Room for improvement in Spain's voting system

The Spanish model has provided political stability but harms minorities and creates an imbalance

The one thing that the myriad special interest groups that make up the Real Democracy Now! protest movement agree on above all else is that Spain's main political parties are increasingly out of touch with the realities of most people's lives, and that voting has become little more than an exercise that allows the Socialists and Popular Party to alternate in government and horse trade over placing their appointees in the institutions of the state. Among the key points outlined in the document published by the 15-M movement on May 25, from its protest camp in Madrid's Puerta del Sol square, is "electoral reform to create a more representative and proportionate system."

There may not be much consensus or clarity over the movement's other demands, but electoral reform is something that many Spaniards have long supported. A recent survey by Catalan daily El Periódico de Catalunya showed that 73.7 percent of those questioned - from across the political spectrum - supported changes to the electoral system in favor of proportional representation.

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The system whereby deputies are elected to Congress was the most criticized, with two main complaints: that votes carry different weight depending on where they are deposited, and that smaller parties are not properly represented at national level. For example, the United Left garnered just two seats in Congress despite winning more votes than the Catalan nationalist CiU, which sent 10 deputies to the national parliament. When the system was set up, the idea was to give a voice to the country's regions. But does it really make sense that a vote in Soria is worth five in Madrid?

So if the system's faults are so evident, and there is such broad agreement that something is wrong, why not change things? As José Ramón Montero, a professor of political science at Madrid's Autónoma University, explains: "We want it both ways. People ask for greater proportionality between votes and seats in parliament, but we also want single-party governments rather than coalitions, and we don't like fragmented parliaments. You can't have everything." Over the last three decades most of Spain's governments have served out their four-year terms.

Spain's current voting system has its roots in legislation passed in the first few years after the death of former dictator General Francisco Franco. It follows the French D'Hont system, whereby each province, regardless of its size, has a minimum of two deputies.

The D'Hont system works on the principal of a highest averages method for allocating seats in party-list proportional representation. The total votes cast for each party in the electoral district is divided, first by one, then by two, then three, then four, then five, right up to the total number of seats to be allocated for the constituency. If the district contains eight seats, the highest eight numbers are chosen from all the numbers resulting from the divisions. The parties under which each of these eight highest numbers was produced gets the seat.

Broadly speaking, as in France, the system favors the large parties, and gives greater representation to rural areas over cities. The Socialist Party initially criticized the system, until it won a landslide in the 1982 general elections, and worked out how to use it to gain absolute majority governments.

This raises the question as to why a law passed prior to the approval of the Constitution, and put together in the context of a very different political reality to today's, is still being used. In large part, say its supporters, because it still largely works. More to the point, changing the system would not be easy. Montero, along with political scientist Pedro Riera of the University of San Diego, was asked to contribute to a report prepared by the Council of State three years ago on reforming the electoral system. The report looked into increasing proportionality without modifying the Constitution, reducing the number of deputies in rural areas, raising the number of seats from 350 to 400, and replacing the D'Hont system. The outcome would be a more fragmented Congress, but one where deputies would be better represented by the number of votes they received overall.

The Council of State recommended the changes, although Montero and Riera pointed out there was little chance of them being implemented, given that the two main parties, the Socialists and the Popular Party, had little to gain from doing so. They were right. A series of sub-committees was set up, and minor changes were implemented.

The story of the United Left party illustrates how the current system works against smaller parties. In the general elections of 2008, with 3.7 percent of the vote, it won just two seats in parliament. It is also true that in 1996, it put 21 deputies in Congress based on the same rules, although as the party's Ramón Luque points out, with a more proportional system, it would have won 39 seats. United Left wants to see the Council of State's proposals introduced, which would give it 3.5 percent of the seats in Congress, around 14.

But Spain's newest political party, the centrist UPyD, (Union, Progress and Democracy), set up in 2007 by former Socialist Party member Rosa Díez in large part to campaign against the power that regional parties wield, says that broader, deeper, changes are needed.

Party spokesman David Ortega says that the problem lies in the Constitution, which talks about "proportionality" at the same time as giving rural areas disproportionate representation. UPyD wants Constitutional change that would measure electoral support at the regional rather than provincial level. The party managed one seat in Congress in the last general elections; under a proportional system it would have won four, based on its 1.2 percent of the vote. Ortega says that a change to the law would encourage voters to support smaller parties. He sees two approaches to changing the law: pressure through organizations such as Real Democracy Now!, backed by smaller parties, that can sometimes be kingmakers at local level, allowing them to exercise leverage over the bigger parties at national level.

Another aspect of Spain's voting system that three-quarters of the population want changed is the way that candidates are put forward for election. Under the current system each party produces a list, equivalent to the number of seats available on the council, plus a few spares. Voters do not choose individuals, but the party.

The Council of State has recommended the move toward a more open system, "which would make voters feel they were part of the process." At the same time, it rejects changes that would "complicate the working of the Chamber."

Electoral reform is not a black-and-white issue, but one with many shades of grey. Under the auspices of the 15-M movement, a group of political scientists in favor of change have put together a short guide on electoral reform and the pros and cons of each model.

"The idea wasn't to propose reform, but to look at what each option involves," says Eva Anduiza, a lecturer in political science at the Barcelona Autónoma University, and one of the authors of the guide. "People are aware of the discrepancies between their vote and the number of seats a party wins in Congress, but they don't fully understand what needs to be done to make the system more representative," she says.

Anduiza doubts that major changes can be made to the current voting system, pointing out that the major parties are its beneficiaries, and they have no interest in reducing their presence in Congress, the Senate or regional parliaments - much less in the way that they put together their candidate lists.

The 15-M movement has hit on a subject that is clearly of interest to the electorate; the question now is how voters can push for a change to a system that most believe does not represent them.

A poster at the 15-M protests. "Your vote is their profit," it reads.
A poster at the 15-M protests. "Your vote is their profit," it reads.SAMUEL SÁNCHEZ
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