Posts by JosepColomer:

    Why Xi has not appointed his successor

    January 2nd, 2018


    By Josep Colomer.


    The Congress of the Chinese Communist Party has reappointed its Secretary general, Xi Jinping, for a second five-year term, but, against some expectations, it has not nominated his successor. Some foreign observers say that Xi has tried to show his firm grasp over the party and some have even speculated about his intentions to stay in the office for a third term, which is against the party’s rules.

    There is another interpretation: it is always very difficult to select the successor of a dictator, especially so much time in advance (think about the conflict successions of leaders in the Soviet Union or the number of dictatorships that fell when the dictator died).

    In fact, exactly the same happened ten years ago (I was visiting China at the time), when Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, was reappointed for his second term and tried to nominate his successor. Only to withdraw the proposal in a hurry to prevent internal rebellions and fights from potential alternative candidates who could have jeopardized his entire second term.

    The last-minute appointment of the dictatorial leader was a procedure already used in early 18th-century China. When the Emperor openly selected one of his sons as his heir, long before the time of succession, the emperor’s other siblings fought him. In reaction, emperor Yongzheng set up the “Heir Apparent Box” system, by which the name of the successor was written on a document sealed within a box placed behind the throne; the emperor always carried a copy with him. (You still can see the throne with the box where the sealed document was kept in the imperial palace). After the emperor passed away, the secretly appointed crown prince would ascend the throne. The procedure not only solved the problem of succession, but also triggered faithful support for the incumbent Emperor during his mandate by all potential candidates for nomination to the office or other relevant posts.

    The procedure was somehow replicated in Mexico by the old Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), with the principle of “non-reelection” and the rotation of numerous offices. Over an authoritarian period of about sixty years, each Mexican president was in office for only one six-year term, and during his last months in office, he appointed his own successor with “the big finger” (dedazo).

    Also in current China, this skillful formula for the orderly succession of authoritarian leaders induces cooperation of potential rivals with the leader. An enforceable decision is not likely to be reached much before the last minute, in five years from now.

    Comments Off on Why Xi has not appointed his successor

    Plan B for Catalonia

    October 9th, 2017

    By Josep Colomer.

    The outcome of the referendum for independence called by the Government of Catalonia on October 1, against the means of the Spanish government, is the “Plan B” of the two players. The Catalan government’s first preference was to hold the referendum without Spanish intervention. The Spanish government’s first preference was the suspension of the referendum without the need to intervene. Of course, these two outcomes were incompatible. For the Catalan government, to go ahead with the referendum was a dominant strategy, even if there was going to face repression from the State, which would produce its second best outcome. For the Spanish government, repression was not a dominant strategy, but it was the least bad outcome if the referendum went ahead.
    This is the actual outcome: referendum with repression, which was the second best outcome for the two players.Yet the interaction is asymmetric, as the Catalan government takes the initiative (the “dominant strategy”) and can continue along the same path, which would lead it to approach its objective and declare independence. Instead, the Spanish Government acts in response and could only try to deepen the defeat and humiliation of Catalonia and dissolve the regional Government, which would not necessarily mean a Spanish victory in itself.

    One conceivable compromise would be, of course, an agreed referendum, more or less as it was done in Scotland. It would be a very welcome Plan B for many Catalans and, let’s hope it, also for many other Spaniards. For any Spanish government, it would be a risky bet, no doubt, because, honestly speaking, the result would be very uncertain. On the one hand, it is possible to think that there would be many Catalans with reasons to vote ‘yes’. Compared to Scotland, Catalonia has a more marked profile: Scotland is subsidized by England, while Catalonia is a net contributor to the rest of Spain; Scottish Gaelic is a very minority language with low social prestige, in contrast to Catalan. And, if some readers allow me, for quite a few people the alternative, at least before Brexit, of being British is more attractive than being Spanish.
    On the other hand, if a Spanish government accepted such an agreement, many Catalans might think that it would not be the same Spain that they have seen in recent years, but a much more agreeable country, and, reviving the spirit of the 1980s and 1990s, they may think again that, after all, they can continue living together. In fact, the best chance for a Spanish government to win a referendum in Catalonia would be with a question like this: “Do you want to be a citizen of a country, Spain, which recognizes the right to self-determination of Catalonia?” Then the ‘yes’ (to Spain) could win! Will someone dare?

    Longer version in Spanish in the daily El PaisCLICK

    Comments Off on Plan B for Catalonia

    The Shrinking French President

    May 8th, 2017


    By Josep Colomer.


    The President of France will never be again what it was. From an elected dictator and a “sacred leader”, he has become a first among equals.

    After General De Gaulle established the 5th Republic via coup d’état and a constitution was custom-made for himself, he stated that “There exists no other authority, neither ministerial, nor civil, nor military, nor judicial that is not conferred or maintained by the President.” Socialist Francois Mitterrand, when in opposition, denounced the regime as “a permanent coup d’état”, but when he was elected President, he also found that the Constitution “fits me well.”

    However, Mitterrand had to “cohabitate” in two different periods with a Conservative Prime Minister supported by an alternative majority in the National Assembly, as Conservative President Jacques Chirac had to do it with a Socialist Prime Minister and a leftist parliamentary majority.

    Political scientist and constitutionalist Maurice Duverger had predicted that the regime would produce an alternation between presidential phases dominated by the figure of the President and parliamentary phases dominated by the Prime Minister. However, the experiences of cohabitation showed that the President always keeps important powers, especially on defense, foreign affairs and justice, legislative veto, and call of referendums, even when his party has to cohabitate.

    The actual alternation has been between presidential phases and semipresidential/ semiparliamentary phases with a “dual executive”. So is shown by the foreign representation of France: when the President’s party has a majority in the Assembly, he alone represents France in the summit meetings of the Group of Seven and of the European Council, while both the President and the Prime Minister attend those meetings in periods of cohabitation.

    Fifteen years ago, the presidential term was reduced from seven to five years in order to have almost-concurrent presidential and legislative elections that would favor a presidential majority in the Assembly and a unified presidential government. Yet the key word is “almost”, because the legislative election is usually held about two months after the presidential one, and many voters who had to vote for the less bad candidate at the second round of the presidential take the occasion to compensate by voting against the President’s party in the legislative. It had already happened in 1988 when the reelection of Mitterrand was followed by a snap legislative election which produced the appointment of Socialist Michel Rocard as Prime Minister, but in a coalition Cabinet with four center-right and a few independent ministers.

    Emmanuel Macron, a disciple of Rocard, will have to do something similar in a couple of months. It is likely that, after the National Assembly election in June, there will be neither one nor two dominant parties, but the major policy decisions will have to be made jointly by the President’s, the Prime Minister’s, and at least two more parties from the center, the center-right or the center-left. The “sacred, indivisible authority entirely given to the President” envisaged by De Gaulle has become a primus inter several pares. Broad sharing of power away from the two extremes may foster pro-European Union consensus and little policy changes. To the benefit of French democracy, Europe, and globalization.

    Comments Off on The Shrinking French President

    Is It the End of the European Empire?

    April 29th, 2017

    By Josep Colomer.


    Is It the End of the European Empire?

    Those of us who have been characterizing the European Union as an ‘Empire’ emphasize that empires are distinguished by their internal asymmetries and that they expand and contract. Now the president of the European Commission wonders whether the EU should devolve some powers to some states while “those who want more do more” CLICK. Also, after a series of expansions of the EU during six decades, Brexit is going to be the first contraction. The question emerges if all this will be the beginning of a general collapse and dissolution.

