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El Bipartidismo ha Muerto: What Spain Can Teach Us About Disrupting Two-Party Politics

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Since the end of the Franco dictatorship in the mid 1970s, Spanish national politics has largely been dominated by two political parties: the conservative People’s Party (PP) and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). Yet that all changed after the general election on December 20, 2015, when two relatively new parties – the left-wing, anti-austerity Podemos (We Can) and the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) – collectively received a quarter of the votes.

Since the current ruling party, the PP, led by Prime Minster Mariano Rajoy, won only 123 seats in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies, it fell well short of the 176-seat majority needed to stay in power. Now, the political parties have begun talks trying to assemble a governing coalition.

The PP would like to ally with Ciudadanos, but since the latter received only 40 seats, together, the parties would need the support of some of the smaller regional parties in order to form a majority – a difficult task given that the largest regional party, representing Catalonia, supports that region’s independence from Spain.

There is also the possibility of left-wing coalition comprised of the PSOE, which won 90 seats, and Podemos, which won 69 seats, but since the latter supports holding a referendum on Catalonian independence, it is not a natural partner for any of the three major parties, which prefer maintaining national unity.

A third possibility is the formation of a PP-PSOE “grand coalition,” but given the animosity between PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez and PM Rajoy, this alliance seems unlikely. In short, it may take weeks – and perhaps another election in the spring – before a new government is formed.

Despite this uncertainty, it is still possible to draw some analogies between contemporary Spanish and American politics, and even to extract some lessons from the recent election about how to disrupt a seemingly entrenched two-party system.

At first, it may seem unjustified to compare the two countries: seats in Spain’s lower house are allocated on the basis of proportional representation in accordance with the outcome of elections in 50 multimember districts, whereas the United States uses the plurality voting method in single-member districts to determine the composition of the House. Nevertheless, there are significant political and economic similarities between the two countries.

Economically, Spain – much like the United States – is still recovering from the Great Recession. There, unemployment reached as high as 27 percent following the crash in 2008, and today it hovers around 20 percent. While there has been growth in recent years, and growth is forecasted for 2016, discontent with the government’s handling of the economy is still high – especially among Spanish youth, for whom employment is nearly 50 percent.

Also, politically, there is waning trust among the public for the political establishment, as the PP and PSOE have been embroiled in corruption scandals in recent years.

It is under these economic and political conditions that – much like in the United States – populist movements and candidates on the left and right have thrived. Podemos indicates that its goal is to move beyond “left” and “right” and instead seeks to empower those from “below” in order to challenge those “above.” Ciudadanos also expressed its anti-establishment bona fides when its leader Albert Rivera stated his reluctance to form a coalition with the PP or PSOE because they “represent a way of doing politics from the past.”

But what most separates the Spanish from the American situation is the decision by the populist movements in Spain to organize and mobilize voters outside the two major parties.

Podemos, for instance, is an outgrowth of the Occupy Wall Street-like indignados protest movement that began in 2011. Though Podemos was created only in 2014, it has already won more than 100 seats in regional parliaments and seated mayors in Barcelona and Madrid.

Likewise, Ciudadanos was founded in 2006 at first to challenge Catalonian nationalism, but later expanded its platform, made anti-corruption a central message, and spread its reach across Spain. In 13 regional elections in 2015, it won over enough PP supporters to deprive the PP of an outright majority in eight of them.

Also in contrast to the United States, Spanish voters in the latest general election showed that they were no longer willing to be persuaded – despite efforts by the PP and PSOE – to succumb to the logic of the “wasted vote” and support “the lesser of two evils.”

For example, the PP’s campaign director, Jorge Moregas, tried to portray the youthful leader of Ciudadanos, Albert Rivera, as inexperienced and incompetent, and he warned that supporting the insurgent party would empower the left-wing opposition. Similarly, a former PSOE official tried to discredit Podemos by implying that it was a “neocommunist” force, and another leading PSOE figure accused Pablo Iglesias’ party of naively offering “incoherent and unrealisable” proposals.

Despite these caveats, many Spanish voters have evidently decided that they have had enough of their two-party system. Rather than work within the two major parties, populists have, through persistent organization and mobilization, created legitimate alternatives to the PP and PSOE.

In the United States, where populist movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street and the popularity of “outsider” presidential candidates have shown that many Americans are dissatisfied with establishment politics, it is worth exploring if, when, and how they will be able to join Spaniards in exclaiming, “El bipartidismo ha muerto” – “The two-party system is dead.”

