptation,” Mr. Roca said. The only outcome that it bans is the creation of an entirely separate country.
No constitution “can contend with the independence of a part of the state,” he said. “It’s not the obligation of a constitution to solve the problem of a revolution.”
For others involved in the creation of the Constitution, this makes the separatists the primary source of Spain’s stalemate, not the Constitutional Court, let alone the text itself.
“The current political crisis cannot be attributed in any way to our Constitution,” said Alfonso Guerra, a former deputy prime minister of Spain who advised on the wording of the text but who was not one of the seven original authors. “That is caused by a group of independentists that want to destroy it, since they want to destroy as well the unity of Spain.”
To their critics, the separatist leaders are opportunists who latched onto the idea of secession to distract Catalan voters from corruption scandals and economic mismanagement by their own leaders.
“What they did,” said Pablo Casado, the leader of the Spanish opposition and the head of the conservative Popular Party, “was to invent an enemy.”
To many separatists, that seems a gross misrepresentation.
It was Mr. Casado’s party that had requested a ruling by the Constitutional Court in the first place, they note.
Afterward, they felt forced toward the nuclear option of an unconstitutional referendum on independence because the court’s 2010 decision left them with neither legal recourse nor a means of negotiating with the Spanish state.
“For many people, that was a turning point,” said Gabriel Rufián, a far-left Catalan lawmaker.
For Mr. Rufián, Spain’s current crisis is rooted in a failure to properly complete Spain’s democratic transition in the 1970s.
After Franco’s death, the ministers, officials, soldiers and judges who had underpinned his 41-year dictatorship were allowed not just to continue in public life, but also to shape it.
Manuel Fraga, the former Franquist minister who helped write the Constitution, later founded the conservative Popular Party, which remains a pillar of modern Spanish politics.
To Mr. Rufián, the mentality of the old Franquist regime has never quite been stamped out — to this day, the number of unidentified corpses buried in mass graves from the Franco era is second only to those in Cambodia, and thousands remain in unmarked graves.
To escape the shadow of Francoism once and for all will ultimately require a clean break from Madrid, he said.
“We had a dictatorship for 40 years, but we had no Nuremberg process,” said Mr. Rufián. “The so-called transition was a lie.”
But within the establishment left, this is an extreme view.
A more favorable interpretation highlights how the Socialist party, which was banned under Franco, has held power more than any other party since his death.
By 2008, the head of the armed forces was a general who was openly leftist. And if senior judges have made politicized decisions, it is because they have been appointed by parliaments and governments from both the left and right.
Thanks to the transition and the Constitution, Spain has become one of “the most tolerant societies in the world,” said José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the Socialist prime minister between 2004 and 2011.
Today’s impasse, he said, is instead the result of stubbornness by both the separatists, who have not admitted to mistakes, and the center-right government that was in power during the 2017 secession attempt.
For its own political reasons, it seemed ‘‘to be more delighted with confrontation than with an honest recognition of the diversity of Spain,” Mr. Zapatero said.
The only solution, he added, was “coexistence, which implies recognition and respect, and there is only one way to achieve it — the political dialogue, which requires more courage than confrontation.”