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The Spanish electoral system is often referred to in such affectionate terms as “a historical accident” or “Machiavellian.” Its degree of democracy has been contested since its establishment in 1977, with graphs like the one below invariably present in Spanish newspapers in the aftermath of the country’s general elections. The debate has gained special importance in Spain’s state of never-ending electoral turmoil. After the repetition of the general elections on June 26, no political party has obtained the majority necessary to appoint a president. The uncertainty about whether they’ll be able to agree on an alliance powerful enough to seize the leadership persists.

The energetic emergence of new political forces has drastically modified the traditional political landscape in Spain, drifting away from the de facto bipartite system in place and making talks about electoral reform all the more relevant. While PP (Partido Popular, represented by the blue color on the image) and PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, in red), majoritarian parties since 1982, still hold the first and second positions after the last elections, Podemos (in purple) and Ciudadanos (in orange) have undeniably consolidated as strong political alternatives. As we can see on the graphic below, these newcomers would benefit from the modification of the electoral system, and are firm advocates for it.

Distribution of seats in the Spanish Congress after the general elections of June 26 2016. First graphic shows how Congress will look like with the present electoral regulations. Second graphic how the seats would be allocated using a single-constituency system. Source: eldiario.es
Distribution of seats in the Spanish Congress after the general elections of June 26 2016.
First graphic shows how Congress will look like with the present electoral regulations. Second graphic how the seats would be allocated using a single-constituency system. Source: eldiario.es

 

How does the present electoral system work?

Surprisingly or unsurprisingly (depending on your expectations), a thorough search of this topic on the Spanish media will come across multiple accounts of the accusations against the present electoral system and the promises and blessings of the proposed reforms. However, actual explanations of these very complex mechanisms are seldom included. A lot is discussed about virtues and aberrations, but few sources attempt to show the full picture. Quite remarkably, finding an unyielding defense of the current legislation is almost impossible, which illustrates Spanish citizens’ discontent.

Electoral law is not a simple matter, which is why its manipulation in political discourse is very easy. To understand it better, I will single out four aspects that make up Spanish regulations for the General Elections: closed party lists, the province as the territorial demarcation for the electoral constituencies (there are 52 constituencies, 50 provinces plus two overseas cities), a minimum of 3% of the vote in each constituency to obtain a seat in Congress, and the severely criticized d’Hondt method for the proportional allocation of parliamentary seats. Closed party lists mean that when a Spaniard casts a ballot he selects a ready-made party list, where the candidates and their order have been decided by the party leaders.

To accommodate the important territorial component of Spanish politics, when the legislation was passed its enactors gave a minimum of two seats to each province (and one to each of the overseas cities). The rest of the seats would be assigned to each constituency on a population basis. Since the allocation of the seats takes into account the individual results of each province and the party lists are also different, as one commentator pointed out, in Spain there’s virtually 52 general elections being held for each legislature instead of just one.

The final conversion of votes to seats is done in every constituency using the proportional allocation method d’Hondt. The parties with more than 3% of the valid votes are lined up from bigger to smaller amount of votes (like parties A to D in the example below), and their results are divided by consecutive quotients. The seats are allotted to the highest values, in decreasing order. We could think of it as an auction, where the seats are sold to the best bet, until they are all distributed. The party with the most votes can buy the most seats.

Example of d’Hondt allocation. Source: Pseudolog
Example of d’Hondt allocation. Source: Pseudolog

What are the problems of this system?

Despite the constant demonization of Victor d’Hondt’s formule, the electoral demarcation is in fact the main root of democratic imbalance.

