Some thoughts on the Spanish elections
By Alberto Mingardi
Spain is going to the ballot box on Sunday. The electoral law is a version of proportional representation, that helps the top-scoring parties to manage a high number of seats for the sake of governability.
The polls suggest that the Socialists will be the first party and will attempt to form a government with Podemos, the populist left wing. Such a government may not be enjoying a very wide majority. This is something that might make its life difficult, but it may also benefit the more extreme wing of the coalition, as each and any of their votes will matter, driving the Socialists to buy into their most radical positions to keep the coalition in power.
A government of this sort is likely to have two major consequences. It will be an executive friendlier to Catalan secessionists than a right-wing coalition: this friendliness is unlikely to make for a legal referendum to secede, but it may result in freeing the Catalan leaders who are still under arrest and offer them some sort of amnesty. The Catalan question was at the center of Monday’s debate.
The other, major consequence is going to be a dramatic rise in regulation and spending. Podemos might stop short of demanding a full-fledged revolution as a condition of their participation in the governing coalition, but they advocate regulating anything that moves (including rent control and limiting freedom to rent your flat on Airbnb) until they’ll ask to nationalize it because it stopped moving. The Spanish economy is moderately successful in the Euro area (it came back to positive growth in 2015) but such a hailstorm of regulation could easily smother it.
What about the right? The main problem is that it is divided into three different parties which show little willingness to govern together, nor have they tried to leverage the electoral system to make such a scenario more likely. Ciudadanos (more centrist/ moderate social democrat), the PP (more Christian democrat) and Vox (outright nationalist which is campaigning for more immigration restrictions) seem to share a certain allegiance to the market economy but they seem to be mainly characterized by a strong belief into stopping any sort of Catalonian secessionism. In a column for ABC, Alvaro Vargas Llosa makes the point that these parties have certain economic proposals and that they are mostly good: but that they decided to avoid making them the central message they are trying to showcase to voters.
Writes Vargas Llosa:
In a Spain that grows only 2 percent, has the highest structural unemployment in Europe and a suffocating debt, whose productivity is mediocre and whose pensions are threatened by the current unviable pension system, the right should have focused on the economic issue, summarizing its points into a pair of hurricane-driven, exciting ideas, and to a message of convincing alarm against the continuity of the prevailing statism.
That didn’t happen. The PP has tried to invest in a sounder economic perspective than it has in the past, a few months ago they organized a rather impressive conference of which the classical liberal message was an important part (Johan Norberg was among the speakers), and they have the liberal economist and investor Daniel Lacalle in their slate of candidates. Vox has apparently a strong, free-market platform, considered by libertarian economist Juan Ramon Rallo the most free market available, though, as Rallo himself pointed out, this doesn’t go very well with the party’s positions on a lot of other matters, beginning with immigration and strenghtening the central administration at the expense of federalism.
Still, what unifies the right wingers is, in this election, their fight against the Catalans and their hostility to secession (and, in the case of Vox, also to the existing system of regional autonomies). This is perhaps a lesson to learn: identity politics always trumps economic ideas, whether on the left or on the right. It shapes political parties and leaves little room for anything else, including messages that should be of more immediate interest to voters (how much I’m going to pay in taxes next year?).
The polls seem to be rather unanimous in seeing the left heading on. We’ll see. By talking with people, it also seems that the only two ‘cool’ options—by which I mean. the only two vote options youngish people seem not to be ashamed of mentioning—are either Podemos or Vox, the two extremes. One wonders if, as sometimes happens, apparent apathy may not actually signal allegiance to more traditional parties, such as the PP.