Diario de Madrid [CC BY 4.0 (]
Spain: a national democratic deficit and local hope for better times

The Spanish Social-democratic Workers’ Party (PSOE) has won the national elections on Sunday November, 10 (120 seats in a parliament with 350 seats) in an increasingly fragmented Spain. The extreme-right party VOX came in third and reached a substantial number of 52 seats. Following this significant election, we want to take a closer look at the situation of Spanish (direct) democracy. Luckily, on the local level there is hope for better times.

Sunday’s ballot results seem to mark the end of the so-called ‘’Spanish exception’’, according to which Spain seemed politically immune for parliamentary representation of an extreme-right party. The European Council on Foreign Relations explains this circumstance as the result of “[...] the fact that its citizens not so long ago experienced an authoritarian and nationalist regime, and that, as a country, its attitudes to immigration have been overwhelmingly positive, compared with other European states.” As a result, right-wing populism remained just a marginal phenomenon.

So why did VOX do so well in the elections? It seems that the 2017 Catalan independence referendum has politicized differences in Spanish society. The ´´Catalan question´´ has become a stalemate in Spanish politics and the cause of deep political and societal fragmentation. Additionally, the separatist movement and the feelings that it has awakened in Spanish patriots and nationalists, fuelled the success of the VOX party. The extreme reaction by the Spanish central state to the referendum– resulting in long prison sentences for its political organizers, marks the democratic crisis Spain is tied up in. It will be very challenging for any political party to navigate these issues.

If we now have a look at the perspective of citizen participation, one could say that there is a lack of direct democracy which became obvious in the case of the (controversial) 2017 Catalan independence referendum. Catalonia is one of the 17 autonomous communities that build up the Spanish decentralized state. The regional governments hold some competences- always according to the constitution and their own organic laws. The Spanish Constitution, which also requires Catalonia to follow as an autonomous community, does not provide citizens the possibility to trigger a referendum. Section 87 states that “Legislative initiative belongs to the Government, the Congress and the Senate, in accordance with the Constitution and the Standing Orders of the Houses.” Nevertheless, the independence movement let the Catalan citizens vote in October 2017: 90 percent were in favour of an independence of Catalonia from Spain- but the turnout was only 43%. Due to the fact that it was an unauthorised vote, the Spanish central state deployed police blockades in order to prevent people voting and to avoid violent collision in the streets. Afterwards, the Spanish government had declared that this voting was unconstitutional and relieved Carles Puigdemont of his office as catalan president and charged him with rebellion whereafter he fled to Belgium. The national arrest warrant is still valid.

The fact remains that Spanish people can not directly bring any issue on the political agenda- on the national and regional level. But if we have a look at the local level, there is one big exception: the “concejo abierto”. An age-old concept which roughly translates to ‘open council’ permits villagers to govern their own pueblo through a citizen-assembly that has decision-making capacities equal to those of an ´´regular´´ municipality, for example, citizens make all the decisions that concern their village. Also, citizens choose their mayor according to a majority vote.

However, even though the system is solidly incorporated into Spanish electoral laws, it's  only used in villages with less than 100 inhabitants or in villages that traditionally use this type of territorial organization. Following recent electoral reforms, the practice is no longer obligatory. This has caused the disappearance of this style of municipal government in many rural areas in Spain. You could argue that ageing populations put further pressure on it. 

Spain’s cities offer further hope for the future of democracy. In the crisis year 2011, broad public dissatisfaction erupted into fiery street protests. The demands of the protesters were later-on incorporated in new political structures and institutions. One of the results? From the Basque coasts to Andalusia, citizen assemblies, participatory digital democracy and new political parties boosted democratic innovation at the local level.

Madrid is one of the most successful examples of this trend. The creation of the online platform Decide Madrid gives citizens the opportunity to propose ideas for the city or their neighbourhood. The website is supported by open-source software Consul. If a proposal receives the support of 1 percent of all citizens living in Madrid, the proposal will be put up for a vote in the platform. The outcomes of this vote are binding for city-government. Among the ideas was the proposal to make Madrid 100% sustainable, an idea approved by almost 190.000 citizens. The Decide Madrid platform also incorporates a participatory budgeting tool, which has been allocated 100 million euro every year since the first implementation, making Madrid an international reference of ´´new´´ democracy. This tool is very important, because it directly gives citizens budget at their disposal to implement proposals in their own neighbourhood and city. Ideas that have been installed are, for example, the construction of green spaces in an neighbourhood, measures for making the city more bicycle friendly and measures to combat social exclusion.

Maybe the most striking success of the tool is the export of the idea to other cities and institutions. Consul, the open-source software behind the platform is fuelling democratic renewal all over the globe. Currently it is used in 33 countries, but more cities are joining every day. 

Let’s hope for a flourishing future for Spanish democracy, with extension of good practices on both the local and the national level. What local examples and the case of Catalonia showed, is that citizens want to have a say in democracy and decision-making processes. The legacy of Spanish democratic reform has already spread internationally and it’s unlikely that this fire will be extinguished.