Spanish voters lose patience

We live in dangerous times. But just when the forces of democracy and sanity should be rallying together, downplaying their differences in the interests of a united front against the enemies of civilisation, time and again we find that the opposite is happening.

You know the Spanish story (see Friday’s preview here). The parties that jointly won April’s election spent months bickering and failing to agree on a coalition government. Instead they were willing to risk another election, knowing that it was unlikely to solve anything and would probably make matters worse. It has.

With results from yesterday’s election now virtually complete, the six political blocs have emerged as follows:

Centre-left (Socialists)  28.3% (down 0.6%)  120 seats (down three)
Far left (Podemos & others)  16.2% (up 0.1%)  38 seats (down four)
Centre-right (People’s Party)  21.4% (up 4.2%)  89 seats (up 21)
Far right (Vox)  15.2% (up 4.9%)  52 seats (up 28)
Centre (Citizens)  6.9% (down 9.1%)  10 seats (down 47)
Regionalists (assorted)  11.0% (up 0.9%)  41 seats (up five)

In other words, little change on the left, but a big movement from centre to right, greatly exaggerated by the Spanish electoral system. The far-right Vox, which appeared from almost nowhere in April, won half as many votes again and more than doubled in seats. Citzens was almost annihilated, losing more than half its votes and nearly five-sixths of its seats.

The multitude of regionalist parties (now ten of them, up three from last time) split roughly evenly between left and right, so the left still has a narrow majority in both votes and seats. But that is mostly academic: firstly because the regionalists, whatever their political color, will not co-operate with the centralist right, and secondly because if the Socialists try to draw them into a coalition, regional differences will probably matter more than the left/right split.

The predicted backlash against the national parties in Catalonia barely happened. Pro-independence parties there are still short of a majority, with 42.9% of the vote (up 3.3%) and 23 of the 48 seats (gaining one, at the expense of the right).

After April, there were multiple routes to a majority. Realistically there are now only two: either a grand coalition between centre-left and centre-right, or a broad left coalition embracing the Socialists, Podemos and most of the regionalists.

Previously the latter could have got to a majority without the Catalans. That is no longer possible – unless Citizens come on board instead, and the prospect of getting Citizens and Podemos to work together is as remote as ever. Moreover, the Citizens’ contingent is now so small that it won’t make a great deal of difference anyway.

To make matters worse the Socialists have also lost their majority in the Senate, losing 29 seats to finish with 92 of the 208, just six ahead of the centre-right. Regionalists will have most of the rest; Vox won two seats, and Citizens lost all of its four.

There’s nothing unique about Spain. Political incompetence and pig-headedness happens everywhere, and there’s an element of satisfaction in seeing it appropriately punished. But it’s not something that democracies can afford just now.

If civilisation falls, it will not be because its enemies are strong or smart or popular. Don’t give them that much credit. The danger to civilisation arises from its defenders not doing their job.

13 thoughts on “Spanish voters lose patience

  1. I blame Sanchez.

    The template is right there in next door Portugal. Just govern with the parliament you’re given. If you do a good job, voters will reward you after a full term. The April election was universally hailed as a mandate for PSOE. What more did he want?

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    1. Spain’s constitution didn’t allow following Portugal’s example. In Portugal, rejecting a government requires the votes of a majority of all members of the Assembly of the Republic. In Spain, a government requires at least a majority of votes cast in the Congress of Deputies. In July, a majority of the votes cast in the Congress of Deputies were against the PSOE government, which meant under Spanish constitutional rules that it couldn’t continue in office. Under Portuguese constitutional rules it would have been able to continue in office, because it wasn’t rejected by the votes of a majority of members of the Congress of Deputies. If you think Spain should have followed Portugal’s example, then you shouldn’t be blaming Sanchez or the PSOE for the failure to do so, you should be blaming the people who wrote Spain’s constitution.

