How people elect parliaments
Last weekend’s re-run of elections for the Spanish parliament has yielded a result almost identical to the inconclusive December 2015 elections, which left the nation without an endorsed government for over six months.
The December elections provided Spain with a legislature deeply divided between four distinct parties as well a small crossbench including left-wing micro-parties and Basque and Catalan regionalists.
The Congreso de los Diputados – the parliamentary chamber which determines the Spanish government – is elected using a party-based seat allocation system which distributes 350 seats in proportion to party vote totals, within 50 electoral districts. 176 seats in the Congreso is required for a governing majority.
The Congreso – the lower house of the Spanish Cortes – will remain a very difficult assembly from which to govern
In December 2015 the two traditional leading parties of Spain both saw their vote decline dramatically, with the centre-right governing Popular Party (PP) winning just 123 seats, and the centre-left Socialist (PSOE) party winning only 90.
The elections saw the birth of two new major political parties, the left-wing Podemos (which won 69 seats) and the centrist Citizens party (40 seats).
The result was a rejection of the stable party system that had prevailed since Spain returned to democracy in the late 1970s.
Despite weeks of negotiations, which included the prospect of the two long-established parties forming a German-style joint government, interactions between the parties remained so acrimonious that no party leader was able to gather a parliamentary majority.
The Citizens group – which had won the support of many former PP voters – did not have sufficient seats to join with the PP and achieve a majority.
The two left wing parties – PSOE and Podemos – together also fell short.
The PSOE attempted to form an alternative alliance with Citizens, hoping that Podemos would be forced to provide it some degree of support.
Any two-party grouping – other than the joint PP-PSOE option – would have needed cross-bench votes, including from regionalists whose constitutional demands were intolerable to the larger parties.
In any case, the four major party leaders could not even agree on two-party coalitions to get close to government.
The centre-right Popular Party of acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has remained in office in a caretaker capacity.
The fresh elections held last Sunday have now thrown up the identical strategic situation.
Curiously, the total number of registered voters fell by nearly 2 million, and the number actually voting fell by 1.25 million.
The main loss of voter support was from the Podemos group of parties, which saw its vote fall by around 1 million votes. However due to a helpful distribution of votes across the 50 electoral regions, its seat total was unchanged.
The Popular Party recovered around 670,000 votes, and secured a noticeable seat gain from doing so.
The numerical results suggest a slump in Podemos support, and a moderate voter move back to the security of the existing PP government. But these shifts do not change the real situation on the floor of the national Congreso.
The minor seat changes create no new coalition combinations that can reach 176 seats in total. The election represents only a minor shift towards PP, largely at the expense of the centrist Citizens group.
Citizens lost 8 seats, and the Socialists 5, and a Basque party 1 seat, while the acting PP government picked up 14 seats. The PP result exceeded polling expectations, while Podemos winning an unchanged total was a disappointment compared to the late polls.
It is mildly harder for a PSOE-Podemos alliance to gather the crossbench support it would need.
While there remains a strong prospect of PP staying in office as a minority government, their austerity policies are anathema to most other parties.
Spain is still struggling with unemployment above 20% and a budget deficit that will soon be in breach of EU financial rules.
The likelihood of a minority PP government raises significant problems for the representative nature of the assembly, as a clear majority of voters do not want to see the PP’s fiscal and economic policies implemented. A PP government will have little chance of securing passage of austerity-oriented legislation.
An alternative alliance of anti-austerity parties would, however, be extremely fragile.