    An essential point is that, in the case of the EU, we refer to ‘Empire’ as a polity or a complex form of political organization with notable asymmetries –not as an imperialistic policy of conquest and domination of other lands and populations. Analogously, Magali Gravier has recently distinguished between “inward” and “outward” empires. CLICK

    If the EU were an outward, imperialistic empire, then an appropriate comparison could be with the historical Spanish, British and French colonial empires. As shown in the Graph below, each of these empires experienced a long period of expansions –mostly through wars and conquests from the European core to overseas lands— which was followed by a sudden collapse.


    But if, in contrast, the EU is conceived as an inward, non-imperialistic empire whose expansions have covered contiguous continental lands –mostly by means of unequal agreements and enlargements–, then it may be more appropriate to compare it with the American (USA) or the Russian Empires. This type of empires may suffer some contractions, such as the one experimented by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But if the core –formed in the case of the EU by Germany and France— remains stable, they may maintain or even increase their internal asymmetries –as suggested by Juncker–, but  nevertheless survive for a long time, as can be seen in the Graph below.

    The curves for Spain, Britain, France and Russia are adapted from Rein Taagepera, 1997, ‘Expansion and Contraction Patterns of Large Polities’, International Studies Quarterly, 41, 3: 475-504. CLICK

    The curves for the USA and the EU and the two maps are by the author of this Blog.

    See also from my book: The European Empire CLICK

    “The European Union can endure and succeed as an “empire” because empires typically hold uneven levels of formal integration of countries and varied degrees of people’s allegiance. Loose borders also create opportunities for expansions and contractions, that is, for changes in the empire membership…

    Some people may want to see the current empire as a stalled stage of building a homogeneous political community where centralizing rulers are unable to complete the process. But the image of “incompleteness” of the European Empire is only an optical effect provoked by the mirage of a United States of Europe. The empire may not be an intermediate stage between a set of sovereign states and a united federation. The asymmetries and the diversity of the European Union are not necessarily transitional. With the current configuration and in the foreseeable future, they are bound to endure.”


    Comments Off on Is It the End of the European Empire?

    Thomas Schelling: Game Theory, Cold War, Coordination, Leadership, Tipping, Focal point…

    December 15th, 2016

    By Josep Colomer.


    Thomas Schelling (1921-2016)

    Thomas Schelling was one of the greatest game theorists, Nobel Laureate in 2005, and influential advisor for several U.S. presidents. During the Cold War, he produced several consequential ideas. On the one hand, he supported the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) between the USA and the USSR. This initiative fitted the interpretation of the Cold War as a Prisoner’s Dilemma game in which only persistent and repeated rounds of negotiations might lead to a durable agreement. However, as the classical Prisoner’s Dilemma shows, the subsequent treaties were not seriously enforced and the negotiations were abandoned.

    On the other hand, Schelling suggested to President Kennedy to establish the ‘hot line’ or ‘red phone’ between the White House and the Kremlin in order to prevent accidents or put them in control if an unintended attack happened before a nuclear war could explode. This rather fitted an alternative interpretation of the Cold War as a Chicken game, in which it may be rational for the attacked player not to retaliate and prevent the biggest catastrophe. Schelling was a main consultant for the movie Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, whose most famous and hilarious scene was crafted around that direct phone line between the presidents of the two great powers in conflict. You can see here how the U.S. president (impersonated by Peter Sellers), tries to persuade the Soviet chairman of not counterattacking when several American rockets with nukes had inadvertently departed toward Soviet lands. CLICK

    Schelling-inspired Tipping Game of Leadership
    “You can see a graphic representation of the dynamics between leaders and followers in Figure 4.1, which is a variant of the model initially proposed by Nobel Prize–winning economist Thomas Schelling. The horizontal axis represents the number of people expected to participate in a collective action, and the vertical axis represents the number of people who do, in fact, participate. The diagonal forty-five-degree dotted line represents a hypothetical situation in which the number of expected participants is always equal to the number of actual participants. The curve rises to the right, but, in general, since different people have different thresholds of participation, it can be assumed that it has an S-shape.

    “In the graph on the left, the starting point of the curve at the bottom-left corner indicates that some people always participate: the “leaders.” At the upper-right corner the solid line of the curve flattens out, since not even an expected participation of 90 percent can move the recalcitrant remaining 10 percent. As an example, for an expected participation of thirty, only twenty participate, which triggers a demobilization process. In contrast, for an expected participation of sixty, eighty actually participate, which generates a participatory process. There are two points of equilibrium, implying, respectively, general demobilization and general action, as indicated by the points near the two extremes of the curve.

    “The graph on the right, with curve B representing the original curve, shows what can happen if the number of people always participating increases. This can produce a massive mobilization, as represented by the new curve C, which is always above the forty-five-degree line. In contrast, if a few leaders disappear, the curve starts at zero. The new curve A is always below the forty-five-degree line, which indicates that the number of people participating will always be lower than the number expected, and thus collective action will fail.”

    From my textbook The Science of Politics (Oxford U.P.): CLICK

    Comments Off on Thomas Schelling: Game Theory, Cold War, Coordination, Leadership, Tipping, Focal point…

    The electoral college is a medieval relic. Only the U.S. still has one.

    December 12th, 2016


    The U.S. electoral college is a medieval relic. For several centuries, many political communities in Europe and the Americas used electors chosen from different territorial and political units to select a main magistrate. The United States is the only country in the world to still use the system to elect a president.

    The electoral college goes back to the 11th century 

    The Founding Fathers did not invent the electoral college. It goes as far back as the 11th century, when it began to be used to elect Frankish, Carolingian, Bohemian, Hungarian and Polish kings. These princes were elected by their peers, gathered in colleges of electors formed by dukes, marquises, counts and bishops. Similar formulas were used to elect high magistrates in the city-republics of northern Italy, and abbots and abbesses in the Dominican and other monastic orders.

    A series of candidates refused to accept defeat, resulting in the self-appointment of “anti-popes” and schisms in the church. In the 13th century, Pope Gregory had to clarify that “not zeal to zeal, nor merit to merit, but solely numbers to numbers [of votes] are to be compared.”

    Similarly, in the 12th century the Holy Roman-German emperor began to be elected by a college formed by a selection of members of the nobility and archbishops with different qualifications. Three times, the college ended with a split among the electors, producing pairs of emperors and anti-emperors in conflict.

    One defeated candidate, Alphonse X the Wise, king of Castile and Leon, won most of the votes but not the support of sufficient qualified electors. He warned that the emperor would have real authority only if he was chosen by “the major part,” or a majority of votes.

    Electoral colleges migrated to the Americas

    Later, the college formula was used to select what constitution-makers Alexander Hamilton in the United States and Simon Bolivar in South America both called “kings with the name of presidents.”

    After the electoral college was put into the U.S. Constitution in 1789, it was adopted — usually under the title “junta”— in Venezuela in 1819, Colombia in 1821, Mexico in 1824, Argentina in 1826, Bolivia, Chile and Peru in 1828, Brazil in 1834 (for the election of the regent), the Dominican Republic in 1844 and Cuba in 1902. It also was used in the Federal Republic of Central America in 1824 and in the countries that later separated from it: Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

    In most cases, the electoral college was designed so that every territorial unit, whether a state or a province, was given the same number of electors. That led to the election of several candidates who had lost the popular vote. In some cases, the system was designed so that when no candidate won a majority of electors, congress selected the president. That happened four times in Colombia, three in Bolivia, once in Mexico and once in Venezuela. Three times in Argentina, no candidate won a majority of electors, and so the college selected the winner in popular votes. The last electoral college outside the United States selected Argentina’s president in 1989.

    Now only the United States uses the college.

