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

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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.

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We need clearer reporting on the 2015 election

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The 2015 election is one of the most unpredictable in decades. But last Monday’s dissolution of parliament was the most predictable event of the year and still large parts of the media got it wrong. This does not bode well for how the post-election period will be reported, writes Akash Paun.

Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA), passed in 2011 and amended in 2013, Parliament was automatically dissolved last Monday, 25 working days before the first Thursday in May, when the country goes to the polls. Nonetheless, several major news outlets managed to confuse their readers and viewers by reporting that David Cameron had to request a dissolution from the Queen (as was the case before the FTPA was passed).

There are more important parts of our constitution than the precise mechanism used to dissolve parliament. But this is just one of a number of misconceptions likely to confuse voters in the run-up to and days following the election, particularly if there is another hung parliament. Even the Government’s Cabinet Manual, created expressly to clear up confusion about such matters, has not been kept up to date and incorrectly states that the election occurs 17 (rather than 25) days after dissolution (at page 96).

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The Rajapaksa Regime and the constitutionalisation of populist authoritarianism in Sri Lanka

Asanga Welikala reviews the constitutional changes introduced by Sri Lanka’s former president Rajapaksa to remove key limitations on presidential power. He argues that Rajapaksa’s surprise defeat last month suggests the basic ideals of democratic government have deeper roots in the Sri Lankan polity than have been visible in the recent past.

In a dramatic reversal of electoral fortunes, Mahinda Rajapaksa was ousted from power in Sri Lanka’s presidential election on 8 January 2015. This was not an outcome that was contemplated as a possibility by even the most optimistic of Rajapaksa’s critics barely three months ago, when his regime appeared to enjoy what seemed like the impregnable support of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. Part of the reason for Rajapaksa’s appearance of invincibility had been the constitutional changes he had introduced to consolidate his regime, after his victory in May 2009, in the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Instead of offering a political settlement to address Tamil and other minority aspirations after the war, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution in September 2010 abolished the two-term limit on presidential tenure and removed key limitations on presidential power.

Term limits are a key feature of presidential systems, given that an independently elected president is not responsible to the legislature in the same way as a parliamentary executive. And Sri Lanka’s two-term limit had been one of the only limitations on an executive presidency that was otherwise constitutionally omnipotent. The removal of the limit was exacerbated by the fact that in Sri Lanka, the presidential term is not fixed, i.e. a sitting President can choose the best timing for his re-election after the lapse of four years of the six year term. The abolition was directly related to Rajapaksa’s dynastic ambitions and would have allowed him (had he won re-election) to continue in office until such time as his son and heir – both affectionately and derisively known as ‘Namal Baby’ – was ready to assume the mantle for which he was being groomed. Continuous re-election would not have seemed difficult, given Rajapaksa’s willingness to crush any significant form of dissent with legal and extra-legal methods, and to use the power and resources of the state as his personal property.

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Bye bye Biffo*

It’s general election day in the Irish Republic. After the tumultuous – or GUBU – events that led to the collapse of the Fianna Fáil-Green coalition in January the election campaign was rather anti-climactic: bereft of talking points and gaffe-free.

One thing that we can say for certain is that Enda Kenny will be appointed an Taoiseach – or Prime Minister – and lead Fine Gael to government from fourteen years of opposition. Three important questions follow.

First, will Fine Gael have enough seats to govern with the support of a few independent deputies or will the party be forced into a coalition with the Labour Party? The former scenario is very much possible. Opinion polls suggest that Fine Gael will come close, but probably not quite reach, the 83 seats required to have a majority in the Dáil Éireann (the lower house of the Irish parliament). Arguments and counter-claims between Fine Gael and Labour – historically its favoured coalition partner during the relatively few occasions when Fianna Fáil’s stranglehold on power was loosened – provided the only ‘entertainment’ and talking points during the campaign.

Secondly, will the Fianna Fáil vote collapse or, in a best-case scenario from its viewpoint, could its core vote sustain and allow a bloodied but intact party to claim the second largest number of seats? Ireland’s economic decline has been rapid and unforgiving. The ghost which has haunted and brought emotional turmoil the island over the past three centuries is back: emigration. Fianna Fáil, having presided over the heady boom and the caustic bust, will pay the price for this at the polls. But the party, under the new leadership of Michéal Martin, has both stabilised and recovered from, at one point, a rating as low as 13%: quite a fall from grace for a party that has been in power for a total of 61 years during its 85-year existence.

Finally, will Sinn Féin finally make its much-anticipated breakthrough? The party currently holds five seats. It has been suggested that the party could triple that number: some predictions go further than that. Sinn Féin found itself in very similar circumstances on the eve of the 2007 election only to find that it actually lost a seat. Five years ago the party was weighed down by its leader’s, Gerry Adams, perceived economic illiteracy as well as its very recent past as the political wing of the Provisional IRA. Things are, of course, different now: the economic catastrophe paints Gerry Adams’ pseudo-Marxist economic views in a new light while memories of the dark days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland are fading. Adams has also made, to put it mildly, questionable propositions on the IMF and EU bailout.

The answers to all three questions will be clear by dinner time tomorrow (Saturday). But, for what it’s worth, here’s what I think. On question one, Fine Gael will indeed choose to govern alone but will depend on the support of independent deputies. On question two, Fianna Fáil will emerge as the second largest party in terms of seats. Talk of its decline has been much exaggerated and nowhere do old habits die harder than in Ireland. On question three, Sinn Féin’s gains will be more modest than predicted: maybe taking eight or nine seats in total.

*Biffo is both a term of endearment and abuse, depending on your viewpoint, for outgoing Taoiseach Brian Cowen.