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Freedom to vote with their conscience

Deputies cannot be forced to follow party orders on issues such as abortion reform

Nine out of every 10 Spanish citizens want deputies to be able to have the freedom to vote on the abortion law reform according to their consciences, including those supporters of the conservative Popular Party (PP) who are practicing Catholics, according to a Metroscopia poll published on Sunday in EL PAÍS.

Beyond the political error in which the Rajoy government has embroiled itself by supporting the bill, the freedom to vote is an important matter when it comes to parliamentary procedures and practices because it confirms the social demand for a clear tie between what the electorate thinks and what those elected ought to do. It also constitutes a remarkable condemnation of the iron law upon which the whole structure of political representation in Spain is built, which manifests itself in the form of the gestures of party spokesmen, who raise one, two or three fingers to order what the deputies of their group have to vote for in each case.

Even though the reform to the abortion law brings the matter back into the present, it is by no means the only issue where free votes could be considered. PP deputy Celia Villalobos, who demanded a free vote on abortion, has already gone against party orders when she voted in favor of homosexual marriage. The question of party discipline came up again last year in Congress when the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) and the national Socialist Party (PSOE) voted differently on the issue of Catalonia’s right to self-determination. The same thing happened to Antonio Gutiérrez, former secretary general of the CCOO labor union and an independent deputy on the PSOE’s lists, in the preceding legislature when he was punished for abstaining from the vote on then-Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s labor reform.

The Constitution states that parliamentarians are not subject to “any imperative mandate” and Constitutional Court jurisprudence makes it clear that parties cannot strip an elected member of their seat. Nevertheless, political organizations have established enormous control over those elected under their banners thanks to the double threat of sanctions for not complying with their instructions and the risk of seeing themselves expelled from the list of candidates for the following legislature. The exorbitant powers that the party leaderships have taken on mean the constitutional ban on an imperative mandate is not worth the paper it is written on.

Reconsidering the system

A completely free vote would effectively undermine the system of closed and blocked lists that makes parliamentarians much more dependent on their party than on the voters themselves. The parties are considered the main players in the system of representation and in reality play an important role in it, a role which is recognized in the Constitution. But consideration of a more balanced system is one of the issues that must form part of a necessary political and electoral reform.

Meanwhile, voting freedom for parliamentarians is an undeniable right, at least when matters of conscience are being considered. And let there be no room for doubt that the issue of abortion is a paradigmatic case.

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