Manuel Arias Maldonado

Parties Versus Voters

"It goes without saying that the transformation of the party system has very much complicated the life of the Spanish voter"

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Parties Versus Voters
Manuel Arias Maldonado

Manuel Arias Maldonado

Profesor de Ciencia Política en la Universidad de Málaga y colaborador habitual en prensa y medios culturales.

In view of the political events of last week, and even of those yet to come, it is fair to ask oneself: what are we voting for when we vote? It is not easy to answer this question. Naturally, we are voting for a political party that has a national leader and professes certain principles or represents a specific ideological orientation. In our country, in particular, we vote for a closed list of candidates in regional and autonomic elections. But to decide what (how) one wants to vote is a more difficult operation than it appears. Except for those voters who support the same party, no matter what, again and again, the rest of the voters have to think the matter over every time.

Historically, the electoral system constrained our system of parties in such a way that the task was not so very difficult: one chose from among two or three parties and  circumscription only became an obstacle for those who wanted to vote for the left and had to settle for — as a useful vote— the social democrats. Only in the provinces with the biggest populations, where there are more seats to decide, could and can the voter enjoy the luxury forbidden the rest: of voting for an Errejón [leader of Más País], a PACMA [Animalist Party Against the Mistreatment of Animals]. This, incidentally, suggests that while it is true that a voter in Madrid has less impact on results than a voter in Soria (because a seat from Soria is made with far fewer votes than a seat from Madrid), that same voter enjoys other advantages that are no mean thing (he or she can choose more freely who to vote for, without falling into the trap of the useful vote).

It goes without saying that the transformation of the party system, brought about by the economic crisis —and which the electoral system, despite its detractors, has not prevented—, has very much complicated the life of the Spanish voter. The difficulty of knowing in advance what the possible combinations are in our parliaments, especially in the national one, makes it very hard to anticípate the effects of choosing one party over another, and going simply by the polls. In the best possible case, the voter will have to go through a preventive exercise in skepticism and cast his or her vote in the wish that it will bring about the effects desired, without any hope that it actually will. It is a lot to ask, clearly; turning the “feast day” of democracy into a calculation of probabilities is enough to discourage anyone.

To all the above one has to add that the vote is, of necessity, a simplification of the voter’s preferences, opinions and even emotions. You have to choose acronyms or go by leaders; you can´t choose those aspects of the electoral platform—speaking in a broad sense —that you like the best and rule out the ones that bother you or give you pause. And the same thing happens with accountabilities: there will always be someone who deplores some of the socialist government’s decisions but who cannot punish them without rewarding their rivals and who therefore declines to do so. It gets to where it is necessary to mull over which combination of policies seems most satisfactory, given one’s own preferences and the existing context. 

Well, what has happened this week confirms me in thinking that the voter cannot even be certain that the most elementary of a party’s promises are going to be kept. There is no doubt that Pedro Sánchez has started a trend: not content with putting together a no-confidence vote with the parties that had just had a starring role in the procés, he proceeded to reach an agreement for a coalition with the same party (Podemos), with which he had said he would never enter into a formal agreement, and he even rehabilitated another party (Bildu) that he had forsworn in the firmest of terms. In the middle of it all, a million Ciudadanos voters left the party after their leader Rivera kept his promise not to make Sánchez president, thus discouraging —what can I say?—   politicians in general from keeping their word. Now the new leadership in the same party has backtracked and threatened, without success, to turn more to the left. And one would still have to add Pablo Casado to this list, who won his party’s primaries with a speech that promised to wage cultural war on the left and who then concentrated on breaking with Vox, without anyone knowing for certain what path he will take from now on, and I am not forgetting Pablo Iglesias, either, who railed against the privileges of the political class before he came to enjoy those privileges and to distribute them among his own.

This process of erosion —a general one— of the credibility that political parties had left has one evident effect: it is impossible to know what one is voting for. Much less where one’s vote is going to end up. For those who consider themeselves realists, this conclusion seems naive: ideological polarization is the only response to a world whose rules have changed; long live the tribe, down with the center. They are right in one respect: cherished dreams cannot substitute for reality. But there are others who will not accept the blackmail to which they are subjected by a kind of politics of the gambling den; many will feel that the political class is moving in a self-referential sphere, where citizens’ interests are only good for making speeches. Thus it would be no wonder if abstention grew and Spanish politics became italianized, precisely now that Italy is trying —once again— to climb out of a long morass. By italianize is meant, here, a gradual disconnection between politics and society. It so happens that this disconnection grows very difficult in societies with little civil strength and a grave dependence on parties; if the latter colonize the former, as they like to do, the problem could become worse. It may be that none of this will come about, of course. But it won´t be because the conditions have not been created for us to enter into a long winter of discontent. Even if some people keep on smiling

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