Two new governments

Although there are no elections scheduled in western Europe this year, the results of those from last year haven’t yet all been implemented. Movement this week, however, on two fronts.

Firstly Spain, a long-running saga that we haven’t looked at for a while. An election last April produced a large centre and left majority, but the parties concerned were unable to agree on forming a government. Fresh elections in November showed, not surprisingly, a substantial swing to the right.

That concentrated the minds of the Socialists (centre-left) and Podemos (far left), and they promptly resolved on a coalition. That put them well on the way to a majority, but to get there they needed the support, or at least abstention, of most of the varied assortment of regionalist parties that had won seats – particularly the Basques and the Catalans.

And that was difficult, because the Spanish judicial system seems to have been doing its best to alienate the Catalans as much as possible. Several separatist leaders were sentenced to prison terms for sedition back in October, and just last week the Central Electoral Board disqualified Catalan premier Joaquim Torra from office.

Nonetheless, Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez managed to reach a deal with the Republican Left of Catalonia for them to abstain on his investiture vote, and that was enough to give him a one-vote majority on Sunday, 166 to 165 with 18 abstentions. (One Podemos MP was away sick, so his underlying margin is two votes.)

It wasn’t enough to return Sánchez to office immediately, since the first confidence vote requires an absolute majority. But on a second vote, to be held tonight, he only needs a simple majority – which he has, provided nothing untoward happens in the meantime.

The other success is in Austria, which went to the polls in September. The centre-right People’s Party won a substantial plurality, giving its leader, Sebastian Kurz, a free choice as to who he preferred to negotiate with to reach a majority: far right, centre-left or Greens.

The first two options had been tried before and ended badly, so Kurz, despite some apparently fairly large ideological differences, went with the Greens. Last week they reached an agreement for a coalition government, and a Greens national congress overwhelmingly approved the deal at the weekend.

The new government will be sworn in tonight – by president Alexander Van der Bellen, himself from the Greens – with Kurz as chancellor and Greens leader Werner Kogler as deputy chancellor. Between them they will enjoy an 11-seat majority in parliament.

Centre-right and Greens have governed together before at state level in both Austria and Germany, but this is the first time it has happened nationally. It has been talked about, however, for the last 15 years; I wrote in Crikey about the possibility back in 2005. Two years ago an attempt to build such a coalition in Germany fell apart, with consequences that are still being felt.

Both sides have given up ground. The Greens have conceded to the centre-right control of immigration policy, where Kurz’s anti-Muslim views are very different to theirs. In return, he has given them a free rein in environmental policy, which will probably make a lot of centre-right voters unhappy.

But politics is about compromise, and Austria has a long history of coalition governments between philosophical rivals. It will be interesting to see how well this one works.

3 thoughts on “Two new governments

  1. It seems you may have been misled by the common error of supposing that ‘absolute majority’ and ‘simple majority’ have different meanings. They do not: they both mean the same thing, namely, a majority or, in other words, more than half. To say that investiture of a Spanish government requires an absolute majority at the first vote but a simple majority at the second vote is a false contrast. At both votes, the requirement is for a majority, which is to say an absolute majority, which is to say a simple majority. The true contrast between the two requirements is that the requirement at the first vote is for a majority of all members of the Congress of Deputies, while at the second vote the requirement is for a majority of votes cast.

    Some people think ‘absolute majority’ means ‘majority of those eligible to vote’. It doesn’t. There are electoral laws which require, for example, that to be elected as a national President or as a Member of Parliament there is a requirement to receive an absolute majority: that doesn’t mean a majority of those eligible to vote (it may not be known with certainty how many people are eligible to vote), but rather a majority (which is the same thing as an absolute majority, which is also the same thing as a simple majority. which is to say more than half) of votes cast.

    Any absolute majority is a simple majority, and any simple majority is an absolute majority. Neither adding the qualifier ‘absolute’ nor adding the qualifier ‘simple’ changes the meaning of ‘majority’; the effect, in either case, is emphasis on a contrast, but the contrast in each case is different. The term ‘absolute majority’ emphasises the contrast with a plurality, which is sometimes described as a ‘relative majority’ (in this case, the qualifier does change the meaning, and ‘relative majority’ is not synonymous with ‘majority’, although it is sometimes mistaken for being so); the term ‘simple majority’ emphasises the contrast with a requirement for some higher fraction of votes, such as two-thirds, three-fifths, or three-fourths (in the expression ‘two-thirds majority’, the qualifier does change the meaning, and ‘two-thirds majority’ is not synonymous with ‘majority’).

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    1. Hmmm. “The true contrast between the two requirements is that the requirement at the first vote is for a majority of all members of the Congress of Deputies, while at the second vote the requirement is for a majority of votes cast.” Yes, that’s exactly right. So the question is, is it proper to mark that contrast by using the word “absolute” for the first but not the second? The practice of doing so certainly has a long history. For example, s. 128 of the Australian constitution prescribes that “the proposed law [for amending the constitution] must be passed by an absolute majority of each House of the Parliament” – the contrast being with sections 23 and 40, which provide for questions in the two houses to be “determined by a majority of votes.”

      I take your point that the usage is not strictly logical, but the same can be said about a great deal of our language. It seems to me this is a distinction that needs a concise expression for it, and “absolute” and “simple” do the job well.

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  2. The distinction between ‘absolute majority’ and ‘simple majority’ is less clear than the distinction between ‘majority of all members’ and ‘majority of votes cast’, not more clear.

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