Spain's Democracy Needs a Makeover

Spain's two establishment parties and the Royal Family will have to open themselves up to greater citizen participation and transparency—if they want to keep their credibility and authority.

Spaniards are angry. Their anger was evident in the European election results in which voters embraced new political parties and gave a slap in the face to the two established ones. The ensuing revolt inside the socialist party (PSOE) over the selection process for its next leader was quickly eclipsed by the antimonarchy protests in reaction to the king's abdication announcement. The economic crisis and continuing corruption play on in the background, making it easy to see why Spanish citizens are getting whiplash from directing and redirecting their outrage.

Don't panic: there is a common thread here—a lack of democracy and transparency in Spain's institutions. Any casual follower of Spanish history understands that it's a young democracy, which transitioned from a dictatorship, could be looked at as a model for others to follow. However, just shy of forty years old, Spain's democracy has outlasted its thirty-six-year dictatorship, only to find itself facing a midlife crisis.

Transition and the Constitution

Spain's constitution was written with the violent failure of the Second Republic in the rearview mirror, so it's easy to understand why one of its biggest objectives was stability. The monarchy and an election system that favored two political parties were purposefully put in place to generate desired stability.

The three critical figures of the Spanish transition were King Juan Carlos; Adolfo Suarez, the King's appointee as president of Spain's constituent congress, who also led the conservative coalition Union of the Democratic Center (UCD) to victory in the first election in 1977; and Felipe Gonzalez, leader of the PSOE. It was this alliance that eased Spain into a stable democracy thanks to a willingness to keep things moderate as they moved forward. The king put his faith in Suarez, the young former minister in the Franco government who believed in Spain's budding democracy. Suarez famously and controversially legalized the communist party, and the Gonzalez-led PSOE abstained, rather than voted against establishing Spain as a constitutional monarchy.

Many world leaders are reluctant to change the systems in which they have been successful, and Spain is no exception. In fact, leaders often equate altering the constitution with opening up a “Pandora's Box”. But talk to college students, professionals or retired individuals, and you'll be confronted with a seething cynicism concerning politics and government. It's a sign that Spain's democracy is maturing when its people are start demanding more democracy through growing social and political movements.

Rejection of Establishment Parties

Spanish headlines hailed the “end of bipartisanship” after the European Parliament elections, which took place in Spain on May 25 and gave an unprecedented five of Spain’s fifty-four seats to a four-month-old political party called Podemos (We Can). Their leader, Pablo Iglesias, pledged that "Our goal is to continue advancing until we’ve thrown out the PP (governing right of center Popular Party that occupies the ideological space of the UCD, which disbanded in 1983) and PSOE (opposition Socialist Party).” Bipartisanship is a dirty word in Spain. It implies a political system dominated by two parties that work together to preserve the status quo.

It's hard to tell if this is truly the end of bipartisanship, since voter turnout topped the 2009 turnout by only 1 percent for an unimpressive total of 45.85 percent (compared with general-election turnout, which usually hovers around 70 percent). Those who voted used their votes less as a tool to shape the European Parliament and more as a stick with which to beat the establishment parties. Besides Podemos winning five seats, another relatively new party, the centrist Union for Progress and Democracy (UPyD) expanded their presence in the Eurocamera from one to four seats.

What Podemos and UPyD have in common is that unlike the establishment parties, they are bottom-up institutions with structures reflecting real participation from their base of supporters. Both out of necessity and conviction, these parties have developed from the ground up, tapping into a real desire among the Spanish people for more participation in political processes, such as holding primaries to select candidates.

New parties don't get much in the way of public financing and must turn to their supporters for what little they receive, then make the most of it by relying on their volunteer “ground game.” The conservative PP has a very loyal voter base, and doesn't have any real competition from parties on the right. However, the PSOE, like many left-leaning parties, has a fickle base of voters and a tremendous amount of competition. Nonetheless, both parties have remained top-down institutions, and as an internal PSOE pollster once quipped, are “rejection machines” when it comes to citizen participation. It's easy to see why Spanish citizens would find these newer, more-open parties attractive.