    Countries only get rid of it in a crisis 

    George W. Bush and Donald Trump both lost the popular vote but won a majority in the electoral college. Their backers argue that had the system been different, they could have won the popular vote, simply by campaigning differently and mobilizing more supporters in Republican-leaning states such as Texas or Florida. However, the Democrats could of course answer that they, too, would have campaigned so as to mobilize more votes in states leaning their way, such as California or New York.

    It is not possible to know who would have won a direct election had the system been designed that way.

    If the electoral college were replaced by direct popular election, not only electoral strategies but also the parties themselves would likely change as a result. In presidential elections by nationwide popular votes, campaigns would focus not on swing states but on more populous states. Overall voter turnout would probably be higher than it is today. Smaller states would no longer have such influence during primary season. Even the number of viable candidates might change, depending on how the new electoral rule were designed.

    Given that magnitude of change, most current political actors would almost surely oppose any attempt to replace the electoral college with a post-medieval system.

    In fact, virtually every time a Latin American country replaced the electoral college with the popular vote, the change came in response to a major political crisis. For instance, in Brazil, direct presidential elections were held for the first time after its monarchy was replaced by a republic in 1894. In Colombia, the change came after a military dictatorship was overthrown and replaced with a new constitution in 1910. In Mexico, direct presidential elections followed a revolution in 1917. In Venezuela, a free and fair election was held for the first time in a brief interlude between dictatorships in 1947. And Argentina undertook a major constitutional reform a few years after getting rid of a military dictatorship and establishing democracy in 1994.

    Absent a major crisis, it’s unlikely to happen here.

    Comments Off on The electoral college is a medieval relic. Only the U.S. still has one.

    So long, Britain

    June 24th, 2016


    By Josep Colomer.



    When I finally got a passport, my first trip was to Paris, which was the closest ‘abroad’ place from Barcelona. The second was to London. Since then I travelled to London more times than to any other place in the world.

    My first visit was shortly after the Britons had ratified their membership to the European Community in referendum. As a young tourist who had always lived under a sordid dictatorship, I was impressed by a number of things: the natural patriotism of the population, reflected in the pervasiveness of Union Jacks and portraits of the Queen; the fog in the port and most of the city; the indifferent freedom at Hyde Park; a peaceful and legalized demonstration of supporters of the violent separatist Irish Republican Army, IRA, in downtown; the tomb of Karl Marx in Highgate; the tasty simplicity of fish and chips in a newspaper cone; the mummies at the British Museum and how one could still see traces of the Empire everywhere; the colors and clouds of Turner at Tate; businessmen with bob hats travelling on the tube; the zippy make-up girls at the beauty section of Harrods; the easy access to the door of 10 Downing Street; the public toilets in the middle of the street (which I thought were a delightful complement to the Labourites’ inspired model of gas-and-water socialism).


    England had captured my imagination since I was a child. I read all volumes of Just William’s shenanigans, the typical present by an unaware aunt that becomes an educational overturn. The charming Jungle Book. The enchanting and traumatizing Peter Pan, all whose thrilling scenes would remain in my memory for ever. Treasure Island, the real adventure for a child. Robinson Crusoe, who opened a rare conversation with my father about how one can make it in life by himself. Sherlock Holmes, the monument to all-powerful brain, the model for a scientist mentality. Alice in Wonderland, the fantasy of fantasies, also full of mathematical and political jokes. My Fair Lady, a record from the theater play brought in by my father from one of his business trips to London, whose lyrics my brother and I memorized and sang all the time much before understanding any English. Similar allure with the songs of the Beatles, the Stones and so many others. Homage to Catalonia, the honor to have a stupid local conflict transformed into worldwide news. Dorian Gray, another freaking warning of what growing up might imply.

    After my first trip, London became immediately my regular connection with the world. For near fifteen years, I was a fervid consumer of Dillons’ and Foyles’ books, Tower Records in Piccadilly, live rock music at Marquee, operas at Covent Garden, classic concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, West End musical shows, Monty Python’s films, newspapers from the Pakistanis’ kiosks, beer and shepherd’s pie in pubs, the Tea House, Indian restaurants and Chinatown dim-sum, and unrivaled walks in urban parks. London proved to be perfect for a honeymoon.


    When I began teaching for university students in Barcelona, I was initially allocated a course in history of political thought, for which the fittest textbook was by one George Sabine. I was fascinated, in particular, by the chapters on the Scottish Enlightenment, the English utilitarianism and the British liberalism, which I decided to study more seriously. I edited in Spanish a selection of political writings of David Hume, whose workplace I visited in Edinburgh while I was trying to learn more English at a university building also opportunely named David Hume Tower. The moral and political writings by Hume are possibly the ones that made on me the biggest impact ever; the kind of thing that makes one feel: I wish I would have been able to write this! But I know I wouldn’t. I adopted his lemma for life: “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions”.

    I also edited an anthology of Jeremy Bentham, who cleverly placed the aim of society at the achievement of the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers of persons. And I attended a rather bizarre meeting of the International Utilitarian Society in London: Bentham’s mummified corpse, which is permanently exposed, dressed in his own clothes, within a wooden cabinet in the middle of a corridor at University College, was brought in as the honor guest of our dinner –he was registered as “present but not voting”.


    I also enjoyed the political sitcoms Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister as no other TV series ever –which is much to say. When I began teaching political institutions, I brought my students from Barcelona to visit the House of Commons, the example of lively parliamentarianism.

    Later on, I was co-organizer of Europe-wide academic conferences at the universities of Essex and Kent. I gave lectures and judged thesis examinations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. I was bemused at dinners and receptions at colleges in Oxford, including the legendary line of scholars, glass in hand, in front the Dean holding one bottle on each hand to offer the choice of Sherry or Port. I was hired for a while for the Chair in European Politics at Bristol. Gave seminars at Aberdeen and a speech at the Parliament of Scotland in Edinburgh. Participated in a storming-brain meeting of the Liberal International in Oxford. And was elected member of the Academy of Europe, headquartered in London.


    I found disproved the lemma ‘No sex, please, we are British’. But I completely confirmed other clichés. A polite conversation must turn around the weather, animals (preferably dogs), and health problems. In contrast, it’s highly indecorous to raise issues such as money, politics or religion. Regarding the first of these taboos, the Britons are at the antipodes of the Americans, for whom everything can be measured with some monetary value. The religion ban is okay, because it’s a private affair. But not talking politics usually reflects a latent conflict that people may want to avoid.

    In fact, and in contrast with the magnificence of surrounding medieval buildings and glorious imperial legacies, I found the typical English way of life rather restrained and frugal. Most people, including women, wear always black. People are extremely self-controlled, up to the point, for example, of never having touched their own feet. Facial and body languages are self-contained and unremarkable. They don’t wash themselves very much; actually in some lodgings where I spent a few nights, showers were considered a foreign device, only a bathtub was to be used once in a while. They do drink a lot.


    Silence seems to be a major means of communication among Britons, especially among the upper and educated class. Almost everything is implicit, highly indirect, messages are sent per allusions, through hints. If one cannot use obscure words because the topic of conversation is simple, then let’s whisper in an inaudible tone. Nobody ever, of course, –ever!– speaks aloud. Everybody scrupulously abide by the rules –in spite that most major rules are either unwritten, implicit or the result of several centuries of cumulative, undecipherable clauses and caveats.

    It’s plausible that such a culture of personal continence and austerity resulted from those many centuries of institutional continuity and also helped avoid turbulence and breaks. We shouldn’t either forget that the British Empire, the largest in world history, was dismantled and Great Britain was at the edge of collapse during the Second World War. In total despair, a clinically mad person named Winston Churchill was called to save their bacon. Which he did. But one cannot help thinking that the sentiment of decline may have reinforced Britons’ restrain and quietness as a self-protecting cuirass.

