Electoral complexity and bloc politics in today's Spain

Jesús Fernández-Villaverde

The Rafael del Pino Foundation organised, on 17 October 2023, the Master Conference "Electoral complexity and bloc politics in Spain today". who gave Jesús Fernández-Villaverde.

Jesús Fernández Villaverde is Howard Marks Presidential Professor of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania since 2007, Fellow of the Econometric Society and member of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), of the "group of one hundred" and of the editorial board of relevant national and international publications. He holds a degree in Law and Economics and Business Administration from ICADE and a PhD in Economics from the University of Minnesota.


On 17 October 2023, the Rafael del Pino Foundation organised the conference "Electoral Complexity and Bloc Politics in Spain Today", given by Jesús Fernández-Villaverde, Howard Marks Presidential Professor of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania.

The fundamental motivation for the conference, according to Fernández-Villaverde, is the profound change that has occurred in our electoral system. In the first eleven elections, stable governments always emerged, with an absolute majority or close to it. Since 2015 we have had five general elections and none of them has produced a stable majority. In fact, the party with the largest number of MPs since then is, precisely, now the Partido Popular, which has 137 MPs, plus one from the UPN. That is 18 fewer than Aznar had in 1996. This has resulted in enormous complexity when it comes to forming governments and what these governments have done. This has consequences

Since 2015, Spain has moved away from the economic policy followed since 1959, with the Stabilisation Plan. This has real consequences. In the early 1960s we started to converge with Europe in terms of GDP per capita, from 70% to over 90%. In 2007 this stopped and now we are going backwards. In relation to our European neighbours, we are in the same situation as in 1975, we have not been able to close the gap with them. And given the enormous electoral complexity that we have, we will most likely not be able to reduce this gap because the governments that we are going to have are going to be complex coalitions, with different interests, that are not going to undertake structural reforms and will give subsidies to the groups that they need to stay in power.

What has changed? According to the media, the argument is that the financial crisis is sweeping away the two-party system. Podemos, Ciudadanos and, later, Vox have emerged. But this is not the ultimate cause. The financial crisis is the catalyst for a series of much deeper structural changes that were taking place in Spanish society and that, instead of unfolding over ten or fifteen years, are concentrated in just five. What has happened in Spain is the combination of three different things: electoral law, the territorial axis of voting and demographic change. These three mechanisms are going to interact with each other and lead us to the situation in which we find ourselves.

The party system in Spain is two-dimensional. We have a left-right party axis. But we have a second axis which is the territorial axis, which begins in the 1907 elections, which are the first great electoral triumph of nationalism in Catalonia. In fact, the electoral map of Catalonia in 1907 is very similar to that of 2023. The electoral persistence in Spain is absolute.

There are five myths about the Spanish electoral system. The first myth, which is false, is the electoral predominance of electoral nationalism in Catalonia and the Basque Country as a consequence of Franco's regime, but this is not the case. In Catalonia it has been since 1907 and in the Basque Country since 1920. It is no different from the United Kingdom, with the electoral predominance of the Scottish Nationalist Party in Scotland; or Belgium, with the division between Walloon and Flemish parties. In France, nationalist parties are very small and in Portugal they are banned by law.

This existence of a two-dimensional axis means that a sensible way to summarise the results in Spain is a left-wing bloc, a right-wing bloc and a territorial bloc. In the sixteen elections we have had, the right-wing bloc began to predominate in 77 and 79. In 1982 we had the first major change, with the electoral collapse of the UCD and the enormous electoral predominance of the PSOE, which lasted fourteen years. The territorial bloc changed in 1986, when it went from 24 deputies to 35 because the remnants of the UCD in Catalonia became votes for Convergencia and in the Canary Islands they became different parties that ended up as Coalición Canaria and the like. Since 1986, the territorial bloc has been fluctuating around 35 deputies. The territorial bloc does worse in 2008 and in 2023 because the PSC does very well in Catalonia. There is a vote there that, in certain conditions, votes nationalist and, in others, votes PSC. But there is not much of a trend, the territorial vote has been practically constant since 1986.

The right-wing vote began to recover from 1993 onwards, they managed to reach hegemony in 2000 and, since then, they have gone up and down. In the territorial bloc, the Catalan part fluctuates the most. The Basque bloc is more stable. If we divide the territorial bloc into left-wing and right-wing blocs, the territorial vote starts out massively right-wing until 2019, where for the first time the territorial left overtakes the territorial right.