Photo Credit: Natursports / Shutterstock.com

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42 comments
Maureen Tate
Maureen Tate

I hope they will vote for Bernie Sanders, he's the only honest candidate running, he will do more for the working class than any of the others. Please check him out.

Anna Terry
Anna Terry

This is USA we don't allow that here if you don't want to abide by our way of doing things GET OUT

Adam Evans
Adam Evans

I'm from the UK and we have the same problem with our two parties. However in the US that problem is so deeply entrenched in American politics that other parties have no chance whatsoever of breaking through the system and actually gaining representation for themselves. The problem is similar over here in the UK with Labour and the Conservatives, however there are other parties that have managed gain some if only very few seats in Parliament. Everyone knows of all the parties on offer over here: Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Green, UKIP And regional parties like: Scottish National Party (SNP) Plaid Cymru (The Party of Wales). While the two main parties get the vast majority of media coverage over here, other parties are allowed a foot in the spotlight sometimes. In America however, there is virtually no coverage whatsoever of any other parties and so the public is left with a choice of only two candidates from two monolithic juggernaut parties. People with different views have to scramble into either the Democrats or Republicans to throw their voice on the pile in the hope that somehow their views will gain traction at some point. Bernie Sanders, the guy sounds great and I think he's the best choice out of all the candidates that the two big parties offer. However I don't think he'll change a great deal in America due to the sheer odds against him within the deeper American Establishment. The same goes over here for the current Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn who's basically Britain's Beenie Sanders if you like albeit a fair bit more left-wing. The odds against him are too great for him alone. If our countries electoral systems are ever to become democratic then there needs to be a mass movement of people from the bottom up. Not some Red Soviet style revolution mind you but a movement of mass mobilisation in that people will actually become engaged and talk about politics and understand the system better. The current situation is that people just don't care because they are totally disillusioned with it all. It flys right over their heads because the system is so out of touch to them. Get people engaged and talking about it and slowly things will begin to change. It may take years and most probably decades but eventually once people start to realise that they are the ones that can change the system and start understanding the language in which the politicians use in order to erode their rights then they can begin to change things for the better. Slow it will be but I don't think it's impossible.

Edward Renner
Edward Renner

This is what America needs! Coalitions will insure more people are represented by government. Parties will also be forced to consider the people when more choices are offered the people.

Jeanne Acosta-Caipe
Jeanne Acosta-Caipe

Debra Goudy I'm looking at this site and I don't see anything detrimental to Bernie. Could you be more specific and cite what you find negative about him? Thanks.

Debra Goudy
Debra Goudy

Bernie Sanders was a terrible mayor and has been a politician in washington for 26 years, he is part of the problem. The political parties control their own election laws neither party wants "clean elections" they are all bought and paid for, even Bernie. opensecrets.org

Jeanne Acosta-Caipe
Jeanne Acosta-Caipe

Not this election please. We need Bernie to help set up a clean election system. No republican will do that. Please help build the foundation for this clen-up by voting for Bernie and select dems in 2016?

Susan Zeller
Susan Zeller

A majority of Americans have had it with our two party system as there is no difference between them anymore. They are both Socialist Liberals supporting Obama's policies to establish Socialism, remove our Democratic values. We have seen this, barely are surviving it and believe me Hillary will offer more of the same!\U0001f44e\U0001f3fb\U0001f624 We need to keep raising up good Conservative candidates. A great site to under all these ideologies and why progressive democratic socialism is a FAILURE in Denmark can be found at www.manipulism.com. Firsthand facts from a Danish author and former Socialist. Finally someone who knows what he is talking about!

Ray Leghart
Ray Leghart

Elimination of Congressional districts and moving to state wide election of US Representatives would be a good start to breaking the stranglehold of the two big parties. Even if gerrymandering were stopped, the districts marginalize alternative parties. In Massachusetts with 9 reps, I'm sure that at least 10% of the population support a party other than the big 2, but the chances of having enough of those voters in a single district are pretty slim. In a state wide vote, they'd be able to elect a candidate of their choice.

Henry Thienes
Henry Thienes

It is easier there as they have a Parliamentary System more like England.

Dave Chia
Dave Chia

Love this. If we can replace the taxpayer funded primaries of the privately-owned RNC & DNC with Ranked Choice Voting, we can effectively kill the two party system in America. Until then, we may have to do it one city at a time with Represent.Us The revolution is coming #FightBigMoney #FixDemocracyFirst #GetMoneyOut #FeelTheBern

Dave Chia
Dave Chia

If everyone like Sarah (voluntarily) leaves this country, it would be a much better place.

