Electoral Impasse

Víctor Torre de Silva. Professor. IE Law School

1 June 2016

The unprecedented repetition of Spain’s general elections has highlighted the fact that Spain’s election system is not fit for its purpose, and the need to embark on immediate reform.

On June 15, 1977, Spain held its first democratic elections after almost four decades of military rule under General Francisco Franco. Since then, the country’s parliamentary system has functioned well, judging by the results: an excellent Constitution, membership of what is today the European Union, a raft of basic rights in line with Western democracies, economic growth… The list is long. And all this has been possible in large part due to the parliamentary majorities enjoyed by successive governments, starting with UCD in 1977, and then the Socialist Party (PSOE) and the Popular Party (PP). 

But it now seems the model of the last four decades has been exhausted. Tax-payers are wary of the political classes, in part due to countless corruption cases, the outcome of which is a Congress split roughly into four main groups, making it impossible for any party to form a government alone or in coalition. The economic crisis and immigration have doubtless played their part in creating this situation, which can be summed up in the title of a book jointly authored by Pablo Iglesias, the founder of anti-austerity party Podemos, called ¡Que no nos representan! (They don't represent us!)

This rejection of the traditional approach to politics is far from unique to Spain. Populist and nationalist parties have emerged in the United Kingdom in the form of UKIP, in Germany through Alternative for Germany, in Italy via the Five Star Movement, France’s National Front, and Greece’s Golden Dawn. Even Donald Trump can be seen as a reflection of this widespread unhappiness with the establishment. 

The appearance in Spain of new political forces is another factor as to why the electorate must once again head to the polling booths since no party has been able to form a government in the six months that have followed the last elections. The problem is that there is nothing to suggest that the result of the June 26 elections will change anything and that the impasse will continue. The polls show that no party will win the majority needed to form a government and that we will be back where we have been since December 20, 2015. This could mean a third general election, or in the best case scenario, a weak government with minimal parliamentary support, unable to implement major policies and that might well find itself out of office before time. 

Faced with such an outlook, Spain needs to find a way to once again believe in the democratic process, while at the same time guarantee that the system is able to fulfill its main job: to produce governments. Some measures have been taken with a view to recovering voter confidence, such as implementing greater transparency and fighting corruption, but it clearly hasn't been enough. The time has now come to get to the nub of the question, which is the relationship between representatives and the represented. This means carrying out a roots and branches reform of the electoral system that elects deputies to Congress. Without this, there can be no guarantee of stable majorities, nor of bridging the growing gap between parliament and taxpayers. Any reform would have to address two key questions. 

The first would mean ending the system whereby parties decide internally which candidates they will field. This means that the candidates positioned highest on this list tend to always get a seat in the parliament and the candidates positioned very low on the closed list do not. The electorate needs to be given more say over who they vote for. 

Secondly, the outcome of elections stable governments needs to be stable governments. This is particularly important given the clear inability of party leaders to reach agreements with each other. Situations such as the current impasse are simply unacceptable, meaning that the system needs to support the party with the best result. Such a reform would go against calls for greater proportional representation, i.e. allotting seats in parliament on the basis of the overall number of votes a party receives. As is well known, this kind of system only produces fragmented parliaments, making it harder to elect governments. 

There are, of course, any number of ways to carry out electoral reform of this type. In my opinion, the best thing to do would be to modify Article 68 of the Constitution, which states: “The electoral district is the province … with each electoral district being assigned a minimum initial representation and the remainder being distributed in proportion to the population.” At the same time, there are many other possible solutions without the need to amend the Constitution, as have been tried out successfully in other countries. 

Fatalism is not an option. We cannot simply sit on our hands and hope for something to happen, quite what nobody knows, nor can we blame the electorate for the current impasse. Our leaders would do well to remember the words of Peter Drucker, the father of management theory, that “leadership isn’t about status, privilege, titles, or money: it’s about responsibility.” 

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