democracy health check

More than a number? Spain’s deputies submit to discipline

Selected via closed lists and mostly anonymous to the electorate, politicians are steadfastly loyal, held in check by parliamentary groups and rarely daring to question the party line

Deputies voting electronically in Congress.
Deputies voting electronically in Congress.ULY MARTÍN

The debate on Spain's system of closed electoral lists, which excludes the electorate from having any influence over which of a given party's candidates will be their representatives at local, regional, or national level, has once again come to the fore after 13 Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) members of Congress broke ranks last week with the national Socialist Party (PSOE), voting in favor of the Catalan nationalist bloc CiU's motion to support plans for an independence referendum in the region.

The Constitutional Court ruled in 1983 that elected representatives are free to vote in Congress as their conscience dictates, rather than having to follow the party's official policy. But those who do not toe the party line know that their political survival is at stake, making party discipline and the practice of aligned voting, known in Spain as vote discipline, a relatively straightforward affair to maintain. In an interesting regional twist to this principle, Pere Navarro, the head of the PSC, told Carme Chacón - who topped the PSC's candidate list in the 2008 and 2011 elections - that after abstaining in the vote she would not have the backing of the regional grouping if she intends to run for prime minister in the next general elections.

Events like last week's are a rare event in Spanish politics. Pere Navarro and his fellow PSC members believe that their political survival in Catalonia depends on supporting the independence referendum. The PSC is part of the larger Socialist Party parliamentary group, and so they will each be fined 600 euros, and José Zaragoza has accepted Madrid's suggestion that he stand down as head of the PSC's parliamentary group.

Situations such as this might well prompt envy among Spanish politicians of the relative liberty enjoyed by the opposite numbers in EU member states that have open lists, or, in the case of the United Kingdom, where MPs must answer to their local constituents as well as the party machinery. This explains why, on February 5, 140 Conservative MPs (out of 272) were able to vote against a proposal by Prime Minister David Cameron (their party leader) to legalize same-sex marriage. The motion was carried with the support of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Similarly, in the United States, presidents have frequently faced opposition to their proposals from members of their own parties in Congress and the Senate, something that is unthinkable in Spain under the current political system, which has been dubbed a "particracy" by its critics.

When somebody accepts being put on the list, they have to accept rules"

Alberto Garzón was elected to Congress on behalf of the United Left coalition grouping at the last general elections as the representative for Málaga. At 27 he is the youngest member of the lower house, and a fierce critic of how Spain's political parties are run. "The practice of aligned voting is a reflection of how most parties function. They are run as oligarchies, controlled by a few key figures who trade favors. Voting in Congress is pure theater: toeing the party line kills any chance of real debate, which is what the chamber should be for. Instead, deputies are simply puppets."

Legal experts agree that the closed-list system results in politicians toeing the party line.

"The party's ability to tell its elected representatives how to vote would be reduced if representatives were elected via open lists or through a constituency system," says José Antonio Montilla, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Granada. "The idea would be to strengthen the links between a deputy and the electorate, and to avoid the current fiction that deputies answer to the electorate," he says.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Elena Valenciano, PSOE deputy secretary general, is a staunch defender of the system of closed lists. "Voting has to be handled intelligently, but we have to have aligned voting to guarantee loyalty," she says. Valenciano says that deputies have the right to break ranks only on matters of conscience, such as has occurred down the years over abortion legislation, when deputies have traditionally been free to vote in accordance with their religious beliefs.

Alberto Garzón says that the United Left does not subject its elected representatives to vote discipline. "Quite simply there is no need to, but when it comes to regional issues representatives from different areas often disagree," he notes.

The party controls deputies who put party loyalty above that of the electorate"

Valenciano agrees that the Socialist Party's different regional affiliations, as is now the case with the Catalan PSC, see many issues from a different perspective to the party's central committee, but points out that if the European Parliament's groupings can reach agreement, those in national assemblies should be able to: "Member states have different interests, but we manage some consensus on most issues."

Ana Sanz, a lecturer in political science at the University of Barcelona, explains that in the Spanish Congress, the parliamentary group calls the shots, taking precedence over the individual wishes of deputies, as outlined by Article Six of the Constitution: "Parties participate in the formation and manifestation of the popular vote," adding that political parties are "the fundamental instrument of political participation." That said, the Constitution also states that parties' "internal structure and functioning must be democratic." In other words, the Constitution would not be an impediment to changing the law to allow for open lists. Furthermore, Article 67.2 of the Constitution states that members of Congress "will not be bound by a compulsary mandate." But the reality is that they are.

Sanz accuses Spain's main political parties of being "cynical" when they talk about a free vote in Congress after the party leadership has already decided its policies. But as was seen last week in the case of the PSC - which although belonging to the same parliamentary group, is legally a separate entity to the Socialist Party - regional questions can cause upsets. PSOE defends the unity of Spain while the PSC has decided that Catalans have a right to a referendum on independence, which puts Carme Chacón between a rock and a hard place.