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      1. There are institutional differences, but they didn’t really play a role. Portugal’s government didn’t have even a simple majority against it: it had (and has) majority support. It would be dangerous to allow a government to be formed in Spain without majority support, because it can only be removed by a constructive vote of confidence – that is, one that specifies a government to replace it. So it’s fair to require it to have majority support (a simple majority, not necessarily an absolute majority) in the first place. Which, as I said above, other countries seem to be able to manage with.

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      2. ‘It would be dangerous to allow a government to be formed in Spain without majority support, …’

        This is equivalent to saying that there are good reasons for the Spanish rules which make impossible what would have been possible under Portuguese rules. Whether or not you’re right about that, it’s still the case that what’s possible under Portuguese rules isn’t possible under Spanish rules. Under Spanish rules, the vote in July 2019 prevented Sanchez and the PSOE from continuing with the formation of a government; under Portuguese rules, it wouldn’t have. I’m not sure what danger you have in mind when you use the word ‘dangerous’, but what you wrote is equivalent to saying that, in the situation of July 2019, there were worse possibilities than preventing the formation of a government.

        Also, given that the Portuguese government did in fact have a majority of votes cast, and given further that the Spanish government didn’t, it’s impossible to maintain consistently both that this is a relevant difference and also that it was the fault of Sanchez and the PSOE that they did not imitate the Portuguese example.

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      3. Well, yes, of course Sanchez didn’t have a majority. When I (and I assume David as well) say that he should have followed the Portuguese example, we mean that he should have negotiated to get a majority. The two systems have slightly different rules about getting there, but the fundamental point is the same: to govern, you need to be able to reliably command a parliamentary majority. The Portuguese Socialists, thanks to their successful negotiations, could; their Spanish counterparts, who were unsuccessful, could not.

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  2. As far as I can tell, all the parties have adhered to the positions which they campaigned on and which, therefore, in some loose sense people voted for. If there’s a parliament full of parties with irreconcilable positions, it’s because that’s what people voted for. The parties are not failing in a hypothetical duty to deliver the government which people voted for, because the people didn’t vote for any such government. There’s an obvious problem with the idea that the parties have a responsibility to unite around a platform or position which people didn’t vote for. Gridlock, and the lack of a means of resolving it, is a systemic institutional problem which merits a systemic institutional solution.

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    1. Thanks J-D. Look, voters vote for a parliament; it’s then the politicians’ job to construct a government that can command a majority. That’s how responsible government works. The materials were clearly there for it. There can be situations where a parliament is completely unworkable (Germany 1932), but this wasn’t like that at all. The problem, IMHO, was that you’ve got politicians who are used to a 2-party system and weren’t willing to adopt the mindset of a multi-party environment. That, plus the fact that Citizens’ leader was determined to take his party to the right and turned his back on the sort of coalition that he’d agreed to 3 years earlier. I don’t think this is rocket science; the “systemic institutional solution” is just coalition politics, which other countries seem to be able to get to work quite well.

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      1. ‘Look, voters vote for a parliament; it’s then the politicians’ job to construct a government that can command a majority.’

        Is it? Who says? Where is that written? It’s possible to write rules for a system that drives towards the appointment of a government, no matter how the parliament happens to be composed: the Spanish system doesn’t have rules of that kind. Nor, to be clear, do other parliamentary systems that I’m aware of: what I’m saying is that such rules are possible, not necessarily that they’re actual. If it’s supposed to be the job of politicians to construct a government out of the party materials available, the way to express that supposition in practice is to construct a system with rules that drive the politicians towards that outcome. The principle expressed in the actual rules of the Spanish system, and others, however, is not ‘It’s your job to form a government’ but rather ‘Here’s how you can form a government’, with little reference to what’s supposed to happen if they can’t form a government.

        ‘That, plus the fact that Citizens’ leader was determined to take his party to the right and turned his back on the sort of coalition that he’d agreed to 3 years earlier.’

        I’m not clear on what you’re referring to here.