    Then came the European Empire. But no former great empire like the British can easily accept to be just one member of a new empire –just one among a few dozens!– and not to be its core.

    Comments Off on So long, Britain

    Abolish the Primaries!

    June 10th, 2016

    By Josep Colomer.


    The participants in the Democratic primaries have been 44% of Obama’s voters in the presidential election four years ago. The participants in the Republican primaries, 50% of Romney’s votes four years ago.

    Hillary Clinton has received 13% of the total number of votes in the 2012 presidential election. The Donald, only 10%.

    And please, don’t even look at electoral survey polls five months before the election!



    Abolish the Primaries!


    A Debate

    About 15 years ago, I published a critical analysis of the primary election method to select candidates for President, as they were used by then for the first time in several Latin American countries. My basic point was that the winners in primaries were not the most ‘electable’ candidates, as shown at the time by the worsening performance of parties adopting the primary system and some asymmetries within the same country between parties that used primaries or not.

    I received numerous comments, citations, supports and replies, including the one by John Carey & Harry Enten which is included in my edited book Personal Representation:  Basically, some colleagues praised the higher opportunities offered by the primaries for pre-candidates to get public exposure and be scrutinized by the voters, which should result into a more informed selection of candidates.    Now, after the U.S. long season of primaries…  well, we know.

    In front the weird show that we had to suffer during the last few months, two basic alternatives exist: abolish the primaries or change the primary’s voting rules.


    • 1) Abolish the primaries would return the parties to what they typically are and ought to be: voluntary associations of political entrepreneurs to promote policy and candidates in competitive elections at their own risk.


    The peril of a political party system is, of course, that it can make the ideal of being ruled by the few best –the classical ‘aristocracy’— to degenerate into ‘oligarchy’, as was clairvoyantly pointed out by Robert Michels more than a hundred years ago and has been more than confirmed since then. But we also know that mass democratic participation –such as the one supposedly promoted by primary elections– can degenerate, in turn, into ‘demagoguery’. And as Aristotle observed, demagoguery or “the mob rule” is the worst type of government, as the demagogue tends to become a tyrant. The insight fits the current dilemma in the U.S pretty well.


    • 2)The other alternative is to proceed with incremental reforms. Changing the voting rules in the primaries may provide some immediate betterment and be also, perhaps, a first step towards more encompassing party reforms.


    During the last few weeks, several proposals for using alternative voting rules have been openly discussed: pairwise comparisons of candidates, approval voting, and variants of rank voting. Any of these alternatives would move the participants in the primaries to be more thoughtful, careful and better-informed at voting than the current system with a single categorical ballot for only one candidate does. The winners should be more consensual, thus making the parties closer to fulfill the ideal of the rule by the best.




    Pairwise Comparisons


    Nobel laureates Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen suggest that if voters had compared all candidates by pairs (as with the so-called Condorcet voting system), The Donald would not have won the Republican primary. The Republican winner, in their simulation, would have been John Kasich.

    How Majority Rule Might Have Stopped Donald Trump’:


    Rank voting, Approval voting


    Economist Justin Wolfers makes the point that it’s the emergence of a new populist dimension with an outsider anti-establishment candidate that makes the outcome unpredictable.


    Unusual Flavor of GOP Primary Illustrates a Famous Paradox’, NYT:


    Journalist Kathleen Parker discusses what could have happened if the Republican party had used either the rank-order count, which makes voters rank all candidates (as designed by Cusanus and Charles De Borda), or the approval voting, which permits voters to select as many candidates as they find acceptable (as devised by political scientists Steven Brams and Peter Fishburn). Again, John Kasich would have likely won.


    After Trump, the GOP May Need a Better Voting System’, WPost:


    And Steven Brans makes his point.

    Merits of Approval Voting, NYT:


    Majority Judgment


    Mathematicians Michel Balinski and Rida Laraki promote a method of their invention, which drives voters to judge the potential presidency of every candidate as Great, Good, Average, Poor, or Terrible, and then compare the least judgement given to each candidate by a majority of voters. By using a Pew poll with analogous questions, they found that John Kasich and Bernie Sanders were “first in the nation’s esteem”.


    Proof that US Voting System Doesn’t Work’:

    The debate is open!

    Comments Off on Abolish the Primaries!

    Goodbye, Spain

    May 3rd, 2016

    By Josep Colomer.



    After the general election on December 20, a new election will be held on June 26. The Spanish politicians have not been able to do what almost all their European colleagues, including those who benefit from more recent democracies and suffer from lower living standards, do, that is, to discuss, negotiate, reach agreements, form coalitions, and govern with broad popular and parliamentary support.


    The super grand coalition between Populars, Socialists and Liberals was not only something new and imposed by the circumstances. It was also a great opportunity to adopt the typically European model of decision-making in order to address many pending issues with consensus and a long-term vision.


    The failure cannot be attributed to a racial flaw because Spanish politicians were more audacious and creative than anybody else only a few decades ago. But two very important things have changed since then.


    First, there has been an adverse selection of people who want to engage in politics. Closed electoral party lists, low salaries and fierce party discipline have managed to ward off any competent individual with personal initiative from public action. For the vast majority of the current Spanish politicians, the professional opportunity cost is zero, so their main interest is not to take risks and to keep running in the raffle of public offices.


    Second, the current situation is different from the 1970s, when the stakes were very high. After 40 years of Civil War and dictatorship, there was then widespread fear of falling again into the abyss and the politicians of the moment knew that they had to find solutions. In contrast, one could apply to current politics what Henry Kissinger said when he was a professor at Harvard and was asked why the disputes on college campuses are so bitter: because the stakes are so low.


    If the politicians were so threatened now by the abyss as their predecessors were during the period of transition to democracy, they would try to be nearly as audacious and creative and would have formed a majority government. Not that they really intend to deal with the huge unemployment and debt –on which, in fact, they have given up–, but they could at least try to address feasible reforms such as preventing corruption, allocating more resources to the judiciary, improving the quality of education, introducing open electoral lists, revising the territorial organization, and other issues they talk about so much without knowing what to do with them.


    But today’s politicians know that even if they do not promote reforms on those issues, the consequences are not going to be very serious: even if no government is formed, the European Union, the central administration, the autonomous regions and the municipalities, the Social Security, will continue to operate as usual. Nowadays, the difference between a caretaker government and one elected by parliament is not big. As in campus politics, the stakes are rather low. After all, many important decisions are increasingly made in Brussels, New York or Washington, including on monetary, fiscal, banking, migration, antiterrorism, security, or climate change policies, while local governments routinely manage almost all public services.


    So far, the Spanish politicians have reacted to the new political situation in accordance with the first two phases that psychologists have well identified. First, denial. Both the incumbent prime minister Rajoy and the candidate of the second party Sanchez have behaved as if they could become heads of government the usual way: proclaiming his candidacy and calling some smaller parties to support it. When this fails, the second phase is to blame the others. This is what the Spaniards are going to endure now during the new electoral campaign. Maybe the third phase will eventually be achieved, which sometimes involves a mea culpa; this should lead to resignations of those who have failed. And the last one, when the reality is accepted and people behave accordingly.


    But it will not be easy. Personal arrogance and partisan sectarianism have been consolidated through decades of practice and the current politicians have grown in it and know no other experience. Instead of negotiating the formation of a majority and undertaking reforms, they can continue posturing and gesticulating, going from election to election, from caretaker government to caretaker government, and keep riding downhill, but now not towards the abyss, but simply towards… irrelevance.


