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Saturday, March 8, 2008

Spain Votes 2008: Zapatero's election to lose?

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico

Voters in Spain go to the polls this Sunday for a regularly scheduled parliamentary election, to choose members of both houses of the Cortes Generales, the Senate and the Congress of Deputies. In addition, the southern region of Andalusia will hold an election for its autonomic (that is, devolved) Parliament.

The Congress of Deputies - by far the more powerful chamber in the Spanish legislature - is elected by closed party-list, rectified proportional representation (under the D'Hondt or largest average method) in fifty multi-member constituencies, namely the country's provinces. In addition, the autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla, located in North Africa, elect one member each by plurality voting. Meanwhile, directly elected Senate members are chosen by the limited voting system in forty-seven peninsular constituencies, ten island constituencies (the islands of the Balearic and Canarian archipelagos), plus Ceuta and Melilla. However, unlike in Congress elections, voters may choose individual candidates in Senate elections; the electoral system is described in further detail in Elections to the Spanish Congress of Deputies.

While the electoral system has changed relatively little since its introduction during Spain's transition to democracy more than thirty years ago - which came after nearly four decades of authoritarian rule under Generalissimo Francisco Franco - the party system has experienced numerous changes since then. However, since 1993 Spanish politics have been dominated by two major parties which have alternated in power: the left-of-center Socialist Party - in full, the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE; Spanish Socialist Workers' Party) - and the conservative Partido Popular (PP), whose name can be translated as the Popular or People's Party.

Since 1977, PSOE has been by far Spain's major left-wing party, holding power from 1982 to 1996 (under longtime leader Felipe González) and since 2004 under Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Meanwhile, PP is the descendant of the Alianza Popular (AP) or Popular Alliance, a right-wing party founded by Manuel Fraga Iribarne, a former minister during the Franco regime. While AP was originally very conservative - it was mainly supported by well-to-do Spaniards who grudgingly accepted the transition to democracy - by 1982 it had emerged as the major right-wing challenger to PSOE, displacing the rapidly disintegrating Union of the Democratic Center (UCD), which had ruled Spain during the early transition years. Nonetheless, AP remained well behind PSOE, and when the party reorganized as the PP in 1989 under the leadership of José María Aznar, it sought to convey a more centrist image. PP made substantial gains in the 1993 general election and finally came to power in 1996, holding office until 2004 with Aznar as head of government. However, in recent years PP, led since 2004 by Mariano Rajoy, a former minister in Aznar's government, has once again lurched to the right.

Their political dominance notwithstanding, more often than not neither PSOE nor PP has commanded an absolute majority in the Congress of Deputies. In such cases, the largest party has invariably opted to form a minority government sustained by agreements with one or more of the various minor parties represented in Congress. Thus, Spain has not had a full-fledged coalition government at the national level in thirty-plus years of democracy. Following the demise of the middle-of-the-road Social Democratic Center (CDS; an UCD offshoot) in 1993, the only nationwide minor party represented in Congress has been the United Left or Izquierda Unida (IU), which brings together the Spanish Communist Party and several like-minded leftist parties. Although IU retained a sizable electoral following as late as 1996, it fared poorly in the 2000 and 2004 general elections.

The fact that there are only three nationwide parties of significance is due in no small measure to the system of rectified proportionality for Congress elections, which features corrective devices in order to contain parliamentary fragmentation. These include the use of the D'Hondt rule for the allocation of constituency seats (which favors the larger parties) and a three percent constituency-level threshold (with blank ballots counted as valid votes), although the latter provision is only relevant in the two largest constituencies - Madrid (35 seats) and Barcelona (31 seats). The remaining provinces return an average of six seats, and the application of the D'Hondt rule in these introduces a sizable de facto threshold, well above the three percent barrier.

Moreover, the application of the largest average method over a large number of mostly small-sized constituencies has a cumulative effect that clearly works to the advantage of the larger parties, and to the detriment of smaller parties with evenly spread support, which usually win few if any seats outside the larger constituencies. This was precisely the case with United Left in the 2004 general election, when it only won seats in the three larger provinces. On top of that, while the allocation of seats among party tickets within constituencies is strictly proportional - as far as the number of available seats and the D'Hondt rule will allow - the distribution of Congress seats among constituencies is not. Every province is guaranteed a minimum of two seats irrespective of population, and as a result it takes considerably fewer votes to win a seat in the sparsely populated and predominantly rural provinces than in the more populated and largely urban provinces, which are under-represented in Congress.

