Organizing the 14-F elections revives the debate on the electoral law

The historical inability to pass the law makes it difficult for the Government to plan the elections

Of all the unfinished projects that Parliament has accumulated in 40 years of democratic restoration, there is one that in the days of Covid has acquired special relevance. In four decades the parties have been unable to pass their own electoral law and Catalonia is governed by the state regulation, the organic law of the general electoral regime (the Loreg). Now, this anomaly has been shown to be a notable lack for the Generalitat when trying to apply various measures that would facilitate holding elections in the midst of a pandemic. With its own law, everything would be easier; without such a rule, the room for maneuver is reduced. What is the genesis of this failure?

The difficulties are mainly two. The first is that the parents of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy decided that to pass an electoral law a reinforced majority of 90 MPs was needed instead of a simple majority of 68, a consensus that has never been seen throughout the times of the Catalan independence bid. The second difficulty is that the parties have always come across the same issue: they do not agree on the key section of the law, the electoral system. That is, the formula for translating votes into seats.

At the conflict's core

The mental framework on which the conflict has moved is that the current electoral system benefits CiU (and the parties in which it has been mutating, such as PDECat and JxCat) and ERC, which have more representation in the less populated areas of Catalonia. On the other hand, it damages parties such as the PSC, Cs, the PP and the comuns, which are fundamentally strong in the metropolitan area of Barcelona. The paradigmatic case is that of the 1999 elections. Pasqual Maragall (PSC) obtained more votes, but Jordi Pujol (CiU) won in seats. This is because the votes of the demarcations of Girona, Lleida and Tarragona have more weight than those of Barcelona. If we wanted to level the situation to give priority to the population, we would have to take into account that 74% of Catalans live in the province of Barcelona. It is the eternal debate about what should prevail: the proportionality of the vote of each citizen or that all the territories feel well represented in the hemicycle. A formula to everyone's liking has never been found.

Joan Botella is a professor of political science at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) and was a promoter of the popular legislative initiative (ILP) that has tried, so far without success, to promote an electoral law. "These laws always have a problem: whoever wants to change it cannot because they do not have enough votes, and whoever could change it does not want to because the current one already gives them the necessary votes", he diagnoses. In other words, all parties negotiate it with a "calculator in hand" and if the new electoral formula does not benefit them, they discard it. Catalonia is a victim of this scheme.

One of the MPs who has worked the hardest on a law like this is Jaume Bosch (ICV-EUiA). For him it is a "shame for the self-government of Catalonia" that an agreement has not been reached. "It is everyone's fault, I admit it, but it is more the fault of some than of others" he adds, thinking of CiU and ERC. Lluís Corominas, former vice president of the Parliament with CiU and JxSí, has also extensively negotiated this measure and defends himself. He still remembers the dialectical duels he had with the PSC. He argued that if the Socialists were not strong enough in less populated areas, it was not their problem. "If in 40 years they have not become strong in certain territories, it has not been the fault of those who are", he explains. «And I don't dare to go to Lleida, Tarragona and Girona to tell them that we take their representativeness to give it to Barcelona».

It’s about much more than votes and seats 

Nevertheless, an electoral law is much more than a system for converting votes into seats. With such a rule, for example, improvements such as trying to encourage participation and reducing the costs of a campaign could be implemented. Corominas states that in the drafting of the electoral law that did not come to fruition parties had agreed "on many things" such as these, but that the political blockade prevented them from being implemented. He remembers that they had agreed to allow the possibility of voting for more than one day - "for a week, even" -, as well as the implementation electronic voting. Bosch also recalls that this included measures to facilitate voting by mail, or by creating mobile ballot boxes that could reach "certain places and facilitate voting for people who could not move”. These improvements would have been key to vote during the current pandemic. They are measures that would help to avoid overcrowded voting, and give more tools to infected and vulnerable people; ultimately impacting all voters.

And now, what? Botella, Bosch, and Corominas recall that in the past a transient solution was proposed: to pass a "partial electoral law", that is, a rule that would not touch the electoral system, but would allow all other improvements to be introduced. It would not be ideal, but it would be a way out. Everyone defends the need for a law to be applied soon, but no one can say whether we will have to wait another 40 years for it to arrive.

The ILP is still very much alive in Parliament

The Catalan Parliament still believes in the opportunity to pass an electoral law. In fact, if there were no elections on February 14, it could be worked on today. In a drawer of the chamber there must be the popular legislative initiative (ILP) that a few years ago a group of citizens promoted -after obtaining thousands of signatures- to try to pass the regulation. For the moment, however, the issue is at a standstill. However, the promoters of the ILP have an element in favor: although the legislature ends shortly, their initiative will not disappear. In the next term they will have the right to re-launch it or, at the very least, to demand that it be discussed. In 2011 Núria de Gispert said that she wanted to "go down in history" as the president of the Catalan Parliament who had managed to see how a Catalan electoral law was approved. Almost 10 years and two presidents later - Carme Forcadell and Roger Torrent - this is still a pending issue.

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