Government in a standstill

12 Abr, 2016 - - @kanciller

The parties are preparing themselves for May 2nd, the moment when the legislature is automatically dissolved. The severity of the reproaches and the determined negotiation strategies indicate that the probability of new elections has risen once more. In any case, there is little doubt that if there is agreement, it will only materialize in the last moment. To a certain point, this is similar to the recent tortuous processes of forming governments in Andalucía and Cataluña. Otherwise, it will be time to return to the polls, with the hopes of unblocking the situation.

The reasons that the formation of a government has taken so long have been well highlighted in other posts. In this article, Luis Abenza focuses on the fluidity and volatility of the party system as an element that makes actors very strategic, hindering cooperation. In his article, José Fernández-Albertos writes about the constructive vote of no confidence, or the strength of the presidency as a factor that creates distrust between actors when it comes time to reach an agreement. Some of these elements seem idiosyncratic of past elections, while others are more structural— such as the weakness of our Congress as a counterweight and control of accords. Whatever the case, the situation calls for more patience.

In some countries, such as the United Kingdom or Denmark, the negotiating dynamics do not last long, hardly days, but in Belgium or the Netherlands the matter can drag on for weeks or even months. However, it is often forgotten that time itself is an important tool in negotiation. As the specialized literature shows, asymmetrical information between actors can play a fundamental role, even in contexts of low volatility. This, apart from the political system’s fluidity and possible sorpassos, has to do with the uncertainty of negotiator’s preferences.

The argument is quite intuitive. The formateur party, from the beginning, is not always sure which offer would be acceptable to the other negotiating parties. This generates incentives to start the negotiations with narrow demands— alleging, for example, that “It’s either myself, or allowing Mariano Rajoy to continue.” However, the absence of government and lack of agreement are, in theory, costly for all sides, as the other parties can use time as a credible symbol of their preferences. The parties in more extreme positions are more prone to play with time, since it remains their best way to show that they are tough negotiators. On the other hand, centrist parties can be harmed more if the are not capable of forming a government.

This fits into the situation of CUP in Cataluña, which reached their agreement with JxS in extremis. Similarly, it can also explain the dynamics of Podemos or Ciudadanos , leaving aside their negotiating strategies (for better or worse). It makes sense to think that Podemos would have been harmed by accepting the first proposal of PSOE, in the same way that Ciudadanos could have paid a price for not trying to facilitate a government.

This generates a forecast, which is that ideological polarization reduces the window of acceptable opportunities for all sides. In other words, if the distance between those negotiating is sizeable, more questions arise about the basic building blocks of an agreement (Vice-presidencies, etc). Therefore, despite it becoming more difficult to cooperate when parties are competing for the same electorate, it is also true that the ideological distance can play a more valuable role, delaying an agreement.

This connects with the idea that political parties are not unitary actors. Their intra-party heterogeneity makes it so deals between leaders are insufficient. It is important that there is, at the least, an implicit competition inside the base— although in Spain we have only explicitly seen this in PSOE’s internal vote. This explains why in every negotiating offer, leaders must keep in mind the red lines for which internal party actors hold the ability to veto. The more internal red lines, the more difficult it becomes to find an agreement that satisfies all sides. Thus, the different confluences of Podemos, or the internal divisions of PSOE necessarily imply a delay in negotiations.

Moreover, the fact that there are more involved parties prolongs the negotiations. The reason is relatively simple; if it is necessary to rely on multiple parties, the formateur always has incentives to alternate between hard and soft deals. Their final objective is to explore which partner entails the minimal concessions to govern, and this dance between parties causes an even longer delay. PSOE, assuming that they actually want to form a government, is trying to find agreements on the narrowest points, and expanding their parliamentary support from there.

Therefore, taking into account the initial reasons presented by Abenza and Fernández-Albertos, the delay in forming a government grows given three conditions, all working simultaneously in Spain.

First, it not only matters that there is volatility and change of the political system, but also it is important that this volatility is with new parties— or new leaders whose negotiating strategy is less clear. Second, when one of the new actors is an anti-establishment party— and even more if it combines a negotiating strategy more adverse to risk and with more internal rigidity— the possible cost to any acceptable proposal grows. Lastly, when there is an important fragmentation of the political system and/or political forces are internally composed of different factions, more red lines and possible points of veto are established, delaying the whole process.
Given all of this, there is good reason to believe that if there is a goal, it will come in the eleventh hour. This, one way or another, is a government in a standstill.

Translated by Mike Presiado.

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