Saturday, February 17, 2007

71 years to the day... the Popular Front

Yesterday (February 16) as I was being my usual absent-minded self, my thoughts drifted to the Spanish Civil War, and in particular to the understudied but very important period of the Spanish Second Republic. I knew there must be a reason for this, and I quickly thumbed through my well-worn copy of Hugh Thomas’ book (aptly titled The Spanish Civil War). And indeed: February 16, 2007, was the 71st anniversary of the Spanish parliamentary elections of 1936, won by the Popular Front, which began the acceleration of Spain’s descent into all-out war in July.

Today, Spain is a relatively stable democracy, and almost unique among European democracies, has essentially a two-party system, with government alternating between the currently ruling Socialists (PSOE) and opposition conservative People’s Party (PP). The Spanish Second Republic was entirely different, on the other hand. The main political parties and groups included:

The Republican Left (IR), a center-left but doggedly anti-clerical group, led by Manuel Azaña Díaz, a literary figure who would serve as prime minister and president;
The same Socialists (PSOE), but very leftist at the time, led by trade-union leader Francisco Largo Caballero;
The Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) and National Council of Workers (CNT), a large anarchist group and the associated trade union;
The Spanish Confederation of Independent Rightist Parties (CEDA), the best translation I can come up with for the unwieldy Spanish name Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas, a federation of rightist, generally Christian-influenced parties led by lawyer José María Gil Robles;
The Radical Republican Party (PRR), which while republican in orientation was more centrist/conservative in other policies and tended to be pragmatic to the point of sleaziness, led by veteran politician Alejandro Lerroux;
Various regional parties, such as the Regionalist League (Lliga) of conservative Catalans, the Esquerra Republicana (ERC) of socialist Catalans, and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV).

This fragmentation occurred for several related reasons: (1) intense regionalism; (2) sharp disagreement on the nature of the regime, monarchist vs. republican, federal vs. unitary, secular vs. laic; (3) economic inequalities; (4) personal disagreements and opportunism among politicians, and a total lack of trust. Added to this, perhaps, should be the electoral system.

The Spanish electoral system in the Second Republic heavily favored provincial majorities. I believe the majority party or list in a constituency (almost always the same as a province) received 80 percent of the seats from that constituency, with minorities receiving the other 20 percent. Additionally, the system was open-list, weakening the party structure. The closest comparison today would be the Brazilian legislature, with open lists but only a single non-transferable vote for each elector, the difference being that in Spain there was a substantial prize for the largest list, further encouraging electoral pacts (but only on a provincial basis).

The result was heavy distortion of results (the winning list would receive a large majority in the unicameral Cortes), a fragmented legislature, and distribution of seats by party that was definitely not proportional. Some parties in lists benefited disproportionately, and losing parties (especially if they weren’t in alliances), lost greatly. For example, a disunited Left lost the election of 1933 badly, and the Republican Left in particular won fewer than 20 seats.

In 1936, the Popular Front was formed by the Republican Left, the Republican Union (a splinter of the Radicals), the Socialists, and the Communists (PCE). It competed against the more loosely organized National Front, headed by the CEDA and also including traditional monarchists in Spanish Renewal (RE) and Carlists in the Traditional Community (CT), though the fascist Falange remained outside. Again, however, given the provincial nature of the election, pacts were sometimes made with regional and centrist parties in various parts of the country, and alliances were not always consistent.

There are not any extremely detailed results of these elections readily available, though Tusell (1971) conducted a study which I don’t have access to. Hugh Thomas’ figures, adapted from Tusell, show the following:

34.3 percent for the Popular Front, and 263 seats

33.2 percent for the National Front, and 156 seats

5.4 percent for various centrists (Radicals, Basques, etc.), and 59 seats.

While one might surmise that the antipathy between today’s principal Spanish political parties (PP and PSOE) is the result of this longstanding feud—and it is true that today, older conflicts are reappearing—it is also the result of the fact that Spain today has this two-party system with little coalition-building. The Spanish electoral system technically has low thresholds, but uses the d’Hondt method to distribute seats in mainly very small constituencies. The principal differences from the Second Republic are: (1) a lower house ¾ of the size (350 seats today), meaning a lot of 3 to 5-seat constituencies that are not really “proportional”, and (2) closed party lists. One might surmise that, at least initially, those framing the Spanish Constitution were not horribly upset by the prospect of consolidation due to the fractious history of political parties; but at the same time, this was by no means an inevitable result, given that even at that time, principal political forces included the PSOE, the PP’s predecessor the Popular Alliance (AP), the Union of the Democratic Center (UCD) of transitional PM Adolfo Suárez, the Popular Socialist Party (PSP), and the Communists (PCE). But the UCD disappeared, AP merged with other rightist parties to form PP, PSP merged quickly into PSOE, and the Communists are now part of the United Left, a coalition with little import.

At any rate, what has happened is a disproportional Spanish system that favors the big parties and the smaller, but regionally concentrated, parties such as the Catalan and Basque regionalists. This has lent the system a stability that it lacked in 1936, at the cost of choice along the ideological spectrum.

Meanwhile… immediately following the announcement of the 1936 results (a few days later), PM Manuel Portela Valladares resigned, and somewhat irregularly, Manuel Azaña was appointed prime minister for the second time before the new Cortes was inaugurated, heading a government composed almost entirely of his own Republican Left (with less than 100 seats in the 478-seat Cortes), in which the Socialists refused to participate. So began the descent into war.


mshugart said...

Very interesting. Thanks for this post. I was not aware of the anniversary. I wish I had seen the post back then. I would have noted it at F&V.

Regarding CEDA: Not rightist, but rights. Spanish Confederation for Autonomous Rights. (I am not disputing that they were on the right, only the translation.)

As for the Republic's electoral system, that's nothing like Brazil! (And Brazilians do have a single non-transferable vote, within the list they choose.)

Today's electoral system of Spain is fairly disproportional because the average district magnitude is so low (which favors the regional parties, as you note). The threshold is applied at the district level, but only two districts have a high enough magnitude for it to matter.

Alex said...

Yes, the biggest "problem" with the Spanish system is the small constituencies (most of which are rural; this also favors the PP, very slightly).

As for the translation, I must disagree: the name was Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas, the feminine, i.e. political "right." This use of "Derechas" and "Izquierdas" in Spanish might be a bit dated, I'm not sure, but Gil Robles uses it frequently in this sense in No fue posible la paz (usually not saying "Partidos de derecha" but rather "las derechas.") The party was a conglomerate of various regional rightist groups, such as Gil Robles' Acción Popular and Luis Lucia's Derecha Regional Valenciana.

Alex said...

Oops, I missed the part where you said "nothing like Brazil"... I just said that is the closest comparison! The same could be said for any fully open-list system based on regional constituencies, the (significant) differences being the majority bonus and the Spanish Republic MNTV (I am not sure how many votes per elector) as opposed to SNTV. Point being, there is no exactly comparable system in use today, and that is probably a good thing.