Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Talk Of Consensus Is Cheap

Konrad Adenauer, the father of post-Nazi democracy in Germany and one of the creators of that country's system of consensus politics, stood for re-election as Chancellor for his conservative Christian Democratic Union in 1957 under the slogan "no experiments". Any experiment that the (West) German people might have contemplated would have been to return the only other party of any note - the socialist Social Democratic Party (SDP).

Comparing democratic Germany with democratic Spain is to compare chalk and cheese. The former, once it had emerged from the privations of the post-war period, established enduring economic and social success that was based on a generally well-ordered and well-cared-for society, industrial power, its social market economy and moderate, two-party politics, the latter of which was to prove to be the bedrock for the consensus that remains to this day. Spain, post-Franco, has enjoyed little of the same, and economic crisis brought home the fallibility of a nation without such attributes and inspired the political crisis of disruption to two-party politics that was produced by December's general election.

Mariano Rajoy, Spain's conservative equivalent of Adenauer's current-day heiress, Angela Merkel, warned against experiments before the election. He didn't have PSOE and its moderate socialism in mind. He was talking about Podemos. The experiment may yet not be realised in that Podemos might fail in its objectives to be at the government table, but one experiment that has been realised has been the shattering of two-party politics.

This altered state has been styled as a breakdown in some long-established pattern. It does of course depend on how one defines a "long time", but Spain's two-party system is only some 25 years old: as old, that is, as the Partido Popular, which was founded in 1989 out of the wreckage of the Alianza Popular and its associations with Francoism. Germany's two-party system is much older, as also is Britain's and that of the USA.

Far from being an engrained, seemingly immutable state of two-party affairs, it could just as well be argued that the past 25 years have represented the type of experiment that Rajoy, for one, would be incapable of conceding. Spain has given the norm of others a go and questioned its appropriateness for a country for which instability had long been the norm. The election represents, therefore, a return to the state's state of flux, appended to which is the flux of the wannabe state of Catalonia, the great question Spain has singularly failed to reconcile for three hundred years.

The great irony, however, is that into this latest outbreak of chaos steps the political newspeak that chants consensus from every available soapbox or press release. Driven by reconstructed scholars of the works of, among others, Karl Marx, consensus is now to be the state to which the powers of the state - political parties both old (or oldish in the case of the PP) and new - are supposed to aspire. But let's ask questions. Do we suppose that, had there not been the necessity, Francina Armengol and PSOE would have gone anywhere near a pact with Podemos? It's safe to say that we can suppose that they wouldn't have. She, Armengol, can spout consensus for all she's worth, but it is being foisted upon her. It is a consensus of colliding forces and, as such, is not achievable. Only the rhetoric can claim its existence, the practice proving that it is a delusion to believe it does actually exist or indeed can exist.

And like Armengol, will PSOE's Pedro Sánchez, assuming he can survive a leadership contest, seriously wish to have Podemos as bed mates? He too can talk of consensus, but more likely would be the convenience of the three-way alliance with the PP and Ciudadanos (C's), something that would not be consensus but a means of making damn sure Podemos doesn't get anywhere near government. Advised to form an alliance of the left by Armengol - and she would hardly say anything else for fear of upsetting her government partners - he has nonetheless been handed slack by the very same Francina in his negotiations. He also has a Podemos get-out-of-jail card, i.e. Catalonia and the referendum, something on which there is at least consensus with Rajoy and the C's Albert Rivera.

In Germany, consensus became the political leitmotif for a country saddled with guilt and with a corresponding determination to not forget past evils and so forge a system that could avoid conflict. In Spain, there was no such catharsis. It has required King Felipe to remind politicians of the past but it has also taken the shock of crisis to bring a halt to the satisfactions enjoyed for much of the two-party generation. As those unravelled, so did the bipartite experiment. Talk of consensus replacing it is cheap.

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