Madrid view: Rescue of democracy

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Since the crisis broke, we have been hearing about cutbacks and reforms every day. But there is a reform we need urgently, and it is not even on the agenda: the reform of our democratic system. True, the crisis is very largely due to the incompleteness and defects of the EU. But it also shows up the defects of our democracy: the weakness of the state, vulnerable to hijacking by sectorial interests — private, or grouped around political parties.

Disconcerted by the speed of events, we fail to see that the viability of our economic reforms requires not only better institutions of EU governance, but also an in-depth revision of the functioning of our own political system. We thought that Spain had been profoundly Europeanized; but we now see how much fiction there was surrounding this process.

Just as the northern EU countries are still light-years ahead of Spain in terms of their capacity to combine competitiveness and social justice, our political system is still just as incapable of emulating the standards of transparency that are taken for granted in the North, as it is of fairly distributing the costs of the crisis.

Though our democracy is seriously deficient, no reform of it is on the agenda. Why not? Well, many of our problems — the poor results of our regional decentralization, the defective regulation of entire sectors of our economy, the general shortage of transparency and control over all things public — have a common origin: the conversion of the democratic state into a state of political parties. This is a system where, rather than the citizen, the chief actors are the political parties, the alternation between them being the only objective of political contention, and the fusion and confusion, under their direction, of the executive, legislative and judicial powers, the norm of their daily functioning.

From whatever angle you look at our institutions, you see how the parties have firstly imposed the distribution of posts on the basis of quotas of power, and then, applied an ideology to the process of decision-making. Rather than serving the citizen, these institutions are at the service of the parties. The ongoing story of Bankia is very revealing. In spite of appearances, the nationalization does not mean that the state is shouldering the losses incurred by an ill-managed private bank. It is transferring to society the costs of having placed in the hands of the parties an opaque financial power, through which they sustained their political power. Rather than a problem of bank regulation, we are looking at a failure of political self-regulation.

So far our system has placed the responsibility of self-regulation in the hands of its managers. Predictably enough, they have used their capacity not to bind themselves to rules, but to emancipate themselves from the supervision of citizens. This explains why the reform of the political system is so difficult to undertake, and comes up against so much resistance.

Yet to put off these reforms is suicidal. Just as the errors in the design of the monetary union are hugely complicating any exit from the crisis, the systemic weaknesses of our democracy are adversely affecting our capacity for reform. As in the case of Greece, when the citizen perceives that the political class exempts itself from reforms of the sort being imposed on the citizen, the moral authority of democratic government plunges.

What to do? Well, redefine the limits of party politics. It is not a matter of setting up a technocracy, but rather of seeing to it that each institution recovers its democratic raison d’être in a framework of transparency and accountability. The recasting of democracy does not even require a constitutional reform, but the identification and rescue, one by one, of all those institutions that now languish under the suffocating weight of party politics.

This blog post first appeared in El Pais.

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