OPINION
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Parties and democracy

When Franco died and our transition to democracy began, political parties existed only in a fragile form, withered by half a century of clandestine existence

My impression is that more and more people are reaching agreement on one essential proposition: that this country's big problem is not the politicians, but the political parties, and their absolute rule over public life. Spain is, in part, an insufficient and weak democracy because it is a regime of party rule.

When Franco died and our transition to democracy began, political parties existed only in a fragile form, withered by half a century of clandestine existence. So, among those who hammered out the 1978 Constitution, one capital concern was to create strong political parties. These are the only reasonable channel for popular aspirations; there can be no democracy without them. So went the reasoning.

But in the 1980s, as democracy settled into place and Spain began a cycle of prosperity that for more than two decades looked as if it would never end, the parties, which were meant to be channels, burst their banks and began to inundate everything, saturating the courts, the savings banks, the stock market regulating commission, the audit court, the financing of the parties themselves and of the unions, and an infinity of other public and quasi-public agencies, weaving a web aimed at absolute social control, and passing laws that further tended to weave the same asphyxiating mesh. This is the problem: incapable of setting limits to their congenital voracity for power, the political parties came to colonize everything in sight.

This is the problem, or part of the problem. In 35 years of democracy, the parties have not only become nests of corruption, but closed clubs that function in an undemocratic manner, dominated by iron leaderships, which foment servility among their membership, banish competition and punish dissidence.

How are such parties going to perform the function they were created for? How can they be interpreters of public problems, and not mere ladders for climbers? How can they attract competent, generous people, and not hacks and parasites? How can they avoid being remote, alien organizations, regarded with resignation and contempt by the average citizen?

Part of the undoubted, if relative and perhaps even ephemeral success of UPyD was rooted in this: being a new party, free of the pachydermic inertia of the old ones, it has attracted a sort of people who, otherwise, only after long service and patient effort could have got into politics, and in that it gives voice to fresh concerns, some of them quite reasonable, which in other parties are kept under wraps. Part of the success of the May 15 protest movement, or of what is left of it, also lies in that it attempted to tear the seams of the party regime, not those of democracy - as claimed by those who could not be bothered to ask what the movement was, and have now started making a bogeyman of it. What they want is to make our democracy less insufficient, less weak, more real - an element of hope, and not of frustration.

How are such parties going to perform the function they were created for? How can they be interpreters of public problems, and not mere ladders for climbers?

So this is where we stand. And the problem - the worst problem of all - is the fact that the parties are at the same time the problem and the solution. Only the parties can change this party regime into a real democracy by setting limits to their own power, financing themselves in a clean and reasonable manner, democratizing their internal governance, castigating corruption, sectarianism and servility, opening their closed gates to the citizens, and giving prominence to the best and not the worst. All this, of course, is very difficult, but the political parties have to be aware that what is at stake here is, quite simply, the trust the public feels in democracy. And they must also know that - if I may rehash Chesterton's dictum about God - when you cease to believe in democracy, you can end up believing in just about anything at all.

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