Until 20015, the government we have had in Spain has always reflected who has won from a sociological point of view. Pedro Sánchez is capable of forming a government in 2019, but there were more deputies from the left than from the right. Now it is 166 (left) 182 (right). If Pedro Sánchez is able to organise a government, it will be the first in the history of democracy in Spain that will not reflect the sociological majority of the country. If this is the case, it will generate tremendous underlying tensions in Spanish society, because this has never happened before. We have never had a government that did not reflect what the majority of voters thought about land law or taxes.

How did we come to this? The absolute key to our electoral system is that the constituency is the province. The electoral law establishes that each province will have a minimum of two deputies and the rest will be allocated by population. In this way, small provinces have a huge level of over-representation, for example, Teruel should have one deputy and not three. The big losers are Madrid, which should have between 48 and 49 deputies and has 37. The second is Barcelona, which should have between 37 and 38, not the 32 it has now, and the third is Valencia, which should have 18 or 19.

When we group this by autonomous communities, Madrid is under-represented by eleven deputies, Catalonia by four. The Basque Country is at its level of representation. The extra deputies go to Castilla y León, which has twelve more deputies than it should have. So the second false myth of the Spanish elections is that Catalonia and the Basque Country are over-represented in Congress, but this is not true.

If we take the votes at the level of each province and distribute them according to the d'Hont law, the third great myth about elections in Spain appears. The d'Hont law has nothing to do with it. It's all in the provincial constituency. Madrid, having 37 deputies, elects them with a practically pure proportional system and Soria elects them with a quasi-majority system. The electoral system divides Spain into two zones: into 29 provinces, plus Ceuta and Melilla, which have five deputies or less, and 21 provinces with six deputies or more, so we have a completely different electoral system in each of these two zones.

The main consequence of this is that it pushes urban-based parties ahead, for example Sumar. But if you are a small party with a strong rural base, like Vox, it doesn't affect it much. For the nationalist parties it is almost indifferent because they are strong in the four Catalan provinces and the three Basque provinces and they are where they should be. This is the fourth false myth of the Spanish elections. In the end, they have the level of representation that corresponds to their votes. There are 8% of Spaniards who vote nationalist and the nationalist parties have 8% of the deputies. We have been like this since 77.

What are the implications of this electoral system? First of all, there is a certain bias towards majorities, but it is not large enough as we would have with a majoritarian system like the UK's, or a two-round system like France's, which generate large majorities. Our system allows nationalists to achieve a degree of representation adjusted to their voters and it is a system that benefits parties with a rural base. This is no coincidence. The system was designed by Óscar Álzaga to ensure that the UCD won the '77 elections, and the big winner of the system was first the UVD and, from 1992 onwards, the Partido Popular/Alianza Popular. At the same time, the system makes it practically impossible to have a centre-liberal party with more than thirty deputies. You can aspire to set up a liberal party with fifteen MPs and be the key to government, but never to have more than thirty. Albert Rivera did not understand this.

Given that the territorial bloc ranges between 8% and 10% of the vote, the left bloc needs approximately 48% of the vote to be able to govern alone, while the right needs 45%. The rightists need less because they have the best placed voters. This worked in '77 because of electoral dispersion and fear of change. Suárez was president thanks to Galicia and Castilla y León. In 1982, Felipe González understood that the Spanish voter was, for the most part, on the moderate centre-left and, moreover, the Socialists managed to set up electoral machines in Andalusia and Catalonia. Alianza Popular/Partido Popular is an organisation that has decided that its objective is to lose elections. But Aznar becomes leader of the PP and has the idea that what a political party has to do is to win elections. He is capable of turning the PP around. Moreover, Spain is modernising in a structural way. With the creation of a prosperous middle class, Madrid, Valencia and Andalusia are beginning to turn to the right. But the fact that Madrid and Valencia are major PP vote granaries is a very recent development: in Madrid, the left won until 2000. This structural change makes the PSOE lose more and more votes in Madrid, in Valencia, making it practically impossible for the left-wing bloc to reach the 48% of votes it needs.

The structural vote of the left in Spain, when the economy is in a normal situation, the left-wing bloc would obtain 44% of the votes, the right-wing bloc would obtain 46% and the territorial bloc 10%. This is slightly different from the 45% I was telling you earlier because the right-wing vote is getting worse and worse. The right-wing bloc is dying off voters in sparsely populated provinces and is getting more voters in Madrid, but that voter is under-represented. The PSOE has a problem: it can only get to 44% unless it gets lucky with the economic cycle, so it has decided that the only way it can govern is with the Basque Country and Catalonia. That is why Zapatero supported the reform of the Catalan Statute, despite its unconstitutionality, because it must have a good result in Catalonia and must have the sympathy or strategic alliance of the nationalist parties in Catalonia and the Basque Country. The programme works very well for them because of the great strength of Madrid, which has become the PP's great source of votes. They can set the elections in Madrid against Catalonia.

