One, Two, Three, Four, Can I Have a Little More?

For political scientists something very exciting is going on in Spain right now. But, I think it is also interesting for people who are generally interested in how politics and societies work. Spain traditionally had a two-party system at the national level, so a system in which only two political parties have a real chance of deciding who will become the new leader of the country. Specifically, it had a bicameral parliamentary system, so a system much like the UK or the Netherlands has, with two chambers and a prime-minister. Traditionally, then, there were two very large parties who together controlled the large majority of the seats in those two chambers, the conservative Partido Popular (PP) and the social-democratic Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE). But, at the last election this was changed dramatically. Podemos and Ciudadanos won 109 seats out of a total 350 in the lower house, which meant that no party could reign alone. This is exciting, because it can teach us something about how citizens can cooperate to have influence over the administration which governs them. Moreover, this case can teach us something about how electoral rules, so the rules which determine how votes are translated into a division of seats, determine how people vote and how parties form.

The reason that Spain tends to have a limited number of political parties with real influence is probably (after some heated discussion with a friend writing for Fruits and Votes) the relatively small size (in terms of the number of delegates per district, the official term is ‘district magnitude’) of many of Spain’s electoral districts for Congress. This would make it easier for larger parties to gain votes in smaller districts, thus favouring larger parties. Yet, I am not completely convinced that this explains why Spain has a two-party system, instead of three or four large political parties, as the last elections have shown it is possible for smaller parties to win a substantial amount of votes.

I think the two-party system was also a result of the electoral rules for the senate. Interestingly, the two Spanish chambers have different electoral systems, so votes are translated differently into seats in those two chambers. The lower house has a relatively proportional system, which means that the number of votes a party receives is close to the number of seats a party receives. This means that smaller parties stand a chance of gaining votes. Meanwhile, for the senate Spain uses a ‘multiple non-transferable vote’ system, a terrible phrase you can immediately forget. But what it means is that a plurality of the electorate determines a disproportionally large part of the representation for an electoral district. This means that only two political parties stand a chance of winning any seats, which means smaller parties may just as well give up.

So, I suspect that this is the reason why Spain only had two political parties of importance in the senate and congress for such a long time, instead of three or four. Even though small parties did stand a chance in elections for congress, one party would always dominate the senate. During the last elections, for instance, the Partido Popular only gained 30% of the votes, but it holds a majority in the senate. So, even if the other political parties step over their own shadow manage to compromise to form a coalition to form a cabinet, the Partido Popular could make passing bills more difficult by delaying legislation. Moreover, overruling the senate does not look good, as it could lead to accusations of acting undemocratically. In other words, gaining the senate is useful to any political party, and this is only possible if they win a plurality of the votes. This in turn gives an incentive for political parties to merge, for candidates to join the two parties who stand the best chance, and for voters to vote in senatorial elections and in elections for congress for the two political parties who stand the best chance at winning in congress and in the senate. This is probably why even in congress one party always used to have a majority, because people simply did not vote for smaller parties for this reason. It should be noted, though, that the senate is relatively powerless compared to congress. So it is not absolutely necessary to win the senate, but it surely helps.

Now, however, people persistently keep supporting the smaller parties, with Podemos’ coalition losing some percentage points, but Ciudadanos gaining a few percentage points in the polls. Even though these parties have not managed to form a governing coalition, with the conservative party being equally obstructive, they do still draw support, showing that many Spanish citizens are seriously fed up with politics as usual. If no government is formed before the second of May, new elections will be held, but with the current polls that would not change much. This shows that while the Spanish electoral system puts some pressure on parties and voters to consolidate into two parties, changes in people’s opinions can lead to the formation of new parties.

So the question is, how will Spanish citizens react to this quagmire. I could not find much on calls for electoral reforms, except by Ciudadanos, but I cannot imagine that the 70% of the Spanish citizens who did not vote for the Partido Popular will much longer accept that party to have such a disproportionate influence in the senate. Moreover, it will be interesting to see how Podemos and PSOE, two left wing parties, will react to each other. Without electoral reforms the left will have to unite in order to win the senate. Meanwhile, will Ciudadanos survive as a progressive, liberal party, as opposed to the conservative liberal Partido Popular and the progressive social democrats of the left? Will their position in the middle translate to a position of power, or will they become like D66 in the Netherlands, and the Liberal Democrats in the UK, always bound to stay small between other parties?

In either case, I hope for the Spanish people that whatever happens to Ciudadanos and Podemos, that their peaceful revolt will translate into more scrutiny of the government, less corruption, and more trust in the government. If that happens, the Spanish constitution may have some interesting and useful features. On the one hand it fosters a two-party system, which has advantages such as stability of government and clearer accountability. On the other hand, due to the proportionality used for congress new parties can break into the system, putting pressure on the two main parties to adopt new standpoints, to review new issues and to fight corruption, as they might simply be kicked out of office by a new party if they become too untrustworthy.

Bottom Line: Electoral rules influence how parties and votes behave. If Spanish citizens manage to change Spanish politics effectively, Spain may have an interesting combination of electoral rules which allow for stability in ordinary situations, but which allow change in extraordinary situations.


4 thoughts on “One, Two, Three, Four, Can I Have a Little More?

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  1. The Spanish situation is a very unusual one, in my view. Low district magnitude has clearly been a factor, but, as you say, that doesn’t explain why the cities have also only had two parties. However, I’m not so sure that the Senate plays such a role.

    Poland has an upper house, which is perhaps less powerful than Spain’s (but not by much), elected by first-past-the-post in single-member districts, which should lead to parties coalescing. Nonetheless, Poland has, and has had, a much more fragmented political system than Spain.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      The Polish Sejm does have larger constituencies though. That is, not like Spain with a few really large ones, many medium ones, and many small ones. So there is less of an incentive to consolidate in the first place.

      Having said that, I am not sure either that it is the Spanish senate which has historically ‘pushed’ for two. It may simply have been contingency, or something else altogether.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Spain’s cities are part of Spain. When politics takes place on the national level, district magnitude is not enough to set cities or region apart to the extent that they have different party systems. What it takes is full denationalisation of the party system, as you see in the Basque country and Catalonia, and I think it’s clear what it took to get those regions to that state.


      1. Thanks for the comment.

        I do not agree. There are many sizable districts where multiple parties can win enough seats to have a real impact on Spanish government formation. If you can get 1 or 2 seats in each of the 9 seat districts, and a number of a similar proportion in the larger districts, you have quite a lot of seats. So I think 3 parties is entirely feasible, if only because cities tend to be different from countryside with regards to preferences.


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