Goodbye, Spain

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.


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