In a Congress of Deputies without Catalonia, the Basque Country and Navarre, in the ten elections since 1986 the right would have won with an absolute majority in nine of them. If these three regions are removed, the right wins every time, except in 2004, because of the atendados, and even then the left wins by only one deputy. Without these regions, there is no sensible way for the PSOE to govern. This is going to get worse over time, because the PSOE gives Catalonia and the Basque Country everything they want and the others feel aggrieved. But because the left and the nationalists have put so much distance between themselves and the right in Catalonia and the Basque Country, they might even be able to govern together. So we have a structural problem because we have fourteen autonomous communities that vote differently from the other three. Now we can understand what Pedro Sánchez is doing, which is making rational decisions. The strategy of polarisation, or the structure of the Constitutional Court, are not random facts, but a consequence of our electoral system.

The emergence of Vox makes life very difficult for the PP, because before, with 44%, it won with an absolute majority and now it needs 46%. If Vox and the PP had run together in these elections, and assuming that no one had changed their vote, which is a lot to assume, the PP and Vox would have obtained 181 MPs. This is particularly true in the Basque Country and Catalonia. This means, from the PP's point of view, that appealing to the useful vote against Vox is counterproductive because every deputy it steals from it is only a reallocation of seats in the right-wing bloc, but not a gain with respect to the left-wing bloc. In fact, the PP would have been much better off if Vox had had 40 or 45 seats. This is going to be increasingly important because Vox is here to stay. Buxadé understood this very well when he said that he got rid of Espinosa de los Monteros because the electoral future of Vox is Getafe, not the Salamanca neighbourhood. So, either the PP assumes that Vox is going to be there, or it will never govern.

The result is that the Spanish elections can only have two outcomes: either the PP plays its electoral trump cards right and the right-wing bloc gets 46% of the votes, or the PSOE governs with everyone else. If we go to a repeat election in January, either the PP does better, or we go back to the coalition of all against the PP.

Could we change the electoral law? This is neither here nor expected. Since the big winner of the system is the PP, any reform of the system will benefit the left, so the PP will say no. Moreover, any kind of minimally sensible electoral reform does not have much of a chance, because the nationalists will stay the same. The only effect it would have is that Sumar would enter Castilla y León, strengthening the left. A majority system means that the nationalist parties get everything in the Basque Country and Catalonia. A majority bonus, as in Greece, would lead to the creation of a Popular Front.

The fifth great false myth about elections in Spain is that open lists will solve the problem. No, open lists will not solve anything. The empirical evidence is that open lists are irrelevant or detrimental to the system.

What could happen? The first is the disappearance of Vox and that the PP manages to regroup the total right-wing vote in Spain. The probability of this scenario is 5% because, if there are immigrants, there will be a far-right party. A second possibility is that the PSOE goes too far, leading to a number of long-time PSOE voters saying that this is as far as we have come, leading to the collapse of the PSOE in the Basque Country and Catalonia. The probability is 30%.

The third possibility is the creation of a Catalan Vox, with the same vision but pro-independence. The small germs of such parties have already done very well in the municipalities in Catalonia. It is very difficult for the PSOE to reach an agreement with a Catalan Vox. In the next ten years, Catalan politics will change a lot because of the existence of an extreme right-wing Catalanist party.

The next possibility is the emergence of a Jacobin left-wing party. Very anti-market, very interventionist, but Jacobin. There is an opportunity there. A new centre party is practically impossible, because there is no space because of the electoral law and demographic change. Could there be a shift from the PNV or the Catalan right to Vox? It is unlikely, but it could happen. Finally, that the PP learns to play the game has a probability of 15%.

In this scenario, Pedro Sánchez is not the cause but the result. Any other PSOE leader has no choice but to sit down with Junts and ERC. This means that, if the PSOE mounts this, or the PP is able to govern in a strange way, there will be no reforms, because everyone will be more concerned about not having a motion of censure than about making reforms. Perhaps the best way out is for the PP to learn to play this game, to sit down and look at the electoral map of Spain and to be able to have an electoral majority that allows it to undertake reforms.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for the comments, opinions or statements made by the people who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their sole responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio González, are the result of the debates held at the meeting held for this purpose at the Foundation and are the responsibility of the authors.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for any comments, opinions or statements made by third parties. In this respect, the FRP is not obliged to monitor the views expressed by such third parties who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their own responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio J. González, are the result of the discussions that took place during the conference organised for this purpose at the Foundation and are the sole responsibility of its authors.