    Comments Off on Goodbye, Spain

    The Multiparty System in the United States

    March 15th, 2016


    By Josep Colomer.


    A conversation with Larry Diamond.

    I’ve just read your very interesting article with Peter Ackerman in The Washington Post: ‘Make Room for Third-Party Candidates’

    Favoring independent candidates may be a good way to make people acknowledge that the current political configuration of candidates for the Presidency has strong potential for a multiparty system. In almost any other democracy, we would have a populist (Trump), a conservative (perhaps Bloomberg? that you mention), a liberal-democrat (Clinton), and a Social-democrat (Sanders), almost exactly as in most European countries.

    It occurs to me that after all, perhaps the Presidential Electoral College, which has been so criticized (including by me), might facilitate a parliamentarization of the regime. If the electors represented four major candidates, they could form a multi-party majority in the College to elect the President, as in the typical parliamentary procedure.

    Some major obstacles exist, of course, for such a prospect. One is your topic: the high cost of putting candidates on the ballot (which may be overcome, nevertheless). A more difficult one is, certainly, the electoral system. A possible solution would be to use for the College the kind of proportional or hybrid representation rules that are already used in most states for the primaries. This would require for the states only to be consistent in their choices of voting rules.

    Seen in this perspective, the relative benefits of changing the rules just a little regarding the current mess would be huge. The current system demands dozens of millions of voters to “coordinate” around one candidate per party. People need to make calculations and strategic estimates that are even much more difficult than ever in the current landscape of extremely fragmented media, social networks and permanent messaging. In contrast, facilitating a multi-candidate race and their fair representation in the College would require only a trivial post-electoral coordination around a winner by electors and party bosses.

    Larry Diamond said…

    (Stanford University and co-editor of the Journal of Democracy)


    Thank you very much for this provocative reply. It stimulates many thoughts on my part. The problem we face is that we increasingly have a multiparty sociological tendency struggling against the boundaries of a two-party straitjacket. This worked well enough when the party establishments were able to marginalize the extremes and nudge their parties toward the nomination of candidates who leaned in toward the center and the median voter. But as the primary election process has become increasingly polarized and ideological, the parties are drifting toward the extremes, with the danger that the middle will not be represented.

    One solution would be to make the Electoral College fully proportional–but not in the way some states now do it, by Congressional district.  Because of the gerrymandering of electoral districts, that does not yield true proportionality but instead can misrepresent the popular vote in a state (e.g. Pennsylvania). If the whole Electoral college were purely proportional, then in theory a third-place candidate could negotiate to throw his electors to the one of the top two candidates who was willing to make the most concessions, and maybe share power. But in a presidential system, it is hard to enforce this, especially if the smaller party(ies) don’t have congressional caucuses as well that could hold up legislation.

    I don’t think proportionality principles fit well with presidentialism, so I would favor either a two-ballot method of election as in France–where the third (and fourth?) place finisher could throw his support to the one of the remaining two who made the most concessions, or ranked-choice voting, where this would happen automatically. But if the third place candidate were off to an ideological or populist extreme, then the need to win them over could have the opposite effect.

    I would favor eliminating the electoral college, going to a national popular vote, and using RCV or the two-ballot system to elect a candidate.  I would favor over that reform a switch to a parliamentary system, but it ain’t going to happen in the US.


    Comments Off on The Multiparty System in the United States

    Trump Is Only at 10% of the Vote

    March 9th, 2016


    By Josep Colomer.



    The messy, long season of staggered primary elections make comparisons with more usual elections difficult. But beyond the fragmented figures and percentages that are given by the media, we can look at the numbers of votes with a different light.

    The turnout in the Republican primaries this year is higher than ever before. If we compare the total number of voters in the primaries with the numbers of voters in the presidential election –a rarely published comparison–, the average participation for forty years was about 30%. The primary voters are those with more intense political preferences and, as such, relatively more extreme than the average voters of the party. That’s why the primaries may not produce the most electable candidates and are a box of surprises. Typically, a pre-candidate’s gets a sudden momentum and many voters jump on the bandwagon, sometimes helped by apposite manipulations of campaigns and rules by the party bosses.

    The tradition of minority participation, however, was broken by the Democratic primaries in 2008, which, as they innovatively involved an African-American and a woman as the main pre-candidates, generated broad passions. Up to about 60% of the voters for the Democratic presidential candidate Obama in November 2008 had participated in the previous Democratic primaries, doubling the traditional average. This year, the Republican primaries are getting similar proportions. The season is still open, but the turnout in the ongoing Republican primaries may go even above the 60% of the Republican party votes in the last presidential election in 2012.

    In the current primaries, The Donald Trump is rather consistently receiving about one-third of the votes (with limit values around 25% and 50%). This is about 20% of the votes for the Republican candidate Romney four years ago (60% x 1/3). Assuming that the two main parties may split again the votes not very far from 50/50, the proportion of primary votes for The Donald so far would be about 10% of the total number of votes in the presidential election four years ago. The results on the recent Super Tuesday illustrate this estimate: for example, in two states where Obama won four years ago, Massachusetts in the North and Virginia in the South, The Donald collected 10% and 9%, respectively, of the votes cast in the presidential election in 2012. In two states where the Republican candidate won four years ago, Georgia and Texas, The Donald collected 13% and 9%, respectively, of the 2012 presidential votes.

    Any prediction from these numbers for the election in November may need some heroic assumptions. But we can always try. The first point is what the 80% of the previous Republican voters who have not yet supported The Donald may do (including the about two-thirds of those who have participated in the primaries but have voted for other pre-candidates). In case The Donald became the party’s candidate, some Republican voters might stay attached to party loyalty and joint ranks. But the level of aggressiveness between The Donald and other Republican pre-candidates has achieved unseen levels (not even remotely comparable to those between Obama and Clinton, who managed to work together afterwards, or now between Clinton and Sanders, who shouldn’t have big trouble in supporting the party convention’s choice of candidate). Not to be discarded it’s a broken Republican party convention in July which may require hard-to-win negotiations among party bosses and delegates. Or even that either The Donald or somebody else may run as a third major candidate in the presidential election.

    The other point, of course, is what the Democrats will be able to do. So far, the turnout in the Democratic primaries is also somewhat higher than usual, at about 40% of voters for Obama in the presidential election four years ago. If the Democratic candidate were able to sustain a relatively high mobilization in the three months before the election in November, (s)he should get a blatant win.

    Comments Off on Trump Is Only at 10% of the Vote

    Primary Games

    November 10th, 2015


    By Josep Colomer.



    It’s supposed that the U.S. primary elections are a mechanism to simplify the political supply to only two candidates, which will produce a single majority winner in the real election. The primaries are a substitute for the formation of a single majority winner in parliament, usually by forming a multiparty coalition, as is usual in Europe and elsewhere. In Europe, the mess is after the election, while in the U.S. it’s starting more than a year before voting day.

    In comparison, the primaries mechanism can be distorted by the failure to achieve two objectives: coordination and convergence.

    Coordination means that a varied array of primary candidates should be reduced to only one from each party, two in total. Only in a two-candidate competition plurality rule can guarantee that the winner in the real election will receive a majority support. In fact, multiple candidates run within a political and ideological range similar to multiparty systems in European countries: from social-democrats to liberals within the Democratic party and from moderates to populists within the Republican one.

    The point is whether, at the end, only two will run in the election. In the first Republican debate, Donald Trump, who had identified himself as a Democrat in the past, didn’t pledge to abstain from running as a third candidate in the election if he didn’t win the Republican primary.

