• Opinion
  • July 15, 2019
  • 14 minutes
  • 1

What can you learn from losing an election?

Opinion: When it comes to politics, winning isn't everything

This opinion article was written by Bruno Sánchez-Andrade Nuño, Ph.D, scientific consultant/advisor and lead candidate to the European parliament for Volt in Spain. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed. 


In these recent European elections, a radical political innovation has been validated. 

Eight European countries saw the same political party — Volt Europa — with precisely the same program for all of Europe. 

For the first time there is a truly European political party. Something as simple as it is daring. By getting an MEP — in Germany — these elections mark a historic milestone. We are now entering an era where the parties in the EU Parliament will not just be coalitions of national parties. 

In Spain, I headed the list. We got 10% of the votes needed to win a seat. Far from considering this a failure, I think it shows a success story of innovating in politics.

Innovating politics

Innovation is always difficult, but innovating in politics is particularly difficult. 

Political ideology is a very sensitive issue. How people vote tends to have a lot of inertia, which makes it hard for any new party to attract voters. Moreover, it costs a lot to create awareness of new brands, as most of the conversation tends to revolve around arguments for or against the known parties. 

In fact, in many countries political innovation is discouraged, for example through laws that provide government resources based on the representation obtained in past elections. This exacerbated by regulations such as reduced requirements to be on the ballot, presence in public media proportional to representation or cash and credits ahead of the campaign. 

This is the case in many European countries, including Spain, where Volt has run for political office for the first time.

At the European level, this political innovation has been a success: We have entered the European Parliament. Volt’s founding identity is to be the same party throughout Europe. The ideology is progressive, against nationalism, confronting climate change, betting on equal opportunities, and investing in people and technology as economic drivers. 

With this European scope at the core, we are already legally established in 12 countries as a unified political party, and we were able to run in these European Elections in 8 countries. 

The vastly different laws regulating parties and candidates that run for office prevented us from running in all countries. For example, we needed 150.000 signatories in Italy, or 7.500 in Portugal, or 850.000 euros ($956,000 USD) in France which we could not get. 

Having the same program across Europe means all Europeans are represented in any Volt Europa list, and in Spain we had nationals from all these three countries on our ballot (Spain has a closed list system where voters cast their ballot for the party and not the individual candidate). 

Running a low-budget campaign 

Roughly half a million people voted for Volt Europa across the continent. 

In Germany that was enough to win a seat and therefore represent the vote of all those other voters from other countries. Half a million “VOLTs” is a great spark to validate this innovation: the idea that European sentiment deserves a European party. That there is another way of doing politics.

Volt in Spain did not get an MEP. We had just over 32,000 votes out of the roughly 300,000 needed to get a seat. But i believe our campaign in Spain did a great job with a small budget. 

We had two weeks and € 8,000. This means each vote had a campaign cost of €0,25, which is an outstanding number. For the major parties, the cost is normally between 1-5 euros per vote. 

In the USA, for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, this ratio is between $15-30 of campaign per vote. This means that our challenge is not content but reach, to make ourselves known among more people.

We appeared in several top national media, such as La Nueva España, El Confidencial, El Español, ABC, Publico, Voz Populi, 20 Minutes to name a few. our event with the most audience was the interview with journalist Carlos Herrera at the COPE, a popular Spanish radio channel (2.5 million listeners). 

In addition, we reached approximately 1 million people on social networks. 

Attracting voters is hard

We had national reach and few critics. Obviously, our scope did not convert into many votes. Maybe we had too few touch points or came across as too soft, or maybe there was too much noise from other parties. 

In Spain we also underwent national elections three weeks prior to the European elections, so there might have been an increased political saturation. Maybe we got to non-voters that we did not convince to go to the polls, or voters from other parties that we did not know how to attract.

It frustrates me to think of the immense power that the party leaders have to impose “who will be chosen”

Personally, I would be lying if I said that it does not affect me to see that we only get 10% of the needed votes. But I am happy that by design, their vote is not lost but is instead represented by our MEP from Germany, Damian Boeselager. 

I regret not getting the chance to prove from within the system that another form of politics is possible. That a scientist can have a social impact outside of research. The messages of support have been very useful, and I will continue to dedicate myself to drive positive change in society with science, with more conviction than ever. 

I will return to science, impact science, consulting, and being a scientific entrepreneur.

I have taken quite some time to reflect and recover, and there are a few key lessons I learned from this. Perhaps the biggest one is not to confuse being apolitical with being non-partisan. 

Non-partisan — not apolitical

It is almost impossible to be apolitical. 

The very moment that you have an opinion on science, governments, taxes, corruption, climate change you are no longer — fortunately — apolitical. More than cutting political conversations, I think we should learn to talk constructively, respect disagreement, and see what we do agree on. Show how we can have constructive coexistence with political differences. 

Non-partisanship, on the other hand, is a respectable and needed stance for some organisations or individuals. But above all, it is exercised by debating between parties with different ideologies and with arguments, not by rejecting debates. Negating respectful political debates in the name of non-partisanship is the moral equivalent of avoiding lunch in the name of a healthy diet. It works, but it’s the lowest bar.  

It is understandable that democracy is more stable when there are few big political parties, and therefore few constraints on decisions.

We usually think of democracy as the right to vote — active suffrage — not so often about the right to be voted — the passive suffrage. 

While it is somewhat understandable, the practical denial of each citizen’s right to demand political renewal is, to me, uncomfortable. It hurts to think that while we live in a democracy, the main candidates on the lists of the winning parties were not chosen by internal democracy. 

The antidote to populism

It frustrates me to think of the immense power that the party leaders have to impose “who will be chosen”. A system of closed lists where we prefer the umpteenth person of the train of mute names but members of large political parties. 

Parties are the intermediaries of democracy, the link between the voter and the government. But far from providing the structures that channel democracy, parties tend to be corporations for whom survival is a necessity, or platforms for fuelling egos. 

We need more people with that madness to act and innovate

It hurts to think that Nigel Farage in the UK won 30% of the votes without an electoral program or consistent arguments to leave the European Union. It hurts to see how effective, in the short term, these political shortcuts are.

Personally, it has been a learning experience, and I feel indebted for the incredible support and dedication of the Volt Spain team, indebted for the 32,000+ votes, indebted to the volunteers, family, and friends who put in so many hours, donations, or messages to help us. 

I am proud of the work done, a campaign based on demonstrating that another type of political campaign is possible, that people want less polarisation, less populism, less attacks, less personalism, less career politicians. I am encouraged by the many messages from ordinary people on how much they value not only our program but also our way of acting. I wish other parties were so open to questions and innovation. 

Before going on air, Carlos Herrera of the COPE told us that he was amazed at how positive all the messages were about us. Even campaign leaders from other big parties told us the same in private.

The madness to act

I am proud to have the madness to act. 

We need more people with that madness to act and innovate. I hope I have encouraged more people to have that active attitude. The mindset of “Not caring about politics” is not only a luxury because it probably implies living in a democracy, but this makes the extremist or populist minorities gain power. 

“Not caring about politics” is a sure way to put precisely those people in power that make us feel bored and discourage us from caring. All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. 

I hope my crazy decision is a gesture that encourages more people to demand answers from their politicians, to stand as a candidate in elections and to exercise democracy.

It is true that we did not get the votes in Spain, but it is also true that we have validated a political innovation that Europe had never seen before. A new era in European integration begins, and in political innovation.

In that sense we have won everyone. — Bruno Sánchez-Andrade Nuño

(Picture credit: The European Parliament//Flickr)

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