Friday, 16 January 2009

Spanish party politics...and I'm not referring to "fiesta"

Let’s take a look at why Spain is going the way of Citigroup. I think it is important so that once the crisis is over, politicians and institution builders are able to recall history and avoid past mistakes.

First, the Spanish political system is reminiscent of nouveau riche antics. It was developed and executed in the latter part of the 1970s, when the combination of ideological enthusiasm and democratic inexperience led to the creation of a political system that has outlasted its usefulness. The ideologues of the system wanted strong parties, regional representation and democratic principles as the basis of the system. Over the years, strong parties and regional representation have cast out principles-based management to create a system that is on the verge of moral bankruptcy. Check out this link:

Today, over 30 years after the death of Franco, the key indicators of health of a democracy such as voter turnout and strong independent institutions are weaker that at any time in recent history. A primary reason for this democratic deficiency is the Spanish electoral system. Numbers always help; let’s look at the results of the March 2008 elections (click on image):

Several conclusions can be drawn from this table. The first column in red provides the percentage number of total seats assigned to each party. Note that PSOE and PP each were assigned 48.3% and 44% of the seats, despite obtaining only 43.9% and 39.9% in number of votes, respectively. Note also that Izquierda Unida was assigned only 0.6% of the seats despite obtaining 3.8% of the popular vote. Therefore, large parties and strong regional parties are over-represented, which inevitably leads to under-representation of dispersed national parties such as Izquierda Unida and UPyD. Another disturbing fact is that 4.1% of the people who voted had no representation whatsoever. When you add this voter base to the 24% of registered voters who abstained from voting, an astounding 27% of registered voters are not represented in the Spanish parliament. Surprised?

Spain has 52 electoral districts (or circunscripciones) with 2 representatives allocated to each and 248 distributed on the basis of population, for a total of 350. The d’Hondt method of seat allocation ensures that the strong candidates within these electoral districts get elected. As a result, strong national parties and regional parties are over-represented in contrast to parties which have a voting base spread across all the electoral districts. The d’Hont method works like this:

-Within each electoral district the first seat goes to the most voted party
For calculation of the second seat allocation, the party that obtained the first seat divides its number of votes by the number of seats obtained plus one (i.e. two).
-The second seat is then allocated to the most voted party (note that, under 2 above, the party that got the first seat has halved its votes for calculation purposes)
-For calculation of the third seat, the party that obtained the second seat divides its number of votes by the number of seats previously obtained plus one (i.e. if it is the same party that got the first seat this would be three, otherwise it would be two)
-The process is repeated until all the available seats are assigned.
-For mathematical minds the test for allocating each seat is based on: V/S+1; where V= number of votes and S=seats previously obtained

Therefore, we have an electoral system that is not representative, at least for many people. Strong parties and regional parties have run the country for 30 years and made it what is now, a nation which is close to becoming a banana monarchy.

To add insult to injury, a closed list system has also been implemented. In closed list systems the party has pre-decided on who will receive the votes in the elections, that is, the candidates positioned highest on this list tend to always get a seat in the parliament while the candidates positioned very low on the closed list will not. There are no prizes for guessing to whom candidates owe their loyalty. It’s not to the voter.

The outcome of this electoral system is plain for all to see, yet the players involved have no desire to change a system that works to their benefit. Why would the PP or PSOE want to change a system that allocates them disproportionate influence? Regionalists, in turn, have wielded their power in national politics to force the central government to transfer power to the regions, regardless of whether this was efficient or effective. Why would the regionalists want to change this system?

Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the system will change, unless a political crisis forces change and the current economic and financial crisis seems to be brewing future strife. Our current rulers have managed to dispense enough mortgage debt and football entertainment (“panem et circenses”) over recent years to keep the populace quiet, but as defaults soar incentives will change....and they call this a democracy.

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