    This looked like a threat in the intention to attract more voters in the primary who would fear the breakup of the Republican side if he didn’t win. But the maneuver soon backfired and a few weeks later Trump held a theatrical press conference to publicly sign a loyalty pledge to the Republican party.

    What’s more intriguing is why nobody has yet asked Bernie Sanders, who was a mayor for a ‘Progressive party’ against Democratic rivals and ran and stayed as ‘independent’ in the House of Representatives for 15 years, whether he can also pledge not to run as a third candidate next year if he doesn’t win the Democratic primary.

    In fact, third candidates are a very common feature in U.S. presidential elections. As a consequence of multi-candidate races, more than one-third of the presidents have won the election on the basis of a minority support in popular votes. Third candidates have also spoiled many elections by not winning but indirectly favoring the likely loser between the other two.

    Egregious cases include: Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge favoring the victory of Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Progressive Theodore Roosevelt favoring Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1912, Southern Democrat George Wallace favoring Republican Richard Nixon in 1968, Independence Ross Perot favoring Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and Green Ralph Nader favoring Republican George W. Bush in 2000.

    It can always happen again.

    Convergence means that if coordination achieves to select only two candidates, the best strategy is approaching the median voter’s preference, which is usually a moderate one. Yet on a number of occasions highly divided party primaries have produced extreme candidates who have experienced huge defeats in the real election.

    Memorable cases include Republican Barry Goldwater (who was derided by the Democrats because “he was right, yes, extreme right”) who lost to Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and Democrat George McGovern (who was supported by the hippy students) who lost to Richard Nixon in 1972, both by about 38% to 61% of popular votes.

    Something of the sort could happen again if the two candidates were, say, Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton, or Bernie Sanders against… hmmm, is still Jeb Bush around?

    But if even if there is coordination and convergence, the Downsian model of competing for the median actually predicts a tie. In fact, there have been numerous presidential winners with less than half a percentage point advantage over the runner-up.

    They include Rutherford Hayes (who actually obtained fewer votes but one more elector in the College) against Samuel Tilden in 1876, John Kennedy against Richard Nixon in 1960, and George W. Bush against Al Gore in 2000. In those cases the actual tie is broken by the way a few votes are counted –as happened in three Southern states, Chicago, and Florida, respectively in the cases mentioned. Anything may happen on occasions like these.

    The coming presidential election is going to be interesting because the result is always contingent on surprises, be it by lack of coordination, non-convergence or peculiar tie-breaks. But these types of surprises can happen because the institutional mechanisms enforced: primary elections and plurality rule, are highly imperfect, to say the least.

    Comments Off on Primary Games

    The Bizarre Labour “Primary”

    September 14th, 2015

    By Josep Colomer.


    The British Labour Party is back. I mean back to its old days when it lost one election after another. For the first time, the party has held a primary election to select the party leader in which every vote had the same value. The selectorate was formed of party members, members of trade unions and registered party supporters. In total, 422,664 people have actually voted. This is only 4.5 percent of the votes the Labour party obtained in the general election four months ago. In spite of rhetoric about “engaging a wider body of supporters in Labour Party activity” and “expanding the electorate”, the actual participants have mostly been party and trade unions activists with eccentric preferences regarding the whole electorate.

    This kind of ‘primary’ has nothing to do with the United States primaries. In the US, the average participation in the presidential primaries during the last forty years has been above 30 percent of the voters in the presidential election. In the Democratic primary of 2008, more than 52 percent of the party voters participated, and both the Democratic and the Republican primaries may reach high levels of participation this coming year too. The higher the participation in the primaries, the closer the winner tends to be to the preference of the whole electorate. The lower the participation, like in the British Labour experiment, the less electable the winner can be. This seems to be clearly the case of the new party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has won the ‘primary’ with support from only 2.6 percent of the party voters in the last election.

    This looks like a way back to the long period when the British Labour Party was in opposition, during the 1980s and early ’90s, which was attributed partly to the way the party selected candidates for prime minister and members of parliament. While in the winning Conservative Party, leaders and members of parliament kept control of nominations, in Labour, all party members and trade union affiliates had voting rights. Tony Blair achieved to change the party rules to select candidates, particularly by reducing the weight of the trade union affiliates, in the mid-1990s. An electoral college was formed by splitting the votes into three thirds: members of parliament, party members, and trade unions and other organizations.

        With this, Blair was able to promote his centrist ‘Third Way’ between classical Labour and new Conservative policies and to become able to win one election after another. New rules were also established to select new candidates for parliament seats. Instead of being chosen by the party members in each electoral district, candidates to candidate began to be screened by the party central headquarters, they were obliged to attend training weekends, to submit standardized CVs, and to be interviewed by a panel which included members of parliament.

    The intention, according to a senior party figure (quoted by Jeremy Paxman), was to “weed out of the charlatans” who might have somehow sneaked through the old selection system. He was frank about what this meant. People who “appeared not to have a pragmatic line on policy disagreements” or could “not avoid sounding divisive and combative if disagreeing with party policy” would be eradicated.

     By the new primary procedure, the chosen Labour party leader sounds again kind of “divisive and combative”, as in the old times. Most observers bet that he is a likely loser in the next election.

    Comments Off on The Bizarre Labour “Primary”

    Greece, Puerto Rico, Catalonia

    September 1st, 2015



    By Josep Colomer.




    These three countries are going to make news within the next few weeks. They represent the three major options to the economic and public debt crisis: bailout, default, and exit, respectively. They are all relatively small or medium-size countries, have dubious status within a larger union (be it the European Union, the United States or the Spanish state), and call snap elections, referendums and plebiscites to try to deal with the above mentioned three options.

    Greece is for the BAILOUT from the EU. The government called a referendum on the EU’s bailout in July, about 55% of voters said ‘no’, but the government accepted the bailout nevertheless (see this Blog about it CLICK). Then the Syriza ruling party split and the prime minister called a snap election for September 20 (which will be the fourth in a little more than three years). All the polls predict losses for the incumbent party. The bailout will be confirmed any way. There will not be exit so far. And strangely, default is not being considered by the EU.

    Puerto Rico is for DEFAULT. The Governor and most people of the island want to declare bankruptcy. But as they are not a state but only a “Commonwealth” of the US, they are asking and getting support from presidential candidates to legalize that option. Bailout is out of question, as the US federal government has not rescued local governments since the mid-19th century (See my comment about it CLICK). Exit is not in the agenda either: the most recent plebiscite and referendum was in 2012; it included 2 questions with 2+4 answers; the result was a kind of tie between keeping the current status and statehood in the US, while independence got less than 4% of votes.

    Catalonia may be for EXIT. The current government called an a-legal plebiscite in 2014, with 2 questions and 2+2 answers, in which about 30% of the electoral census voted for an independent state. It has also called a snap election on September 27 (which will be the third in five years). A new candidacy for independence has been formed, which may obtain a majority of votes only if there is low turnout in the election. For several decades, the people of Catalonia were considered to be pristinely Europeanist. But the elephant in the room is that Catexit from Spain would also imply exit from the European Union. This would cancel any EU’s bailout (which actually the government of Catalonia has indirectly received via the Spanish government) and most likely would not prevent default.

    My personal wish: Let’s everybody default and stay in or join the larger Union. To discuss.

    Comments Off on Greece, Puerto Rico, Catalonia

    Tsipras called the referendum to lose!

    July 14th, 2015


    By Josep Colomer. 


    In a post here a week ago about the weird referendum in Greece, I argued that “no sound government takes the initiative to call a referendum to vote ‘no’”.

    Now, former minister of finance, Yanis Varoufakis, explains that, actually, Prime minister Alex Tsipras wanted the ‘yes’ to win, in order to “have to” accept the deal with the EU that he had already seen as inevitable.

