Minority governments are a common phenomenon in Spain and it is possible another minority government will emerge from the upcoming Spanish general election on 28 April. But how effective are these governments in office? Bonnie N. Field explains that in the past, minority governments were almost as successful as majority governments in implementing their policies. However, recent developments such as the emergence of Citizens and Podemos since the 2015 elections have made it increasingly challenging for minority governments to govern effectively.

Spain is a leader among European countries in minority governments, along with the Scandinavian democracies. Since the 1970s, 73% of Spain’s governments have governed in minority. A minority government has one or more political parties that hold cabinet posts, but those same parties do not have an absolute majority of seats (50%+1) in parliament.

Judging by recent years, minority governments in Spain do not work very well. The Popular Party government of Prime Minister Rajoy, which formed after the 2016 elections, lasted only 575 days. At that time, it was the briefest since the transition. The Socialist government of PM Sánchez, formed after a motion of censure against the Rajoy government in 2018, will only have lasted 326 days when Spain’s general elections take place on 28 April. In addition, both governments had difficulty carrying out their political agendas and approving budgets, which contributed to Sánchez calling early elections.

When minority governments worked

It has not always been like this. In my study of governments in Spain between 1982 and 2015, minority governments governed almost as well as majority ones. For example, minority governments approved 88% of their bills and lasted 3.51 years, compared to 89% and 3.56 years for majority ones. They also tended to fulfill their election pledges. To help explain why, I highlight three factors: political institutions, the government’s partisan bargaining position, and the reconcilability of party goals.

Briefly stated, those minority governments functioned because institutions in Spain, in general, reinforce governments, which helps minority ones in particular. This includes rules related to agenda setting and control, government investiture and censure.

With their specificities, those minority governments also had strong bargaining positions because the governing party (always only one) controlled a large number of seats. And, either the governing party occupied a central policy position in parliament, allowing it to shift allies, or it encountered potential support parties in Congress that needed political reinforcement to be able to govern, or govern more easily, at the regional level.

The objectives of the parties were reconcilable because the government (of the Socialist Party or Popular Party) was able to ally with moderate regionally-based parties from Catalonia, the Basque Country, the Canary Islands or elsewhere. These parties had little to no interest in governing Spain, but were willing to exchange their support for concessions on public policies, regional investment, decentralisation and/or political support at the regional level.

What changed

These three factors also help us understand why the Rajoy and Sánchez minority governments have not worked as well, aside from other elements that affected them individually. The party system changed in 2015 to include two new competitors at the national level – Podemos on the left of the Socialists, and Citizens on the centre-right, between the Socialists and the Popular Party – along with the regionally-based parties.

The subsequent minority governments had fewer seats of their own in parliament – Rajoy’s Popular Party held 39% of the seats in the Congress of Deputies and Sánchez’s Socialists held 24%, compared with between 45% and 48% for the previous minority governments. Measured by the Chapel Hill Expert Survey, the Popular Party under Rajoy did not occupy the central position in parliament on either of the two main axes of party competition – the left-right and territorial cleavages. The Socialist Party under Sánchez only occupied it on the territorial one.

Reconciling party goals also became more complicated. Some regionally-based parties, such as the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and the Canary Islands Coalition (CC), continued to provide support for minority governments. However, polarisation surrounding the political status of Catalonia and the Catalan nationalist parties’ move to secessionism made getting and governing with their support far more difficult. Moderate Catalan nationalist parties had previously been essential supports for minority governments.

But, support from regionally-based parties would not have been enough numerically either, as it had been before 2015. The post-2016 minority governments also had to seek support from the new parties, Citizens or Podemos, who were strong electoral competitors with interest in displacing the dominant parties from power.

While Spain’s relevant formal institutions did not change, the Sánchez 2018 government and its allies never gained control of the parliament’s governing board, which has agenda setting power. Instead, there was a rightist majority of the Popular Party and Citizens, established after the 2016 elections. This allowed the political right to stymie the Sánchez government’s parliamentary agenda.

In part as a result, the Sánchez government passed many laws through executive decree. My prior work showed that decree power helped minority governments advance their agendas. They issued an average of 17 decrees per year in that study. The Rajoy minority government issued 30 in little more than a year and a half (for an annualised average of 19). But, the Sánchez government has so far issued 35 decrees in less than a year in office.

What’s to come?

According to the polls, the next government in Spain will be a minority or a coalition government, and perhaps both at the same time – a minority coalition. Its ability to govern remains to be seen.

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Note: A previous version of this article was published in Catalan at El món de demà. The article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Nathan Rupert (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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About the author

Bonnie N. Field – Bentley University
Bonnie N. Field is a political scientist and Professor of Global Studies at Bentley University (Massachusetts). She is the author of Why Minority Governments Work: Multilevel Territorial Politics in Spain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), among other publications on Spanish politics, political parties and institutions.

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