That’s what happened in Spain, where no group of parties has been able to form a governing coalition since elections were last held on December 20. A desperate King Felipe VI has dissolved parliament and called for a new election on June 26.
But the bitterness among the minor parties (especially the various socialist factions) is so great, and ideological positions so firmly held, there’s little expectation the new election will break the deadlock.
Something similar has happened in Ireland, where the proportional representation system is so complex it can take weeks just to work out how many parliamentary seats each party has won. There was no clear winner in the February elections and it wasn’t until the end of April that the two main parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, were able to set aside their history of intense rivalry and reach an agreement. There will be a ‘political ceasefire’ and Fine Gael will form a minority government that will remain in power until a review of the agreement in September 2018.
It’s Belgium, however, that currently holds the title for the longest span without being able to form a government following an election based on PR. Belgium went without a government for 589 days after the June 2010 election; a viable coalition was finally formed in December 2011. The months in between saw a rancorous — and frequently racist — shouting match between the Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north and the French-speaking Walloons in the south. Compromise was forced when the country’s borrowing stood as high as its gross domestic product.
Yet Spain’s experience over the last six months suggests that Canadians shouldn’t be spooked into dismissing PR out of hand. Not having a government can be a good thing — in the short term, at least.
After a long recession, the Spanish economy started rebuilding in 2014; last year the economy grew by 3.2 per cent, one of the strongest showings among European Union countries that use the euro. Of course, Spain has still accumulated debt and faces a challenge in keeping the deficit below the ceiling mandated by Brussels: three per cent of gross domestic product. But its overall direction is positive.
And that growth has continued despite Spain having only a caretaker government. Spain’s National Statistics Institute reported that in the first quarter the economy grew by 0.8 per cent, or at an annualized rate of 3.2 per cent — the same as last year.
This growth has been generated almost entirely by the private sector, which makes up about 80 per cent of the Spanish economy. In Spain, government accounts for about 19 per cent of GDP — in Canada it’s 21.1 per cent. While the caretaker administration has kept the wheels of government turning, it has no power to launch new economic initiatives.
The benefits of an inactive government are likely to be short-lived, however. Madrid officials are predicting that growth will tail off to 2.7 per cent over the full course of this year and 2.4 per cent in 2017 as the fears of political instability bite.
Spain is a useful study for Canada because it too has strong regional identities and active separatist movements in Catalonia and the Basque country. Canada already has experienced the separatist Bloc Québécois as its official opposition in Ottawa from 1993 to 1997, so Spain’s factionalized federal politics is not so strange to us.
What’s happening in Spain right now is fallout from the lasting recession and mounting government debt that swept across southern Europe in the wake of the 2008-2009 global economic crisis.
In the 2011 election, Spanish voters opted for austerity as the way to get their house in order and elected the centre-right Popular Party (PP) of Mariano Rajoy, who became prime minister. But the rigors of austerity quickly palled, and in last December’s election Spanish voters looked for a more comfortable way out of the country’s troubles.
The defining response of the voters was to abandon the two main parties, the PP and the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), which had dominated Spanish politics despite the PR system.
In the 2011 election, these two dominant parties won a combined 73.3 per cent of the vote. But in December’s election their combined vote share had dropped to 50.7 per cent as voters fled to minor parties. Now, Spain’s political landscape is populated by a host of smaller parties, either regionally-based or appealing to ideological niche markets. Players include Catalan centrist nationalists, a coalition of Spain’s communist parties called the United Left (IU), Radical Basque nationalists, the Basque Nationalist Party and a slew of others.
It’s easy to imagine something similar happening in Canada under a proportional representation system in the event voters turn their backs on the main parties — as they’ve done now and then, even in recent history.
In Spain, the big winners from voters’ disdain for the PP and PSOE are: the anti-austerity party United We Can, known as Podemos, which saw its vote share rise from seven per cent in 2011 to nearly 21 per cent in the last election; and the liberal Citizens Party, which is not far behind.
Podemos sees the coming June 26 election as its breakout opportunity. It is busy trying to moderate its image and forge alliances. In the last few days Podemos has crafted a coalition with the communist United Left (IU), but polls show this alliance still doesn’t have enough voter support to form a majority government.
It’s also uncertain how sustainable the alliance is. Podemos is busy jettisoning some of its most radical positions in the hope of broadening its voter appeal. IU, in contrast, is holding fast to some of its key doctrines: getting Spain out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, abolishing the monarchy and completing the separation of church and state.
Polls show that since December, support for Podemos has slipped while backing for IU is on the rise — which illustrates the cantankerous mood Spaniards are in.
With nearly a month to go before the June 26 election, there’s still time for the mud to settle and a clear result to emerge. But at the moment, the most likely outcome is something similar to the December election — with no party able to construct a governing coalition, and no replacement for Spain’s inactive caretaker government.
Author: Jonathan Manthorpe