        ‘I don’t think this is rocket science; the “systemic institutional solution” is just coalition politics, which other countries seem to be able to get to work quite well.’

        Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. So far Belgian politicians, for example, have always managed, eventually, to construct a government after an election, but when it’s taken them over a year I suspect a lot of Belgians would feel that the system is not working _well_. The Netherlands sometimes has similar problems, although not (to date) as extreme.

        Also, in countries where coalition governments are routinely formed, it’s also common to find parties ruling out various options. In the Netherlands, after the 2017 election, two months were spent discussing a possible coalition option which the parties involved ended up deciding was unacceptable. When that option was abandoned, another one was explored, eventually successfully, but there’s no way the people who rejected the first option could have known for sure at the time that another one would be found.

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      2. The practices surrounding parliamentary government have grown up over a couple of hundred years; generally they work pretty well. Most of Europe’s parliamentary regimes routinely assemble governments after each election with very little fuss. There are exceptional situations where people have felt the need to install specific rules about constructing a government – for example in Northern Ireland – but I think they’re very much second-best solutions. And the Spanish system too has now “worked”, in the sense that the people who forced an unnecessary fresh election have been punished for it, which will help deter it next time, and the Socialists and Podemos have discovered that they can reach agreement quite quickly when they try.

        My reference to Citizens’ change of tack was to the fact that in February 2016 they reached a coalition agreement with the Socialists. It didn’t take effect then because they didn’t have a majority between them, but this time they did – but Rivera had decided to chase votes on the right instead, which ended badly for him.

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  3. I’ve read how Ciudadanos in 2016 expressed a willingness to enter into a coalition government with both the PP and the PSOE; that’s not the same thing as reaching a coalition agreement with the PSOE to the exclusion of the PP.

    ‘The practices surrounding parliamentary government have grown up over a couple of hundred years …’
    Practices aren’t rules. There is a long history of parties succeeding in finding sufficient agreement to be able to form governments. Part of the credit for this does go to rules of the system, specifically the rules which give power to governments in a way that makes being in government much more attractive (to most parties) than being out of government. There’s a long history of that motivation being sufficient to drive parties to form governments. If it fails to do so, that doesn’t mean the parties are failing in their responsibilities; it means circumstances have changed.

    In Spain, after general elections, the King nominates candidates for the position of ‘Presidente do Gobierno’ (President of the Government, often referred to in English as Prime Minister). He doesn’t do that because there’s a past history of Kings doing it; he does it because there’s a rule in the Constitution saying that he has to. That makes it his responsibility. For the same reason, it’s the responsibility of the parties represented in the Congress to consult with the King before he makes a nomination, and it’s the responsibility of Congress to hold a vote on the nomination. But there’s no rule that says it’s the responsibility of anybody to make sure that a government is approved by Congress. On the contrary, the possibility of its not happening is clearly contemplated by the rules, which then make it the responsibility of the King to call fresh elections, which is why he did so in the current instance.

    The PSOE has now indicated its willingness to form a government with UP as a coalition partner. If they can find it acceptable now, they should have been able to find it acceptable six months ago, without the trouble and expense of another election, and that does make their failure six months ago a fault. On the other hand, what’s been revealed so far suggests that the UP (by agreeing to look for a solution to the Catalan problem within the Constitution) has dropped the idea of a Catalan referendum. If they can find that acceptable now, they should have been able to find it acceptable six months ago, without the trouble and expense of another election, and that does make their failure six months ago a fault. I’m not sure how to weigh these faults against each other. The PSOE might say now ‘We would have agreed a deal with UP six months ago, but back then they wouldn’t drop the referendum idea, which makes it their fault’; UP might say now ‘We would have agreed a deal with the PSOE six months ago, but they refused to accept us as full coalition partners, which makes it their fault’. Of course, if they want their present agreement to stick, they’ll avoid that kind of finger-pointing, but that doesn’t change the structural analysis.

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