Hung parliament will make it difficult to push forward the political reform Spain needs


Spain’s general election on 20 December resulted in a hung parliament and great uncertainty about the identity of the next government. Alberto López-Basaguren discusses the election result, arguing that it has been arrived at because of the deterioration of the democratic system and the failure to solve the crisis surrounding the system of devolution. Neither problem will be easily addressed in such a fragmented parliament.

The elections to the Spanish parliament held on Sunday 20 December have resulted in a lower house with political fragmentation unprecedented in Spain. This new situation has an initial consequence: the difficulty involved in achieving a working government majority, which will almost certainly result in a very weak government and, possibly, early elections. But there is another very significant risk on the horizon: the inability of so fragmented a parliament, with such a weak leadership and such difficult alliances, to address the democratic regeneration – and the constitutional reform – which the profound political crisis in which Spain is immersed appears so urgently to demand. The capacity or incapacity to address these challenges will, very probably, determine the political future of Spain.

The D’Hondt electoral system with the provinces as constituencies (to which are allocated a minimum of two MPs, with some provinces having far larger populations than others), has led to a parliamentary map dominated by two major parties, which between them have always occupied two thirds of the 350-seat lower house. They have been accompanied by various other parties with a low number of seats. Principally, nationalist/regionalist parties (Basque, Catalan, Galician, Aragonese, Valencian, Navarran, Canarian etc.) which, with territorial concentration of their voters, obtain seats with a very low overall percentage of the vote; and, occasionally, parties with a presence throughout Spain, penalised by the electoral system, which despite a relatively high percentage of votes achieve very low representation. A parliamentary configuration that, on the one hand, handed control of the system to the two major parties, whose mutual agreement was a prerequisite to any substantial (constitutional) reform, and, on the other, allowed the party which won the elections to govern calmly, even when it did not have a parliamentary majority, in which case it sought the support of some ‘small’ party. A bipartisan system that guaranteed stability.

Heavy losses for the ‘old’ parties, but insufficient gains for the ‘new’ ones

In contrast with this tradition the 20 December elections have provided the party of the outgoing government – the conservative Partido Popular (PP) – with a limited victory of 123 seats, a little over one third of the chamber. The main opposition party, the social democratic PSOE, won only 90 seats, less than one quarter of the chamber. Between them the two parties have obtained just over 60 per cent of the seats. Never before had the winning party been so far short of a parliamentary majority (176 seats), nor the second party won less than 100 seats.

The two parties that have dominated Spanish political life have emerged from the elections in an extremely weakened condition, individually and together, and as a result they have done serious damage to the bipartisan political system they have represented. Is this a temporary situation? Will the two major parties recover their traditional positions, or is fragmentation destined to be with us for a long time? Is this the prelude to a process of substitution, which will lead to a reaffirmation of the bipartisan system  but with different protagonists?

Opinion polls prior to the elections suggested that 20 December appeared to be destined to resolve the dilemma of the hypothetical substitution in political leadership of the ‘old’ parties (PP and PSOE) by the ‘new’ parties (Ciudadanos and Podemos). But Podemos has not overtaken PSOE, nor Ciudadanos the PP, either in terms of seats or in terms of votes. But whilst Ciudadanos has found itself at quite some distance from the PP (13.93 compared to 28.72 in percentage of votes and 40 seats to 123), PSOE has felt Podemos hot on its heels (20.66 compared to 22.01 in percentage of vote and 69 against 90 seats). The new parties have not replaced the old ones, but they have inflicted significant losses upon them, though the former’s gains have proved insufficient, at least for the moment.

The PP has withstood Ciudadanos’ challenge thanks, fundamentally, to rural Spain, underpopulated and ageing; but the young party is firmly establishing itself in the cities and more dynamic zones, as well as in Catalonia. Something similar is occurring with PSOE and Podemos. In both cases the electoral system has favoured the large ‘old’ parties rather than those that, in each sphere, have disputed their hegemony. Podemos has seriously undermined support for PSOE (who have also lost votes to Ciudadanos) but not all the votes (and seats) attributed to Podemos have been won by the latter alone. In Catalonia, Valencia and Galicia, the new left-wing party has been integrated within tickets with left-wing nationalist groups in which Podemos’ influence is very low, marginal even. These tickets have obtained 27 of the 69 seats attributed to Podemos, which would constitute separate parliamentary groups and which, influenced in particular by the Catalan candidacy, have included in the party manifesto a resolute defence of the ‘right to decide’ – expressed as the demand for a referendum in Catalonia (and in the Basque Country), of a binding nature, on the demand for secession (or, in broader terms, on the political status of the territory). And Podemos has been overtaken by Ciudadanos in what seemed to be its stronghold: Madrid.

