Hoggar Institute

Spain: Blame the Rule, Not the Numbers

Tribune Libre - Galtung Johan

Alfaz, Spain

Spain got stuck again. The party numbers in a parliament with 350 seats produced no majority 20 December 2015 or 26 July 2016. The arithmetic did not work out.  The numbers were wrong.

Or, could the Rule be wrong?  The Rule is majority support for a government to be viable.  Actually, for this to work at all the number of seats in the parliament should be uneven, like 351.  That aside, let us look at numbers and rules in the light of the number, N, of political parties–programs = position-packages–competing.

N=1 has a name, dictatorship. Democracy starts at N=2.  There could be factions inside that single party; like in the CPC, Communist Party of China, or the LDP, Liberal Democratic Party, in Japan.  But N>1 gives people in general a choice, not only members of factions inside one governing party.  A major difference.  Long live N>1!

For N=2 the Rule is met with an uneven number of contested seats. Any seat is for one party or the other, no tie is possible. There will be a majority, even if only one seat, 176/175.  N=2 and the Rule are made for each other. Like the two-party system in the UK with parties changing names; and in the USA with parties never changing names.  The parties could be dictatorships inside, like PP and PSOE in Spain with strongmen like Rajoy and Sánchez.  But there is a choice between the two.

Enters Harold Hotelling with his famous law from 1931: when two actors compete, like companies for customers, or political parties for voters, the products they offer tend to become similar. They may imitate each other or steal from each other to be on the right side of the tipping point so that they can dictate prices, or policies. Thus it was that Bill Clinton moved right by picking up Republican policies, and Tony Blair by picking up Tory policies for “New Labour”.

With position and opposition similar, politics over differences yields to administration of similarities.  Spanish: they become gestores.

We are now living the intense history of revolution against N=2 in the USA; and the counter-revolution by denying other parties access to public space, and by fighting party divisions.  Spain is ahead, it has already happened with N=4+; four parties up front with 137, 81, 71 and 32 seats respectively.  Consequently, politics is up front again, the parties are different; it is not only the psychology of four egos.

So far, this rules out the obvious Rule solution: back to N=2 with a coalition in position, and an opposition in coalition. A coalition of 2 may foster competition and they become similar–or break up.

Time for a closer look at N=3, 4, 5: what happens?

For N=3 absolute majority for one party is still possible. But so is equality in numbers (117 for each) and anything in-between as long as it adds up.  With a bipolar political discourse, 2 out of 3 might be close to each other.  But how about a tripolar discourse, economically in the socialism-capitalism-green localism triangle? For any of them any alliance means giving up major positions.  And how about several bipolar discourses, one economic and one over a unitary vs more federal state, criss-crossing?  The Spanish situation, by and large.

Back to N=3 with three parties, X, Y, Z; the sum 351.  There are lots of combinations with one 176 or more, and lots of combinations with this not being the case. The same for N=4, N=5 etc.  In other words, as so many point out, more elections in Spain may easily leave us with exactly the same problem.  Unless, for instance, a charismatic leader emerges, saying BASTA!, vote for me instead!  A solution?

A huge dilemma for democracy as such: either sacrificing politics through too much similarity to meet the Rule, or failing to satisfy the Rule because of–some say–too much politics.  In Spain, that dilemma is highly visible; but it may apply to all.  Oscillation, either between two similar parties/coalitions, nothing new; or between two dissimilar parties/coalitions using power to destroy the other.

Conclusion: the Rule has to open for two obvious alternatives:

  • minority governments,  moving from issue to issue, switching from party-majority to issue-majority in parliament.  All parliamentarians can follow their conscience.  In other words, unpackaging party-programs, focusing on issues for which a majority is obtainable.
  • big coalitions of all or most parties, often referred to as “grand” when the two biggest from a former two-party system are involved. They will also have to move from issues to issue, but whereas a minority government debate is in the open parliament a big coalition debate may be behind closed doors. An argument in favor of minority governments.

However, the distinction between “all” or “most” parties matters.  Take Spain as an example: there is a crisis, a state with only a caretaker government for day-to-day administration is not a real state; with economic, military, political consequences.  An argument for “all”.  But “crisis” is used by dictatorships as pretext to silence debate, the famous German exceptional Ausnahmezustand (Carl Schmitt).

The argument tilts in favor of “most”, defining one overriding issue that draws a line between most and, say, one.  The obvious Spanish formula would be something like: “The major issue in Spain is corruption, none of us is perfect, we all have to improve, but Partido Popular is corrupt to the level even of a Party corrupting the State”. In other words, do not move from issue to issue, focus on corruption.  The coalition may dissolve with the job accomplished, back to politics as usual.  With most parties vs PP mobilizable should PP not change.

These two alternatives do not exclude each other.  A PP minority government moving from issue to issue, facing a parliament repeatedly raising corruption issues, might give Spain a government and at the same time–even short time–make progress on the corruption issue.

I am not Spanish, but I simply love this country.  Outside my window the wonderful Campana mountain points upward.  Up, Spain, up!

Johan Galtung
18 July 2016