    This clarifies the apparent ridiculousness of Tsipras’ challenge, which would have been only a gesture for the gallery after he had reached a deal with the EU.

    It also explains Varoufakis’ sudden resignation immediately after the victory of ‘no’, which would have backed his tough negotiating stance only if had it been supported by his Prime minister.

    In fact, Tsipras too-smart maneuver backfired and now he, according to his previous plans, has accepted the EU deal, but in spite and against the referendum result. A double political defeat.

    Varoufakis declarations to ABC radio in Australia:

    About his resignation: “I jumped more than I was pushed.”

    How he realized that Tsipras had wanted and expected the ‘yes’ would win:

    The night of the referendum “I entered the prime minister’s office elated. I was travelling on a beautiful cloud pushed by beautiful winds of the public’s enthusiasm for the victory of Greek democracy in the referendum. The moment I entered the prime ministerial office, I sensed immediately a certain sense of resignation—a negatively charged atmosphere. I was confronted with an air of defeat, which was completely at odds with what was happening outside.

    At that point I had to put it to the prime minister: ‘If you want to use the buzz of democracy outside the gates of this building, you can count on me. But if on the other hand you feel like you cannot manage, handle this majestic ‘no’ to an irrational proposition from our European partners, I am going to simply steal into the night’… I saw that he [Tsipras] didn’t have what it took emotionally at that moment to carry that novelty to Europe, to use it as a weapon… I decided to give him the leeway that he needed in order to go back to Brussels and strike” the deal.

    Listen to Varoufakis’ words: CLICK (until minute 3)

    Comments Off on Tsipras called the referendum to lose!

    The Greek weird game: When ‘Yes’ means ‘No’

    July 4th, 2015



    By Joseph Colomer.



    Some people wonder whether the Greek government of Syriza headed by Alex Tsipras is a group of maverick politicians and skilful game theorists or a bunch of amateurs who improvise every move and don’t know where to go next. A clue to bend on the latter interpretation is how they have called this Sunday’s referendum. It’s not only that it has been called only one week in advance, that the question is undecipherable, and that they may not get on time to cover all the towns and islands of the country. It’s that the question is upside down!

    An elementary rule for callers of a referendum is to call ‘yes’ to what the callers want. This is due, first of all, to a basic democratic element of accountability. A referendum is to ratify (or reject) some proposal or decision previously made by the government, the parliament or whoever organizes the query. If the government’s proposal is rejected, which rarely happens, then the government must resign and its proposal will not be implemented. See how this was the case in Ireland a few weeks ago, where the government called for ‘yes’ to same-sex marriage and won. In last year’s referendum for independence of Scotland, the Scottish government also called for a yes, and as it lost, it resigned. Even in the a-legal query in Catalonia about a similar issue a few months ago, the Catalan government asked for a ‘yes-yes’ (which won but was not validated due to low turnout).

    The only occasions on which the government can call ‘no’ is when the referendum is promoted by a group of citizens to challenge some existing legislation, which may happen in a few places like Alaska or Utah, for instance. In fact, most popular initiatives against government-backed legislation loss. And no sound government takes the initiative to call a referendum to vote ‘no’.

    The other ‘strategic’ reason to call for ‘yes’ is psychological. In general, people prefer ‘yes’: it’s positive, optimistic, it may be based on trust, it comes first to your mind, it’s easy to deliver. ‘No’, in contrast, may require more information on the intricate matter and an attitude of distrust and angriness. Campaigning for a ‘yes’ vote is certainly easier and more cheerful than a ‘no’. Aware of this, the Britons are discussing the question for the announced referendum about Brexit from the EU (which is not going to be called one week before, like the Greek one, but about two years in advance). The independent British Electoral Commission suggested that in addition to the obvious question: “Should the UK remain a member of the EU? Yes or No”, the government should consider a less biased question with the “neutral wording”: “Should the UK remain a member of the EU or leave the EU? Remain or Leave”. Still, the status-quo (remain) would be favored. But surely the British government will feel emboldened to have its own way.

    The Greek callers are trying the silly trick of putting ‘No’ above ‘Yes’ in the unreadable and bilingual ballot, as can be seen in the image (Oxi=No, Nay=Yes). This may mislead some voters to vote for the first available option, but it can also surprise others that can react against a too obvious suggestion.

    This Sunday in Greece, if ‘no’ wins, the EU loses. But the Tsipras government would not win anything. Syriza called ‘no’ precisely because they have no-thing to offer. If the ‘yes’ wins, the governments loses and the EU wins. Then it’s the EU that should manage the victory and rule in Greece.

    Comments Off on The Greek weird game: When ‘Yes’ means ‘No’

    A Faustian bargain in the EU

    April 17th, 2015



    By Josep Colomer.



    The tragicomedy of threats and negotiations between Greece and Brussels shows the big paradox of the European Union. On the one hand, the EU is blamed for not doing much for the victims of the crisis. On the other hand, it is derided for enacting excessive bans, restrictions and regulations. Actually the two blames are two sides of the same coin.

    Europe is overregulated precisely because the EU suffers from insufficient own resources (the EU’s annual budget amounts to about 1% of the Gross European Product, while the average member state spends about 48 % of its GDP).

    In the absence of a solid Europe-wide fiscal system, the EU substitutes overregulation of states’ fiscal policy for its own financial resources. The states retain the bulk of the money, but it is largely used to implement legislation directly or indirectly originated in Brussels.

    If the states wanted the EU to do more for the European citizens, they should accept transferring significant fiscal resources to the Union. With stronger finances, Brussels would be able to develop Europe-wide policies and it would need less interference over the policy areas reserved to the states.

    The EU’s fiscal strength would be the price for the states to reduce EU’s overregulation and to regain some of their lost autonomy. The states could develop their own policies on the issues on which they would choose to be different, up to the point to be responsible for their own finances: they should have the liberty to default and not expect to be rescued by the EU at the expense of the tax-payers of other member-states.

    In other words, let’s render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to the states the things that are theirs. If, conversely, the European states want to keep the bulk of public spending, they shouldn’t blame the EU for interferences and regulations, as, in absence of Brussels fiscal strength, these are the only ways by which the Union can try to provide European public goods and to do something for the European citizens.
    Longer version in Spanish in the daily El Pais  CLICK


    Comments Off on A Faustian bargain in the EU

    The European radical left is not so

    March 2nd, 2015



    By Josep Colomer.


    The first weeks of government in Greece of Syriza, the “radical left coalition”, shows that in the current European Union it’s extremely difficult to blatantly oppose the Brussels and Frankfurt consensus. New radical left parties have tried to be launched in Southern Europe in political contexts defined by the social-democracy’s adoption of mainstream economic policy and the communists’ lack of credibility as an alternative. However, the political space outside and between these two political traditions is very narrow.

    The crucial reference for comparison is Germany. The German Social-democratic Party (SPD) was pioneer in dropping Marxism, hostility to capitalism and nationalizations and in accepting membership to NATO, as early as in 1959. A few years later, the SPD, led by Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, entered the first of what would be several grand coalition governments with the Christian-democrats. Communism was not a feasible option in West Germany, as it was identified with the Soviet occupation of East Germany. The emergence of a new left alternative took one more generation. Initially, the Greens adopted rather radical leftist positions in economic and foreign policy. But the Greens were unequivocally anti-Communists, up to the point of merging with the Eastern anti-Communist opposition in a permanent join candidacy after the reunification of the country. Over time, the Greens strongly reinforced their pro-European Union stance and became a regular party able to enter government in coalition with the Social-democrats.