The 20 December elections evidence the accentuation of the differences between two Spains that appear to be moving in different directions: interior Spain, rural and ageing, and ‘peripheral’ Spain, with the big cities and more dynamic sectors, the singularity of Madrid notwithstanding.  The electoral system clearly favours the former, which is why its reform will probably be the principal parliamentary battlefield during the new legislature.

How did Spain arrive at this situation?

Spain has arrived at this juncture for two fundamental reasons: the deterioration of the democratic system and the crisis affecting the system of devolution. The democratic system has been hit by countless large-scale cases of corruption linked to politics which, at different times, have affected the two major parties (but also the party of the government of Catalonia and its ‘father’ Jordi Pujol and his family, and others), whilst the parties ‘colonised’ the institutions of control (judicial and parajudicial).

The red flags and the movements of reaction against the deterioration of the democratic system have been numerous, and they reached a peak with the 15-M movement (in reference to May 15, 2011) or movement of ‘the indignant’. In recent years the major parties have shown themselves to be largely deaf to society’s wake-up calls and have revealed a total incapacity to address the regeneration of the political system. Podemos was the direct product of this reaction. And Ciudadanos was also born with a clear mission of democratic regeneration.

Secondly, the two traditional major parties have responded with paralysis and an absolute lack of initiative to the evolution of Catalan nationalism towards secessionist rupture. Ciudadanos originated in Catalonia and grew strong in opposition to the claim for independence, which led it to dare to take the plunge and expand to the rest of Spain approximately a year ago. Podemos has convinced (with no little difficulty and accepting a secondary role) the grouping of left-wing nationalists in Catalonia (and, similarly, in Valencia and Galicia) to propose the holding of a referendum, disassociating itself from the strategy of a direct call for independence and, simultaneously, from that of the two ‘old’ parties. Both have managed to articulate an alternative to the territorial problem which, on the contrary, the PP has exacerbated, with its entrenchment in legality, and PSOE have failed to unblock with their proposal of federal reform.

The ‘emerging’ parties have succeeded in connecting with the concerns of wide sectors of the population, insofar as they have been able to offer reliable proposals (and answers) to the two great problems that, in most people’s opinion, bedevil Spain: democratic crisis and territorial crisis. The ‘old’ parties, meanwhile, have been unable to offer either a credible image of their desire to renew themselves and their capacity to lead the regeneration of the system, or an attractive programme to deal with the crisis in Catalonia (and, in general, within the territorial system).

What lies ahead?

The future looks complicated. The difficulty in forming a government majority is obvious. On the one hand, the radical confrontation between the two major parties and their conflicting paths in recent times render unthinkable a grand coalition; on the other, the limitations imposed by parliamentary arithmetic beyond this option are extreme. And the option of a left-wing alliance (with other additions) is made difficult not only by the extreme complexity that would result from the dispersion of seats and the incompatibility of objectives between some of the necessary partners, but also by the bitter war that would ensue between its two leading components (PSOE and Podemos).

The movements with regard to the formation of a government majority have consequences which transcend this objective: they will profoundly impact on the prospects of the respective parties achieving the objectives they have seen frustrated (to a greater or lesser degree) on 20 December; all will have in mind the next political battle to be waged. And what each does during that phase will, probably, prove decisive in the way in which things are resolved in the future

About the author

Alberto López-Basaguren is Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU) in Bilbao.

One thought on “Hung parliament will make it difficult to push forward the political reform Spain needs

  1. Pingback: As Spain heads for a second election in six months, its parties have failed to correctly interpret the result of the first | The Constitution Unit Blog

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