Spaniards, like people everywhere, are intently watching the presidential campaign in the U.S., trying to understand it and to guess what if any consequences the victory of one candidate rather than another might have for them. But they are even more stirred, agitated and irritated by Spain's own campaign for the national elections scheduled for next Sunday, March 9, whose likely consequences are more immediate and much clearer.
Any superficial resemblances between the two campaigns are due to the globalization of electoral techniques, most of them invented in recent years in the U.S. but now widely imitated in Mexico, Guatemala, Ukraine and other places. They include attack ads on TV, the use of SMS and Internet to create rapid rallies, the color coordination and choreography of banners and chants at those rallies for television, the instigation of bloggers and radio talk-show hosts to launch unprovable accusations against opponents, and insistent use of a few carefully chosen photos of the party's leader.
But the real dynamics of political mobilization (often mistaken for the democratic process) are radically different, because the issues, the social history and constitutional system in each of these countries are different. Here I'll try to understand the peculiarities of the Spanish process and how it came about.
In the rocky period known as "the Transition" when Spain was struggling to create a new society after the death of Francisco Franco (November, 1975), conservatives were hysterically fearful that their ancient enemies, the Communist Party and the revived and renewed Partido Socialista, would win open elections and burn their churches, nationalize their property and otherwise make their lives miserable. These people were too many and too well organized --- for example in the armed forces and in church organizations -- to be ignored. Outside of the ideological Right, minority nationalities (including but not limited to the Catalans, Basques and Gallegos) and rural provinces with small populations feared that their rights would be ignored in outright majority rule. A third fear, widely shared by people of varying ideologies, was that with so many new parties contending for power, the system would be as unstable as Italy, and worse, that the instablity would invite a new military coup.
The compromise worked out in 1977 and institutionalized in the 1978 constitution was designed to guarantee representation for even the least populous districts and to exaggerate the winning party's share of power, to ensure that it had sufficient seats to resist threats of "no confidence" votes.
It is a parliamentary system in which no one votes for president. Although portraits of Mariano Rajoy, leader of the Partido Popular (the largest party of the opposition), José Rodríguez Zapatero, leader of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español and incumbent President of the Government, and Gaspar Llamazares of Izquierda Unida appear throughout Spain in every available space, their names will appear on the ballot only in Madrid -- as candidates for diputado, not presidente.
In each electoral district, people vote for candidates for diputado (member of parliament), from the list of candidates presented by each party. The elected deputies -- a total of 350, a number that has been constant since 1978 -- then vote on which of them will become presidente del gobierno. If one party wins a majority of deputies, its leader becomes presidente del gobierno and it forms the government. More often (as in the last election, 2004), no party wins an absolute majority, so the party with the most deputies (in 2004 that was the Socialists) must enter into agreement with smaller parties to get their vote (and usually make programmatic concessions or include the smaller party's members in the government). It is not possible in Spain (as is currently the situation in the U.S.) for the president to be of one party and the legislature of another -- whichever party (or coalition of parties) has the most deputies, chooses the president.
So far, no problem. The problem comes in the way those deputies are elected, which gives exaggerated weight to small provinces and grossly underrepresents the smaller parties.
Spain is divided into 52 congressional districts (circunscripciones), the 50 provinces plus the two urban enclaves in Africa, Ceuta and Melilla. These are very unequal in population, but each province gets two deputies automatically just for being a province (Ceuta and Melilla get one each). Thus 102 parliamentary seats (out of the 350 total) are assigned without regard to the population they represent. Only the remaining 248 parliamentary seats are assigned according to population. The number may vary slightly from election to election, as relative population shifts. In 2004 the Community of Madrid, with over 6 million inhabitants, had a total of 35 deputies (2 for its territory plus 33 as its proportion of the 248 other seats), and Barcelona, the second largest, with a population of 5.3 million, had 31 (2 + 29). The nine smallest provinces, with populations ranging from only 93,593 (Soria) up to 220,000 (Huesca) had 3 diputados each (2 + 1). Thus a vote in Soria (3 seats divided by 93,500) is weighted roughly 6 times as heavily as a vote in Madrid (35 seats divided by 6 million) or Barcelona (31 seats divided by 5.3 million).
The system is further skewed by the way votes are translated into parliamentary seats. To ensure that the party with the most votes could form a stable government, the makers of the 1978 constitution adopted a complicated system invented by a Belgian mathematician, Victor d'Hondt (1841-1901), which overweights the larger votes. (For an explanation, see D'Hondt Method - Wikipedia).
The Partido Popular has an especially strong following in the least populous, most conservative provinces; in all but 1 of the 9 smallest, the PP won 2 of the 3 available seats in 2004 and the PSOE picked up the remaining seat. (The exception was Huesca, where proportions were reversed). Thus: (1) by winning more seats in the little provinces where votes are most heavily weighted, the Partido Popular needs fewer votes per deputy than the PSOE, and both parties (PP & PSOE) need fewer votes per deputy than any of the smaller competing parties. In 2004, the PSOE won 42.6% of the votes and almost 47% of the seats (164 deputies), but the disproportion for the PP was greater: 37.7% of the votes, but 42.3% of the seats (148 deputies). The third largest vote-getter, Izquierda Unida, with 5% of the votes, but none of the smaller provinces, took only 5 seats, slightly over 1%. (2) To win a seat in a province with 5 or fewer representatives, you need at least 20% of the votes, or 25% if there are only 4 deputies, etc., whereas in Madrid or Barcelona you can get elected with about 3%. This puts the third largest party, Izquierda Unida, at a great disadvantage, because its supporters don't reach 20% anywhere. Nationwide, in 2004 IU won 5% of the votes, but instead of 17 deputies (5% of 350), won only 5 seats: 2 each in Barcelona and Madrid, plus 1 in Valencia (the next largest province, with 16 deputies). (3) Regional, ethnic-based parties do better with fewer votes than the IU because their supporters are more concentrated geographically and can win even in some of the constituencies with as few as 6 representatives, as well as in the larger cities of their regions. Thus the conservative Catalonian party CiU (Convergència i Unió), with only 3.2% of the votes, won 10 seats in 2004. The Basque national party PNV, with only 1.6% of the votes, got 7 seats.
This is why Gaspar Llamazares, leader of Izquierda Unida, complains that his party (whose supporters are widespread, not concentrated in any one electoral district) needs three times as many votes to get the same number of parliamentary seats, and demands a reform of the electoral law. (See Gaspar Llamazares responde). It is also why he is not likely to get it -- the two largest parties, which would have to agree to any reform, are doing just fine the way things are. It's not fair, but that's the way it is.