Institutional Factors

In the above-mentioned survey, Jaime-Castillo, Bartolome and Martinez- Cousinou (2018: 166) found that among the eight reasons given to MPs to explain political disaffection, ‘lack of contact with the average citizen’s real problems’ ranked fourth with an average of 3.14 on a 1-5 scale. Similarly, Torcal (2014) associates citizen distrust with the lack of responsiveness of political institutions (plus corruption). It is common ground among some MPs to emphasise this idea - that politics in Spain has not been in any way responsive to citizen needs, or that institutional representative politics alienates citizens by generating a lack of interest.

But beyond these perceptions that may be associated with the political practice of MPs, our interviewees identify what could be called institutional failures that have generated situations conducive to widening the gap between citizens and politicians. In the MPs’ views, these institutional failures are concentrated in two elements: lack of accountability (favoured by the electoral system) and irresponsibility (fostered by the lack of institutional control over misconduct). An MP of the by now almost extinct UPyD (Union, Progress and Democracy Party) summarised it in this way:

[The origin of the distance lies] in an absolute lack of accountability and an absolute irresponsibility. We have for a long time been led by an irresponsible political class, irresponsible not only because it behaved with little responsibility, but also because it did not assume any responsibility. Things have happened here with corruption, in the economy ... and nothing has happened to the political elite ... There has been no renewal of the elite, and when there is irresponsibility and when citizens’ lives are affected by this irresponsibility, and see that nothing happens, then... (ASUPD24M)

Since there is little induced accountability (beyond elections every four years), the politician does not feel the need to tell citizens what they have done, which contributes to isolation and estrangement. An imperfect two-party system, a centralised and non-inclusive mechanism for the selection of politicians, an electoral system based on party lists and the hierarchical way parliamentary groups usually work are elements (not addressed in this chapter) that contribute towards an explanation for the lack of accountability (Cordero and Coller 2015; Jimenez-Sanchez, Coller and Portillo-Perez 2018) and for which our interviewee discourses provide support. Furthermore, while some MPs are angry about the inability to control corruption, the image of politicians (as a collective) has been damaged and citizen detachment has grown:

Politicians offer ideas in the elections, citizens vote for them and then the ideas that have won, get implemented. Well, it is not like that ... This has brought politicians a lack of credibility. (CAERC27W)

In part this is because of corrupt politicians, and then ... in the current system to represent people ... the opinions of a large social majority are left out ... so people do not see their demands reflected in parties and that ... generates frustration. (ASIU20W)

Factors Related to MPs

There are a number of elements revealed by MP discourses that lead towards blaming political actions rather than pointing at citizens or the political system. Blaming MPs is not common in public discourses, partly because MPs are not usually interviewed to find out their view's on political detachment and partly because their repertoire of political actions includes "blaming others rather than myself (or ourselves)’. Interviewing MPs has allowed us to detect five main arguments and their derivatives: corruption, lack of responsiveness, professionalisation, isolation and breaking electoral promises.

a) Corruption. Corruption scandals erode trust in politicians and democratic institutions, increasing the chances for the democratic deficit to grow, since the performance of democracy may be perceived as failing. In this respect, there are two sources of evidence. First, various studies have highlighted the fact that corruption generates mistrust (Anderson and Tverdova 2003; Seligson 2002; Uslaner 2011; van der Meer and Dekker 2011). In Spain, Sanchez-Cuenca and Barreiro (2000), Jimenez (2004), Villoria, van Ryzin and Lavena (2013) and Torcal (2014) found that political scandals (usually associated with corruption) have an impact on citizen trust in politics and politicians. Second, the results of a survey of MPs indicate that w'hen MPs are asked about the causes of disaffection, corruption shows the highest average point (4.31) on a 1-5 scale followed by ‘the continuous tension in political life’ (3.97) and the ‘constant criticism by the media" (3.86) (Jaime-Castillo. Bartolomeand Martinez-Cousinou 2018: 166).

