By Oscar Barberà Aresté (University of Valencia)

The number of parties in a party system can be linked to its main issue dimensions filtered by other factors such the proportionality of the electoral system. The number of parties and their relevance is also tied to the cabinet bargaining process: the more parties are involved in the cabinet formation the more hard seems to form a government and more likely is that lasts less. However, counting the actual number of parties in a given party system has never been as stright as it seems. For some time, the problem of piooner political scientists such as Sartori and others like Laakso and Taagepera tried to solved was mainly how to operationalize their relevance. Lijphart also adressed further problems such as how to count closed allies or factionalized parties. But as party systems become more and more inestables, other problems not properly adressed by the literature arise.

Spain is a very interesting case study of the old and, most of all, the new problems of counting political parties. Even focusing in the lower chamber (Congreso de los Diputados) and excluding all the parties of the regional arena this has always been quite a challenging task: The complex multi-level organization of Spain’s main state wide parties, the resilience of small regional parties and their electoral coordination strategies in the Spanish general elections have contributed to conceal their real numbers. For many decades this was not a big deal because the electoral agreements included some arrangements on whether a single or several parliamentary caucuses had to be organized. Parliamentary party unity was hardly affected unless there were major cohesion problems such as the ones that broke the governing Unión de Centro Democrático (Union of Democratic Centre) between 1979 and 1982 and the ones dividing Alianza Popular (Popular Alliance) and its electoral partners between 1986 and 1989 while they were in opposition.

Since the mid 2010’s, the process of party system change at both the national and regional level has made the answer even more complicated. Now it is not only a problem of coordination strategies, it also involves the issue of how to take into account parties that are indeed at their early stages of a larger process of party building. As some of those new parties are made of mergers or alliances with other parties this makes the counting a tricky process. To solve it that it also has to be addressed the question of what is and what is not a political party.

Taking the results of the 2016 general elections, there are two main ways to solve the problem of counting its parties and non of them seem quite satisfactory, so far.

The number of parties and coalitions contesting the elections

An easy approach to the question is to take into account the number of parties and coalitions contesting the elections. That information is provided and organized by the Spanish Home Office (Table 1). In comparative terms that is probably the most convenient way to solve the question. So, the straight answer with this criterion would be that there are 12 parties.

However, there are several inconveniencies with this approach. The most visible one is, for example, the fact that the newly created party Podemos (We Can) appears three times in the list in coalition with different partners. Actually, Podemos contested with four different types of coalitions in the 2016 elections as En Comú Podem (In Common We Can, ECP) was also a brand including Podemos’ regional branch.

On the other hand, the list does not specify that both the Partido Popular (Popular Party, PP) and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist’ Workers Party, PSOE) contested in several regions with other partners that also got representation. That was the case of the PP with Foro Asturias (Asturias Forum, FA) in Asturias and with Unión del Pueblo Navarro (Navarrese People’s Union) in Navarre. The PSOE also contested with Nueva Canarias (New Canaries) in the Canary Islands.

Interestingly, after the elections some of Podemos’ electoral allies such as Compromís (Commitment) decided to join a different parliamentary group. The same happened with the PP and PSOE’s allies in Asturias, Navarre and the Canary Islands. This might be taken as an evidence of the loose organizational links between these parties.

Table 1. Number of candidatures competing the 2016 General elections
# Candidatures MPs
1 PP 137
2 PSOE 85
4 C’s 32
5 ECP 12
8 CDC 8
10 EAJ-PNV 5
11 EH Bildu 2
12 CCa-PNC 1
Source: Home Office

The number of parties received in audience by the King

The Spanish Constitution requires that the King of Spain must have an audience with the representatives of the different parties and groups of the Lower Chamber in order to appoint a candidate for a vote of confidence. Hence, one should suppose that the King (and the Speaker of the Lower Chamber) does know how many parties are in the Chamber. This is indeed a more self-referential approach because the representatives are designated by the different parties and groups.

Table 2 shows a list of the representatives and the parties received by the Spanish King in 2016. Here the number of parties increases from 12 to 16, although only 14 were properly received because the Catalan Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia, ERC) and the Basque EH-Bildu decided not to attend. Table 2 has several advantages over Table 1 because disaggregates the electoral coalitions made by the PP and the PSOE, and most of Podemos’ partners: Izquierda Unida (United Left, IU), En Marea (In Tide), Compromís and En Comú Podem (In Common We Can, ECP).

Table 2 presents two main problems. The first one is the lack of comparability because the criterion used to make the list depends on the political actors’ will. That also leads to the second and real issue that is the controversial distinction between political parties and alliances between parties. Table 2 suggests that all the parties in the list have to be taken as a unit, but some of them them have relevant sub-units that could easily be taken as parties. That is truth, for example, for Compromís where the MPs belong to two different parties… and the same could be applied to all the other Podemos’ parnters, to EH-Bildu and even to the Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya (Socialists’ Party of Catalonia), the PSOE’s sister party in Catalonia. Hence, depending on how the distinction between parties and alliances is made the number of parties with presence on the lower chamber could easily increase over 20.

Table 2. List of King Felipe’s audience with political parties
# Representatives Parties
1 Pedro Quevedo Nueva Canarias
2 Isidro Martínez Oblanca Foro Asturias
3 Ana Oramas Coalición Canaria
4 Javier Esparza UPN
5 Alberto Garzón IU
6 Aitor Esteban PNV
7 Alexandra Fernández En Marea
8 Francesc Homs CDC
9 Joan Baldoví Compromís
10 Xavier Domènech En Comú Podem
11 Albert Rivera Ciudadanos
12 Pablo Iglesias Podemos
13 Pedro Sánchez PSOE
14 Mariano Rajoy PP
15 * ERC
16 * EH-Bildu
Source: El País 26/7/2016.
*Didn’t send representatives to the royal audience

Overall, it is very hard to set an uncontroversial number of parties in this legislature. Although this has never been easy in Spain, now it seems more difficult than ever due to the processes of party system change at both the national and regional arenas. Eventually, this might lead to the institutionalization of the existing alliances into more cohesive units and hence reduce the uncertainty over their number and behaviour. However, the opposite might also be expected if the different parties are not willing to sacrifice their identities. All this is indeed having (and might have further) effects not only on their organization, but also on the process of cabinet bargaining and the policies implemented by more inestable governments.

From an academic point of view, as more and more Western party systems are in transformation, the Spanish case might become more an arquetypical case than a deviant one. If this seems doomed to happen, the experts in comparative electoral studies and party system change might have to find new ways to address this old issue of counting parties.

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