political parties

political parties
   Spanish political parties are characterized by several factors, most of which can be explained by the legacy of the Franco regime and the nature of the subsequent élite-led transition to democracy. These factors are: low levels of membership resulting in a weak party-electorate bond; an oligarchic structure and nature; the importance of personalities as opposed to policies or issues; and a tendency towards ideological vagueness.
   The Spanish party system can be classified as a limited multi-party system given that although there are numerous parties in existence, only four or five are protagonists on the national political scene, either in roles of government or opposition, or as vital actors when forming pacts. Despite its multi-party nature, however, the Spanish party system clearly rests on two positions, namely the centre-right and the centre-left. The parties which make up this system are the socialist PSOE and the United Left (Izquierda Unida), the centreright PP and the conservative regional parties of the Basque country (PNV), and Catalonia (CiU). These regional parties are strong, both in their own particular region as well as at the national level.
   The major political parties in Spain have relatively few members compared to their European counterparts. Public reluctance to become a party member is understandable given that all party political activity was outlawed during the almost forty years of dictatorship under Franco. Moreover, the fact that parties were legalized only shortly before the first general elections in June 1977 meant that they themselves had little time to develop their organizational bases, as all other objectives were sacrificed to the priority of winning electoral support. The oligarchic nature of Spanish political parties, that is to say the concentration of power within the party leadership at the expense of grassroots participation, is favoured by a number of factors. First, political parties in Spain today are relatively new organizations, since even those which can lay claim to historical roots—the communist PCE, the PSOE and the PNV-virtually had to recreate themselves from the top downwards under the new democracy. Thus, the party executive was already firmly established before local and provincial party structures could be developed. Second, the electoral system of "closed" lists (which prohibits the introduction or suppression of names) and "blocked" lists (which prevents the selection of candidates in the order of preference) obliges the electorate to choose between lists of candidates offered by the party apparatus. The prospective candidate is thus dependent on the party leadership for selection and financial support, thereby ensuring that candidates show more allegiance to the party oligarchy than they do to the rank-and-file members. This relationship is further strengthened by state-financing of parties. Third, the internal organization of most parties reflects the dominance of the party leadership as compared to their small memberships. Closely approximating Michel's Iron Law of Oligarchy, the command structure is firmly regulated and hierarchical and there is little space for independent initiatives by the rank-and-file membership. Lastly, the oligarchic nature of the parties is exacerbated by the dominance of the core executive over the parliament. The formal rules governing the Cortes and the way in which they have been interpreted mean that it is generally the party spokesmen who dominate the opportunities for public speech. The initiatives available to the ordinary member of parliament are thus reduced to the simple approval or disapproval of measures by pressing the appropriate voting button.
   The importance of individual leaders also reinforces this oligarchic tendency. The stress on élite-level negotiations during the transition to democracy meant that political parties frequently became identified with their high-profile leaders rather than with their party programmes. The increasing role of the mass media in election campaigns also emphasizes the public image of leaders, helping to establish a direct relationship between them and the electorate at the expense of the role of party activists and of the party itself in reaching public opinion.
   This emphasis on personalities tends to push issues and party programmes to the background. This leads to a high degree of ideological vagueness and a situation where the public discourse of the major parties, characterized by much rhetoric, often bears little resemblance to their actual behaviour. Ideological imprecision was especially evident during the transition when parties frequently underwent dramatic shifts in their ideological and programmatic positions as they continually tried to adapt their strategies to the changing nature of the transition. Such ideological imprecision is consonant with the catch-all strategies used by Spanish parties. Parties compete for the largest number of votes possible by making electoral appeals to numerous, and often opposed, social sectors. Ideological differences are thus minimized and electoral promises are vague. The logic of democratization in Spain meant that parties were obliged to move towards the centre in order to achieve electoral success given that public-opinion surveys demonstrated emphatically that the bulk of the electorate placed themselves in the centre of the political spectrum.
   Many of these characteristics are of course common elsewhere in Europe, but what most differentiates Spanish parties from their European counterparts is that the above characteristics are more exaggerated in the former, given that the longevity of the Franco regime meant that Spain never experienced the age of mass-membership parties. Instead, Spanish parties have gone directly from being élite parties to vote-maximizing parties.
   Further reading
   - Gunther, R., Sani, G. and Shabad, G. (1987) Spain After Franco. The Making of a Competitive Party System, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press (a comprehensive account of the evolution of the party system in contemporary Spain).
   - Heywood, P. (1995) The Government and Politics of Spain, London: Macmillan Press (includes excellent chapters on political parties and the party system).
   - Linz, J. and Montero, J. (eds), (1986) Crisis y Cambio: Electores y Partidos en la España de los Años Ochenta, Madrid: Centre de Estudios Constitucionales (an excellent and welldocumented general study).

Encyclopedia of contemporary Spanish culture. 2013.

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