  1. One citizen, one vote? Since 102 out of 350 seats of Congress are equally distributed amongst the constituencies (except Ceuta and Melilla, that only get one) regardless of their population, not all citizens’ votes have the same weight. In demographically bigger provinces parties will need more votes to obtain one seat; in less populated provinces, it will take less votes for a party to get a candidate into Congress. Therefore, in practice, inhabitants of densely  populated regions will only have a fraction of the decision-making power of their compatriots from more isolated territories, they’ll have less than one vote.
  2. A proportional system that generates disproportionality votes-seats. All electoral systems are more or less “disproportional”, because the number of votes is not necessarily an exact multiple of the number of seats on the Chamber. However, the smallest the electoral district of allocation, the higher the dysfunction, simply because there will not be enough seats for all political forces with a significant electorate segment to be represented. If 4 parties get a good amount of voters but there’s only 3 seats, it doesn’t matter the amount of voters that relied on the fourth party; they will not get a voice. For obvious reasons, this benefits the majoritarian parties. It also benefits parties with strong support in certain regions, but inexistent in the rest of the country (namely, the nationalists). The chart below shows this variance in all the General Elections held in Spain since its configuration as a democratic state.
  3. The system was designed to represent more closely the divergent interests of the inhabitants of each of the Spanish territories. With this initial approach, it seems difficult to justify the use of closed party lists, where citizens can’t choose the candidates they wish to have as representatives. The advantage of this measure is that it may enable a better government strategy, as parties can feature in their lists experts of different disciplines or members of minorities.
Difference between votes and seats in elections to Congress , 1977-2015. The difference (in percentile points) is calculated from the electoral results provided by the Ministry of the Interior as the difference between the percentage of seats and the percentage of votes. It is green when the party has obtained more seats than its corresponding votes; it’s red when it has obtained less seats than its corresponding votes. Source: Politikon
Difference between votes and seats in elections to Congress , 1977-2015. The difference (in percentile points) is calculated from the electoral results provided by the Ministry of the Interior as the difference between the percentage of seats and the percentage of votes. It is green when the party has obtained more seats than its corresponding votes; it’s red when it has obtained less seats than its corresponding votes. Source: Politikon

What is the alternative?

Partido Popular, the governing party that has just been reelected, is the only political force that opposes electoral reform. Its three contenders, PSOE, Podemos, and Ciudadanos, all propose changes in the legislation along the lines of introducing an Hare method of allocation (simpler proportional system that  obtains the quotient to get one seat from dividing number of votes by number of seats), shifting the constituency from the province to the autonomous community (a single-constituency system is perceived as riskier due to the acute territorial tensions in the country, that it fails to acknowledge) and/or providing open party lists. A 2011 cross-party poll by GESOP revealed that 73.8% of the Spanish electorate believed the electoral system should be reformed. The distribution of the Congress after the recent elections points out that this preference has not disappeared, it has institutionalized. The need for political consensus on a solution to Spanish citizens’s calls for democracy is more evident than ever.

Sources:

Ace Project: http://aceproject.org/ace-en/topics/es/esy/esy_es

ACE Project: http://aceproject.org/ace-en/topics/es/esd/esd02/esd02e/esd02e03

Diario de Cádiz: http://www.diariodecadiz.es/article/opinion/1130362/la/ley/dhont/es/inocente.html

eldiario.es: http://www.eldiario.es/piedrasdepapel/Reforma-electoral-Google translate_6_460963936.html

eldiario.es: http://www.eldiario.es/politica/GRAFICO-quedaria-Congreso-electoral-circunscripcion_0_530897687.html

Estadística para todos: http://www.estadisticaparatodos.es/taller/electoral/electoral.html

Más Democracia: http://www.mas-democracia.org/quiosco

El País: http://resultados.elpais.com/elecciones/generales.html

El País: http://elpais.com/elpais/2011/06/23/inenglish/1308806443_850210.html

El País: http://elpais.com/elpais/2016/06/26/inenglish/1466950692_943394.html

Pensamiento crítico: http://www.pensamientocritico.org/manllu0508.html

El Periódico: http://www.elperiodico.com/es/noticias/politica/20110604/presencia-imputados-las-listas-genera-rechazo-absoluto/1031103.shtml

Politikon: http://politikon.es/2015/12/23/la-culpa-no-fue-dhondt/

Pseudolog: http://blog.pseudolog.com/article/la-ley-d-hont

The Spain Report: https://www.thespainreport.com/articles/533-151219225028-this-is-how-spain-s-electoral-system-works

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