Susana Ros is the Socialist Party's elected representative for Castellón in Congress, and Manuel Altava is the Popular Party (PP) senator for the same province. They have very different views on voting. Ros largely defends vote alignment, although she says it should be done "coherently." "There are times when I have voted in line with the party's directives, but thought that we could have done this better."

Sanz argues that as well as loyalty to their party, elected representatives should remember that they also have a duty to the people who voted for them, something that Ros was reminded of when she found herself voting in favor of the spending cuts and other austerity measures pushed through by the Socialist administration of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in response to Spain's deepening economic crisis in 2010. "The sacrifices made to tackle the crisis should have been shared out more fairly, with the wealthier in society carrying a bigger burden." She believes that allowing deputies to vote according to their conscience on occasion "is an indicator of our democratic health, and on regional matters it can be positive. At the same time, the electorate has to see that there is a relation between what the party says and what it does."

Altava, on the other hand, believes that the needs of the party are absolute. "If you stand for office as a member of a particular political grouping, then you have to accept that you must toe the party line, otherwise Congress would be a free-for-all."

Party law

  • Article 6 of the Constitution says: "Political parties are the expression of political pluralism, they compete for the formation and the manifestation of the popular will and are the fundamental instrument for political participation. They can be freely created [and] their internal structure [...] should be democratic."
  • Article 23.1 : "The electorate has the right to participate in public affairs, directly or through representatives, freely elected in periodic elections based on universal suffrage."
  • Article 67.2 : "Members of Congress are not tied by a compulsory mandate."
  • Article 68.1 : "Congress will be composed of a minimum of 300 and a maximum of 400 deputies, elected by universal suffrage, free, equal, direct, and secret according to the terms established by law."
  • Article 69.2 : "In each province four senators will be elected by universal suffrage based on a free, equal, direct, and secret vote by the electorate in each of them."

Valenciano agrees: "When somebody accepts being put on the list of candidates for office, they also have to accept the rules. It is unacceptable to be in the party and then not to accept what has been decided by it. If you disagree, then you can leave, but of course surviving in the political wilderness is hard, and very few people do leave."

Altava says that he has never had any doubts about voting with the rest of his party, nor has he ever felt pressured to do so. "I have always voted as I thought best. My party has let me get on with my job and has supported my initiatives."

By contrast, the United Left's Garzón sees the danger of aligned voting as "rewarding mediocrity and creating a class of political professionals subject to iron laws of discipline by the party leadership."

In Germany, aligned voting has been eradicated since the 1949 Constitution, Article 38.1 of which states: "Deputies will be representatives of the people and not tied to mandates or instructions, and subject solely to their conscience."

In theory, the Spanish Constitution also "establishes a relationship between the representative and the electorate," says José Antonio Montilla of the University of Granada. "But in reality the party controls deputies, who belong to the party, and put party loyalty above that of the electorate. This means that deputies follow the principles they associate with the party, and thus rarely act beyond the directives of the party, unless they break with it altogether," he says. On the very rare occasions this happens, deputies can be expelled, as happened with the PP's Antoni Pastor.

In June 2012, Pastor, a member of the regional assembly of the Balearic Islands, broke ranks with the 35-strong PP parliamentary group there to vote against changing the law to impose Castilian Spanish as the language schoolchildren are taught in on the islands.

"I did it because I have always defended the need for linguistic immersion, and this change to the law ends a model that has worked for many years," he explains. Although he retains his seat in the regional assembly for the moment, he finds himself in a legal limbo, and is unable to participate in debates. He is also mayor of the town of Manacor, in Mallorca, where he has created his own party after being expelled from the PP. Seven of the 10 local councilors who backed him have also been expelled from the conservative party.

In 2010, Socialist Party deputy Antonio Gutiérrez, the former secretary general of the CCOO labor union, was punished for abstaining during a vote in Congress on labor market reform. The PP fined Celia Villalobos for voting in favor of same-sex marriage, against the position of her party, which appealed to the Constitutional Court over the law.

Sanz says that in cases where the issue in question is not on the party's electoral program, deputies should be allowed more leeway. The PSC deputies who voted against the Socialist Party on the independence referendum say that the right to decide on self-determination was on their electoral program, but not on the PSOE's.

Similarly, Antonio Gutiérrez argued the same point after he broke ranks, saying that first of all he was not affiliated to the Socialist Party, and that the changes to the labor law it pushed through were not on its electoral program. In other words, PSOE voters had not approved such decisions. On the basis of this argument, any number of PP deputies would be entitled to vote against the measures being implemented by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, none of which were in his electoral program. Don't hold your breath.

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS