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spanish election foreign policy democracy

When Your Representatives Promise You Democracy

You expect to get it. That's not what happened in Spain.


It has been a month since Spain’s new government took office, stepping in for Mariano Rajoy and his People’s Party after they were ousted by a vote of no confidence. The motion, driven through by a broad coalition of left and right wing parties as well as unionist and separatist groups, was buoyed by a corruption scandal that saw several members of the governing party charged.

Though Rajoy had led a minority government since the last elections in 2016, he had been Prime Minister since 2011. His austerity measures and handling of the Catalan crisis had drawn harsh criticism from the opposition, which no doubt contributed to his downfall. A slush-fund scandal replete with charges of fraud, tax evasion, and money laundering was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Opposition leaders hailed the change a victory for democracy and claimed it would bring new social reforms and a fresh approach to the handling of Catalonia’s push for independence. But how much can the new government do when it only controls 24% of seats in the lower house and its opposition controls the senate? The answer is that no one single party can help Pedro Sanchez and his new government cross the 50% mark required to pass legislation, forcing him to rely on a vast coalition of parties, each with its own views and agendas. Scraping the barrel to reach 176 votes could allow other parties to hold the government hostage, which can lead to back room deals and even possible corruption – something which has already been shown to be a problem.

There is also a hypocrisy in Sanchez’s new government. The new leader’s vote of no confidence clearly signalled that a corrupt government that does not have the support of the majority of the county should not govern. Yet his own socialist party is still awaiting the verdict of Spain’s largest corruption scandal, carried out while it governed Spain’s southern Andalusia province. The socialists also forced the regional president of Madrid to resign for lying on her resume – the exact same allegations have been levelled at Sanchez.

Through all of this controversy, though, Sanchez seems determined and confident he can govern the country until the next elections in 2020. But with the fear of not being able to pass a budget once the current one expires in 2019 (which could topple the government once more) and the seeming corruption taking place on all sides, battening down the hatches for the next two years might not be the best idea. Surely what Spain needs now is a new election, a chance for the people to decide who should shepherd their country into this ‘new era.’ The last government the people elected did not survive its full term, so the people should have the opportunity to elect a new one. But a new vote does not seem to be in sight. Only one party in the parliament has been vocal about holding a vote, and it has been excluded from any deals by Sanchez for not supporting his motion of no confidence.

How democratic can a government be if it is only elected by representatives who were in turn elected two years prior? The vote of no confidence was sold as a victory for democracy, removing a corrupt government that did not have the interests of the people at heart. But surely the best interests of the people are expressed by the people themselves. They must be given the opportunity to voice those interests at the ballot. If new elections are not held, then this is not a victory for democracy, but a defeat. An election that returned a conservative government supported by centrists has been overturned by constitutional technicalities in favour of socialists and populists. An election result has been stolen without consulting the people. A new election, regardless of the result, would reset the political landscape in the wake of the Catalonian crisis and the corruption case, providing a more representative congress to tackle the new political realities in Spain that did not exist during the last election. If the Democrats impeached President Trump and put Nancy Pelosi in the White House, no one would dare argue that the process was democracy in action and a win for the people. This is precisely what has happened, a party with no control of any branch of government has just taken control from a party which controlled all branches of government.

Sanchez should not fear a new vote. Recent polls show his party gaining seats. Several have even propelled him to the lead. And the mere act of calling a new election could well gain him more votes as a demonstration of his respect for democratic values, rather than an attempt to hide from public opinion until 2020. In any case, a new election that delivers the socialists as the largest party would increase the legitimacy of Sanchez’s government and make the possibility of creating a formal coalition with another party more likely, which would provide more stability to the government and country.

Sanchez is setting a precedent here. Never before in Spain’s 40 years of modern democracy has a vote of no confidence succeeded. By refusing to call elections, Sanchez has weakened an important tool meant to remove governments that have lost the confidence and support of the country. Waiting until 2020 sets a precedent that no confidence votes can serve to form a government that has not been directly chosen by the people. Spain’s first modern election was only in 1977, and its democratic institutions have only been strengthened since a coup attempt in 1981. Sanchez’s actions are step back, gently eroding a democracy that is just as old as he is. Now is not the time to start rolling back democratic institutions while strongmen and autocrats are rising throughout the West. Sanchez must show his commitment to Spanish democracy, instead he’s allowed the tool to enable 350 representatives to overrule over 35 million voters.

Jakob Youngblood


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