Besides PSOE, PP and IU, Spain has a significant number of regionalist and nationalist parties, which while small on a nationwide scale, have a substantial following in their respective regions. Because votes cast for nationalist parties are concentrated in the regions in which they operate, these can circumvent the limitations of the rectified proportional system in varying degrees.

While the presence of regional nationalist parties is by no means a uniquely Spanish phenomenon (for example, in Great Britain proper there are nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales), some regions in Spain have two or more nationalist parties of significance: this is precisely the case in both Catalonia and the Basque Country, the two regions in which nationalist sentiment - fueled by linguistic differences - runs strongest. Catalonia has three nationalist parties: the liberal Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC) and the Christian Democratic-oriented Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC), which traditionally run together under the moderate Convergence and Union (CiU) ticket, competing with the more radical Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC). Meanwhile, the Basque Country has two legal nationalist forces - the conservative Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV) and Basque Solidarity (EA), a 1986 PNV splinter - and the proscribed Batasuna, widely perceived as the political arm of the ETA terrorist group.

Outside Catalonia and the Basque Country, Galicia and the Canary Islands have sizable nationalist parties as well. The Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG) is staunchly left-wing, while the Canarian Coalition (CC) is distinctly centrist and unusually moderate as nationalist parties go. However, Canarian nationalism is based not on linguistic differences - the islands are Spanish-speaking (albeit with a distinctive dialect that closely resembles that of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries) - but on a sense of geographic isolation: the Canary Islands, located off the west coast of Africa, are as far away from mainland Spain as Spain herself is from Germany. In addition, the region was for a long time a centrist stronghold, and many CC leaders originally belonged to one or other of the now-defunct nationwide centrist parties.

Traditionally, statewide center-right parties such as the PP have been considerably weaker in Catalonia and the Basque Country than in other regions of Spain, partly because of the presence of strong, right-of-center nationalist parties such as CiU and PNV, which split the right-wing vote, but largely because conservative parties in Spain have historically favored a centralized state, perceiving Catalan and Basque autonomy (devolution) as a halfway house to independence, and therefore as a threat to the country's unity. Nonetheless, since 1977 Spain's major center-right parties - PP among them - have accepted autonomy for all regions of Spain, albeit with a more limited scope than that envisaged by nationalist parties or the major nationwide leftist parties.

The increasing assertiveness of nationalist parties in recent years has led to the emergence of non-nationalist, center-left parties such as Citizens - the Citizenry Party (C's) and Union, Progress and Democracy (UPyD). While these parties differ little from PP on devolution matters, both are stauchly secularist, and essentially at odds with the PP's conservative social agenda (which calls for, among other things, repeal of the gay marriage law approved under Zapatero's government, despite the fact that opinion polls indicate gay marriage is supported by an overwhelming majority of Spaniards). The Catalan-based C's, which won three seats in the 2006 Catalan Parliament election under the leadership of Albert Rivera (who famously posed nude for the party's campaign poster in that election), is now running in every constituency, although it is expected to have its best result in Barcelona, where the party may win a seat in Congress. Meanwhile, UPyD, led by Rosa Díez, a former Socialist MEP, has focused its efforts in Madrid, where the fledging party could secure a seat as well.

Although Spain's economy has slowed down significantly in the last few months after several years of strong growth, and unemployment is on the rise, the Socialist Party appears likely to prevail in Sunday's vote, in part due to the personal popularity of party leader and Prime Minister Zapatero, who emerged as the clear winner in two very acrimonious pre-election debates with PP leader Rajoy. Most opinion polls forecast a PSOE lead of three to four percentage points over PP, but turnout is expected to play a key role in the election result. Turnout is widely expected to be lower than in 2004 - which would in all likelihood help PP - but Friday's killing of a former Socialist councillor in the Basque city of Mondagrón (apparently carried out by ETA) could influence the outcome of the election.

