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The quality of democracy

Reducing Spain’s parliament to a spectacle of vetoes and shouting undermines political stability

Any attempt to question the legitimate result of clean elections is incompatible with representative democracy. But democracy cannot function properly when it is reduced to the arithmetical application of a parliamentary majority. This week the entire political opposition has once again denounced the Popular Party's blocking of every motion concerning the Bárcenas case, a scandal involving alleged illegal party financing run by former treasurer, Luis Bárcenas. There has been a sorry sight of repeated vetoes, followed by indignant, impotent complaints. This climate is unfavorable for an inter-party pact for "democratic regeneration," as the government has suggested, or any consensual solution to the problem posed by the secessionist movement in Catalonia, which has grown into a highly significant political challenge.

The frayed nerves in Spanish public life contrast with the good manners shown by German political parties when they made a joint appearance before the TV cameras, a couple of hours after the polls closed last week. Not to mention the immediacy with which an elected representative resigns in other democracies — not only under the shadow of evidence suggesting they have committed an actual crime, but on account of mere unethical or unseemly conduct, such as having plagiarized an academic thesis.

There is no divine curse upon Spain that is stopping it from behaving in a way similar to its European neighbors. What does render this very difficult is the continual state of political exasperation. If a parliamentary system cannot be brought to maturity overnight, we should at least prevent it from being reduced to uselessness. This calls for a greater flexibility in the handling of a clear parliamentary majority, some neutrality on the part of the congressional speaker, and greater explanatory efforts on the part of the opposition. Coherent debate, and the arguments brought forward in it, are what must give the public a chance to judge the seriousness of political figures and the quality of the proposals they make.

The demand for iron voting discipline on the part of parliamentarians is also inadmissible. They are, after all, not soldiers in an army, but representatives of the citizens.

We have to return to the foundations of democracy, to transparency and responsibility, with mechanisms built into rules that, rather than any grandiloquent reform, emphasize the due rendering of accounts as the guiding principle of parliamentary behavior.

Many experts have diagnosed the need for a major overhaul of the Constitution, ranging from the system of regional government to the foundations of the electoral system. But to address this task is unimaginable without some curtailment of the sterile partisan spirit that characterizes day-to-day politics in Spain. Nor is it helpful when an institution as crucial and sensitive as the Constitutional Court calmly gives its stamp of approval to the political non-neutrality of its presiding judge.

The deterioration of public confidence in the political system is extensive, as many public opinion polls have revealed; and it may be irreversible if the parliament — on which most of the state institutions depend — persists in its inability or unwillingness to behave in a manner deserving respect.

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