    The situation has been different in Southern Europe. There were still nationalizations of private companies for ideological motives in France at the beginning of the presidency of Socialist Francois Mitterrand, who formed a coalition government with the Communists in 1981. It took barely a year, however, for the French Socialist party to abandon such a pathway. Very soon thereafter, the Socialists initiated the first of several “cohabitations” with the Conservatives. In his second term, Mitterrand appointed Prime Minister Michel Rocard –who was derided as an advocate of “the American left”— to chair a coalition cabinet with the Centrists. The attempts to set up a radical left alternative, which were strongly influenced by the legacy of Marxism and Communism, did not succeed in forming a viable governmental option. History repeats itself. After less than two years in government, the current Socialist president Francois Hollande appointed a new prime minister, Manuel Valls –a Rocard’s disciple–, who is adopting mainstream economic policies as designed by the European Union. No clear alternative is emerging outside.

    In Italy, the Socialists led by Bettino Craxi chaired a coalition government with the Christian-democrats in the 1980s. The main leftist party, the Communists, also abandoned Marxism and evolved into vague progressive positions until it merged with former Socialists and Christian-democrats in the new Democratic Party. As President of the Republic, former Communist Giorgio Napolitano appointed two cabinets of independent experts until a broad coalition of center-left and center-right parties was formed. The length and gradualism of the process of change and dissolution of the previous Communist and Socialist parties made the formation of a consistent radical left alternative extremely difficult.

    The Spanish Socialist party (PSOE) learned the lesson very soon. After losing the first two democratic elections in Spain in the late 1970s, the PSOE’s leader Felipe Gonzalez forced the party to abandon its allegiance to Marxism and to adopt pro-market economic policy commitments. The party won the following election in 1982, when the French leftist experiment had already been revised and, in this light, it didn’t even try to implement nationalizations or similar decisions. Soon thereafter the PSOE explicitly embraced NATO membership. For many years, the left radical alternative was held by the barely disguised Communist candidacy called United Left, which never became a real government option. Only after a new, recent period of Socialist governments in which the instructions from the EU became actual policy, a new left radical alternative has appeared. Under the name We Can (Podemos), it looks like a breath of fresh air, although its members are again re-disguised Communists. They are likely to be less successful in the coming general election than certain survey polls venture.


    The recent and current attempts at building political alternatives to the left of the social-democrats greatly derive from changes at European level. But facing the standard postulates of market-economy and transatlantic foreign policy requires today the adoption of anti-European Union and nationalist positions, which implies even more insurmountable challenges than in the 1980s. In this context, the experience of Syriza in government in Greece might lead to either a big turnaround of its campaign slogans –something like what the German Greens, the French, the Spanish and the Italian Socialists and the Italian Communists did in their times– or to a quick governmental and electoral failure, as has happened to all far left alternatives that have been tried. In a year or two the dies of the new radical left in Southern Europe will be cast again.

    Comments Off on The European radical left is not so

    The Emperor Addresses the Capitol

    January 21st, 2015

    By Josep Colomer.



    In the Roman imperial city of Washington, full of temples and monuments to the Caesars of the glorious past, the Emperor-President, with all pomp and ceremony addresses the Senate (and the House). In a moment of patriotic union, the members of Congress unanimously applaud, bow and revere.

    From The Washington Post:

    “The pomp and scale that surrounds Washington is a skeleton of the past. That’s not meant to refer solely to the architecture, the fake-it-till-you-make-it pretensions of a young country written in marble. It refers to much of the pageantry that we still embrace, beyond modern utility or necessity. It refers, to be direct, to the State of the Union address.

    “In 1789, it was perhaps useful to remind the president of the importance of keeping Congress (then numbering fewer than 100 people) up to speed on what was happening in the nation on the whole…. President Woodrow Wilson began the idea of giving those updates in a speech, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the State of the Union a spectacle. And once a spectacle is begun in Washington, it’s got inertia.

    “We have the speech because it is Tradition, and that Tradition reflects the Importance of the Office. So Obama walks onto the House floor, passing through an effusive crowd of legislators as they imagine themselves making that same walk, and the Great Spectacle of Washington is upheld.”

    (January 19, 2015, by Philip Bump)


    A moment of Unanimity

    Democrat President Obama, Democrat President of the Senate Biden, Republican Speaker of the House Boehner. 

    Republican President Bush, Republican President of the Senate Cheney, Democrat Speaker of the House Pelosi.

    Comments Off on The Emperor Addresses the Capitol

    The Surrealist Political History of Europe

    December 22nd, 2014


    By Joseph Colomer.


    Intervene. O descend as a dove or
    a furious papa or a mild engineer, but descend.”
    W. H. Auden, Spain (1937)

    In order to understand the current political instability and uncertainty in several European countries, we should realize that after six or seven years of economic crisis the European Union is stronger and more efficient than ever. The Union has more member-states and more candidates than before; the euro has not only not broken down, against many odds, but has expanded to new countries; the Commission now controls the states’ fiscal policy and takes the initiative to lead investments on infrastructure for growth; the banking union moves forward and the European Central Bank is more active than expected just a couple of years ago; even the common foreign policy is taking steps forward.

    Many reactions against “a closer union”, as put by the founding Treaty of Rome, are of traditionalist type, in defense of state powers that have already ceased working. Many citizens of the oldest and most successful large national states, that is, Great Britain and France, seem to retain the pride and memory of historic achievements and support parties that yearn the past, respectively the UK Independence Party and the National Front.

    At the same time, the southern periphery risks being left behind the increasing continental integration, so in Italy, Greece and Spain many disappointed people resort to protest-parties that blame the euro, the troika and globalization, as Cinque Stelle, Syriza and Podemos. At the same time, in some territories emerge the illusion of separation from large states that have lost power in order to start a new journey, as in Scotland and Catalonia.

    What all these disparate movements have in common is that they would like to restore state and nation, economic and political sovereignty. Fortunately, thanks to modern means of communication and transport, as well as the European institutions, sovereignties have ceased to exist.

    The great nineteenth century English constitutionalist, Walter Bagehot, analyzed comparable processes during the building of the American Union, namely the United States of America. The states are no longer sovereign –he noted—but they attract the loyalty of the people and are “prerequisites” to run the whole system.

    They are, as the current European states, “dignified parts” that people still voluntarily obey because they retain “historical and theatrical” elements in their political ceremonies, including parties and elections for recruitment of personnel. But the “efficient” parts, which, in fact, work and rule,are in the nascent Union, which he recognized as “new and unattractive” yet.

    This also happens in today’s Europe, where state democracies support the selection of rulers for the Union, but it’s the latter that makes many relevant decisions and that governs, in part, indirectly through state and local governments. Indeed, as also noted Bagehot, the Union concedes certain subordinate powers to the states, while it takes some ceremonial, dignifying elements for itself, but only as a supplement to the main design. (…)

    Emerging from the crisis requires adopting the efficient model of the European Union also at state level. First of all, state rulers and representatives should share and participate in public policies developed in Brussels and Frankfurt.

    Second, partisan confrontation should be replaced with super-majority coalition governments, following the example of the Union itself, as well as of Germany and other countries in the heart of the continent, in order to make European consensus policies implemented at state level.

    This has been the way in Greece, where conservatives and socialists govern together and seek the reinstatement of the country to the European economic dynamics, as well as in Italy, where, after two years of governments of competent and independent experts, the center-left and the center-right also govern together and regain electoral support.

    Rather than states dignified with traditional rites, the solution is the European model of consensus and efficiency. Although perhaps it is, as the American Union at the time was, still “new and unattractive”, the European Union works and rules.

    This article was also published in El Pais. 

    Comments Off on The Surrealist Political History of Europe