Aligned with these findings, and rivalling the economic factor in its centrality in MP discourses, political corruption is the other element politicians across parties put forward to explain disaffection and estrangement from the population. In their discourses, corruption is combined with political wrongdoings as a ‘package of misconduct’ in politics. As three MPs from different ideological traditions summarised:

Because of the corruption ... There is nothing else ... This makes me feel really angry and if I were not a politician I would not be able to stand any politician. (VAPP194W)

[There have been b]ad political practices ... and corruption does not help. If w'e cannot put an end to this, it will be very difficult to go back to build bridges. (CAERC27W)

Corruption is widespread ... and nobody has implemented adequate measures. Even those who should have intervened long ago to prevent it have done nothing ... Yes, we are all shocked, but I believe that w'e are all a bit responsible, but then, we blame the politician. (VAPS31M)

In MP discourses across ideological lines, citizens, it is argued, are fed up with the misbehaviour of some politicians, usually associated with the PP, and end up believing all politicians are the same. Consequently, they distance themselves from all parties and politicians no matter whether they are honest or not. Some experience the weight of these generalisations by developing negative feelings: ‘I feel ashamed about my involvement in politics when there are people who [are corrupt]’ (EXPS119M). But others underline the need to make a distinction by arguing that there are honest people everywhere. As a young new MP acknowledged:

[I]t is true that some people consider that all politicians are the same, that all politicians are corrupt, and this is not the case ... There are people in the Popular Party, in CiU (Convergence and Union, in the PSOE (Socialist Party who are very honest, valid and hard workers ... I do not agree with these generalisations, but it is true that the way things work in Spain favour those who want to be corrupt, whoever wants to steal, whoever wants to benefit from the system, as it is very easy to do so. (CACS25W)

b) Representative role. This group of explanations for the divide has a kaleidoscopic nature, although all are associated with the representative role of MPs in one way or the other. The belief in the impossibility of combining a seat in parliament with any other profession leads to the professionalisation of politics and. for some, this isolates politicians from society:

No doubt, no doubt [the gap exists]. In this parliament we are talking now about the professionalisation of MPs: that is, the exclusive dedication to politics ... I am against it because [working outside of politics] is the only way to stay tuned to the streets, to see what happens in the streets. (ASFA190M)

‘Isolation from society’ is a widely acknowledged issue among MPs: they are not doing a good job in explaining to citizens what they do in parliaments, thus fostering an informational gap that does not help in bridging the link between MPs and citizens:

We have not been capable of transmitting to citizens the importance of politics in their everyday life ... In that sense, I believe there is a very important divide (ASIU190W).

1 think we need ... more pedagogy ... so that we can understand what they [citizens] demand of us ... so that our language does not become unintelligible jargon. (ANPS106W)

Well, there are many reasons for this [the estrangement and discredit of politics]: one is the unfamiliarity of citizens with the tasks we perform in parliaments. But this is not to blame citizens, but ourselves for not explaining what we do or for not working better, since everything we do here has an impact [on society]. (CAERC27W) c) Lack of responsiveness and electoral promises. This informational gap affects citizen unfamiliarity with parliaments and MPs, which may predispose them to uncritically accept negative mass media images, as some MPs indicated earlier. Furthermore, the combination of isolation due to professionalisation and informational gaps may consolidate the distance perceived by citizens when 80 per cent of Spaniards claim MPs should take voters’ wishes and demands into account when making political decisions (Mota 2018: 147). Citizens demand to be taken into account and MP discourses are nurtured with the idea that they have not been responsive enough and this is one of the causes eroding the representative bond. ‘Why is this?’, asked an MP rhetorically, ‘well, basically because we have had a very significant number of politicians who have not been responsive to the needs of the people. Furthermore, they have been delinquents, and this has left a mark’ (ASIU20M).

As was discussed above, institutional failures and apathy and disinterest (or lack of commitment) on the part of citizens are seen as problems in generating and/or strengthening conversations between MPs and citizens. Distrust is also seen as the outcome of politicians not fulfilling their electoral programmes and thus disappointing electors, as a conservative MP indicated: ‘There is some disgust because we have ... gone to the elections with an electoral programme that then reality has prevented us from implementing’ (EXPP74M). Age differences between MPs and youngsters may be another factor, as indicated above.

But the inability of some veteran MPs to connect with young citizens may also be the result of isolation, which is in part a derivative of the professionalisation of politics, as a veteran conservative MP indicated:

This activity absorbs most of your time. If you do not make an effort to keep your own social and political activity, even a regular life outside here, you run the risk of being enclosed [encapsulated] in a bubble ... inevitably [the gap] will always exist. The point is to what extent representatives turn their back on citizens; MPs are always exonerated. In the internal debates in my party there were moments in which people frequently said the ‘people are turning their backs on us’ and I always said to them ‘no, people feel that we have turned our backs on them, which is quite different’, and that has no easy solution but it is the responsibility of the MP to enable the mechanisms to shorten this distance. (CAPP24M)

 
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