In fact, should the race turn out to be unexpectedly close, there is no guarantee that the party with the largest number of votes will win the larger number of seats as well, due to the effect of the rectified proportional system's corrective devices. These devices give an otherwise proportional electoral system a quasi-majoritarian twist, particularly (but by no means exclusively) in small constituencies where only the major parties (sometimes including one or two nationalist parties as well) have a realistic chance of attaining parliamentary representation. For example, in the 2004 general election in the Castile-La Mancha province of Ciudad Real, PSOE won three out of five seats (60%) on a narrow 48.1%-to-46.6% vote lead over PP, which won the remaining two seats; a further eleven provinces had similarly close outcomes (three of them with three- or four-way races involving nationalist parties). Thus, a slight vote swing in favor of one major party or the other, repeated across several closely fought constituencies, could bring about a significant change in the distribution of Congress seats.

That said, it appears unlikely PP will be in a position to form a government. Barring an unforeseen turn of events, the center-right party plus its 1996 allies (CiU, PNV, CC) are poised to fall well short of an absolute majority, and from that perspective, Spain's 2008 vote remains Zapatero's election to lose.


The ruling Socialist Party (PSOE) of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero retained a plurality of Congress seats in Spain's 2008 parliamentary election, defeating the Popular Party (PP) by a relatively narrow but nonetheless clear margin. Both PSOE and PP scored seat gains at the expense of minor parties, which however will continue to hold the balance of power, as the Socialists remain seven seats short of an absolute majority.

Definitive election results, published on the Spanish Official Gazette on April 17, 2008, were as follows:

Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) - 11,288,698 votes (43.9%), 169 seats
Popular Party (PP) - 10,277,809 votes (39.9%), 154 seats
Convergence and Union (CiU) - 779,425 votes (3.0%), 10 seats
Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV) - 306,128 votes (1.2%), 6 seats
Catalan Republican Left (ERC) - 298,139 votes (1.2%), 3 seats
United Left (IU) - 969,871 votes (3.8%), 2 seats
Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG) - 212,543 votes (0.8%), 2 seats
Canarian Coalition (CC-PNC) - 174,629 votes (0.7%), 2 seats
Union Progress and Democracy (UPyD) - 306,078 votes (1.2%), 1 seat
Navarre Yes (Na-Bai) - 62,398 votes (0.2%), 1 seat
Basque Solidarity (EA) - 50,371 votes (0.2%), no seats
Aragonist Council (ChA) - 38,202 votes (0.1%), no seats
Others - 684,390 votes (2.7%), no seats

Voter turnout stood at 73.8%, slightly down from 75.7% in 2004.

PSOE also prevailed in the Andalusian Parliament election, but the party was returned to power in Seville with a sharply reduced majority.

Some - but by no means all - of the nationalist parties fared badly in the election. Basque Solidarity (EA) and the Aragonist Council (ChA) lost their single seats in Congress, while the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) lost five of the eight mandates it won four years ago; the Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV) and the Canarian Coalition (CC-PNC) lost ground in the election as well. However, the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG) and Navarre Yes (Na-Bai; a coalition of Basque nationalist parties that run separately in the Basque Country) emerged unscathed, as did the Catalan CiU (which picked up an additional seat on election night, but lost it to PP when the expatriate poll was subsequently tallied). In any event, the Socialist Party won handsomely in both Catalonia and the Basque Country, and both victories proved to be decisive in the election outcome.

United Left (IU) also did poorly in the election, losing three of the five seats it won in 2004. The Communist-led alliance may have been tactically squeezed by voters who switched to PSOE to forestall a PP victory (all the more so in light of the quasi-majoritarian workings of Spain's rectified proportional representation system), but regardless of the cause, IU appears to be in a process of gradual yet irreversible decline - not unlike the French Communist Party across the Pyrenees.

However, for the first time in decades a new nationwide party won parliamentary representation: the non-nationalist, left-of-center Union, Progress and Democracy ticket won enough votes in Madrid to elect party leader Rosa Díez as its single member of Congress. At the same time, the similarly oriented Citizens (C's) failed to win any seats.

Meanwhile, PP leader Mariano Rajoy announced his intention to run for re-election as head of the party in an upcoming June congress. Rajoy appears to enjoy widespread (if by no means unanimous) backing, as the party increased both its share of the vote and its number of Congress seats, polling the best second-place showing since the re-establishment of democracy in 1976-77.

That said, Rajoy was still bested by Prime Minister Zapatero, who will continue to preside over a Socialist minority government. But the question is for how long: only PSOE voted to support Zapatero's re-election when the Congress of Deputies reconvened in April, while the minor parties chose to abstain or - in the case of ERC and UPyD - vote against him, along with PP.