Charles Heyman
Charles Heyman

Totally agree and suggest you look at this alternative...CHIRP www.facebook.com/CHIRP2016

Nathan Martin
Nathan Martin

Trump would have been more profitable (and added more value to the US) if he'd invested his dad's money in stocks of productive companies that actually create things from raw materials. Instead, he spends it on casinos and other things that only extract value from other people and redistribute wealth into his accounts. He's a "rent seeker".-- Also, look him up in all the fact checkers. He is a good talker and bluffer, which has helped him cut business deals that he profits from, but he's not good at compromising or forming peaceful arrangements with foreign countries... which is what the POTUS must do. He's too competitive, prideful, and head-strong.

Steve Waugh
Steve Waugh

Great idea, but who would bankroll that here?

Ben Hardin
Ben Hardin

I read comments until now before reading the article and would not have guessed from the comments that Spain is a mess. Thankfully we don't have a parliamentary system in which exactly the same mess could develop. Parliamentary systems are about parties. My hope for American is that we can become less about parties and more about each candidate being pledged to his/her own platform rather than a party platform. Comparisons drawn between the U.S. and Spain are generally weak. One thing about Spain’s situation that I think is good is existence of multi-member districts which in the U.S. would help minimize possibility of gerrymandering effects. Gerrymandering discourages legislators from considering issues in a nonpartisan fashion; rather it makes candidates tend to pander to extreme ideologies while in the primary season. In the U.S., legislators would soon look more objectively at issues if: 1. Redistricting commissions were comprised of members chosen on a nonpartisan rather than faux bipartisan basis. 2. Congressional districts in most States were at-large or multi-seat districts with generally five seats per district. 3. An approval type voting method were in place. 4. Primaries were nonpartisan so independents as well as partisans could participate to choose not just the top 2 or 3 candidates for the general election but the top several. 5. Congressional committees were revamped so that appointment to the committees is determined by consensus of all congresspersons not vying for a particular appointment. 6. The Speaker of the House were elected through a nonpartisan process by the general electorate in presidential election years.

Julie Schulman DeLuca
Julie Schulman DeLuca

Our government doesn't work. Our country is broken by corrupt politicians. Give Trump a try‼️ Bill Clinton lied as president to the entire world... Obama lies about everything... Hillary lies also about everything. I'm giving Donald Trump a businessman a chance...he knows how this lying, corrupt government works. With $18 trillion in debt we need someone like him‼️

Ben Hardin
Ben Hardin

Voters, including me, will vote more honestly than tactically when we have an approval plus grade voting system. Reference: July 6 posting on the FB page Electoral Reform for a More Favorable Congress.

Debby Wood
Debby Wood

good idea, I hate that there are basically only 2 parties and that everyone thinks they can't vote for someone not in those parties "because they can't win and it is a wasted vote" People we need to vote for who is best for the job not just who we think will win.

Loren Strait
Loren Strait

I truly hope that this change may be coming to the USA.

Peter Specht
Peter Specht

We will get there. As Churchill said, "you can always count on the Americans to do the right thing.........after they try everything else."

Susan Koerling
Susan Koerling

Sarah, you are ridiculous even saying that anyone who disagrees should leave, I disagree with you and still don't demand that you leave, grow up, that's what our system is supposed to do, let others have an opinion, force the ole brain cells to see more than one point of view. We have more than 2 parties and it's far past time to level the playing field. You may not agree but I won't kick you out. LOL

Sarah Owens Betar
Sarah Owens Betar

Ken MacPike it has worked well for 200+ years...unfortunately, since the socialist/commies took over one party, all hell has broken loose...we will fix it...vote for Trump...oust those moronic far left socialists

Ken MacPike
Ken MacPike

Umm Sarah... "There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our constitution." John Adams

Ken MacPike
Ken MacPike

"There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our constitution." John Adams

AJ Westfall Sr.
AJ Westfall Sr.

Our system was created for the betterment of America at the time. However, both of those 2 Parties have figured out how to missuse it and destroy America. It's time that something is done to correct what is Broken!!

Sarah Owens Betar
Sarah Owens Betar

we are not from the latin countries...we have our own system....if you don't like it ...leave

Jim Allen
Jim Allen

Our plutocracts have a stranglehold on our political process. Bernie Sanders, and his coattails may be our last hope for many years to come, if not our actual last hope.

samb
samb

More than the difference between the political systems, I think the cultural differences between spain and the US make it a difficult line to draw between the two countries. 

Jeff Marston
Jeff Marston

Interesting.  It also gets to the question of where independent voters fit in?  To influence existing parties--including current minor parties, or create new ones?

leonT
leonT

Interesting article. What happens in the meantime when the parties are figuring out coalition governments?