Spaniards wanted to be “a normal country,” and they have almost achieved it—but at the worst possible time.
Like many other European countries, Spain’s party system is fragmented and polarized, which renders the country ungovernable. And as in other countries, when it is able to form governments, they will be governments of the Frankenstein type, formed by stitching together multiple heterogeneous parties into an improbable and lackluster unity.
For one thing, votes are now more dispersed across parties. In the nine elections from 1982 to 2011, the two largest parties, the Socialist Party and the People’s Party, averaged a total of 75% of the votes. In the most recent four elections, from 2015 to 2019, however, the main parties’ combined average was only 50%. In last week’s election, it was 65%, which is not a clear indication of any return to solid bipartisanship; both the Socialists and the People’s Party will need the support of other parties if they hope to govern. This seems to be becoming something of a new normal for Spain.
As a consequence of the parties’ inability to form parliamentary majorities, snap elections were called in 2016 and 2019, leaving the country without a government for many months. If Spain holds one more snap election, its record of misgovernment will approach those of that Bulgaria, Romania and Israel which have likewise undergone repeated elections.
Disintegration of political norms
Since the country’s modern democratic constitution came into force in 1978, Spain did not have a successful vote of no confidence for 39 years. This streak was broken in 2018 with the confidence motion that brought down Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. This development signified instability and dissatisfaction with the system.
The second election in 2019 ruptured another Spanish political tradition. For 37 years, Spain had avoided the need for a coalition government. Each ruling party governed alone until Pedro Sánchez’s Socialists found themselves constrained to form a coalition with the leftist Podemos party in 2020. Spain thus lost its distinction as the only country in Europe where a coalition government had never been formed.
What’s worse, it was a minority coalition; on top of the difficulties of negotiating and agreeing between government partners, it needed to transact with other parties in Parliament that lacked a general commitment to cooperate. There were opportunities to form a grand coalition government in both 2015 and 2019, but cowardice prevented it. The evaporation of the centrist party Citizens, which would have been the bridge, sealed the possibility altogether.
Another tradition that fell by the wayside in recent years was the absence of far-right parties, a trait due to the memory of the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship. In other European countries, the engine of the populist reaction was the financial crisis, austerity policies, and massive immigration. But the Spanish far-right did not gain a voice when those parties jumped on the stage, but later, immediately after the referendum for the independence of Catalonia in 2017. The Vox party—the “Voice” of the nation, which jumps, exasperated, like an automatic spring at any sign of territorial tension—was, above all, a jingoistic overreaction to Catalan nationalist provocations.
Now, it has backfired. As a counter-reaction to Vox, the Catalan independentists have become a pivot to form a majority in the Spanish Parliament. The incumbent prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, needs the votes or at least the abstention of the Catalan pro-independence parties to govern again. They will ask for the moon in return.
Spain is at an impasse
The People’s Party and the Socialist Party may be tempted to hold another catastrophic snap election because they can expect that, as occurred on both previous occasions, both abstention and the percentage of votes for the two larger parties would increase.
Given this situation of Frankensteinian normality, some of the democratic reforms that many Spaniards have desired for years may no longer be a priority and could even become counterproductive. A more proportional electoral system, which has been long demanded, would allow even more parties to enter Parliament and make it even more difficult to form a majority, aggravating the governance problem.
Any complex, open and pluralistic political system entails high transaction costs. That is to say, it tends to reproduce the problems of information, coordination, negotiation and implementation of collective decisions that society cannot solve for itself and that, precisely for this reason, it transfers to the institutional sphere.
In today’s Europe and today’s world, with large scale and very high transaction costs, the most effective way to improve governance would be more transfers to other levels of government, especially the European Union and global institutions. As we are faced with problems of the magnitude of financial fragility, energy and food interdependence, vulnerability to epidemics, transcontinental migrations, the deployment of artificial intelligence, climate change, and new border conflicts, our highest priority is to execute competent decisions and recommendations in a way that is accountable to the public for their results.
In this context, citizens’ relatively high electoral abstention may be inevitable and not very hurting. More necessary and beneficial would be higher abstention from superfluous and conflict-prone legislation on the part of a Frankenstein government.
[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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