S2 E31

This week I’ve drawn inspiration from recent events here in Spain. Snap elections were held here over a week ago to form a new government and yet it’s still unclear who will be governing the country. I came across an informative article in The Guardian and I was impressed by how much useful vocabulary it contained related to voting and elections. The article is entitled “Spain stalemate drags on as Pedro Sánchez’s socialist party loses crucial seat: Votes from overseas means left and right blocs now neck and neck in race for power” 

Although I’ll be talking about Spain, the language we’re looking at today can be used to talk about virtually any democratic country.

To begin with, why have I referred to this election as a snap election? This is a term used to talk about an election that is announced suddenly and unexpectedly. Although national elections were due to be held in November, the current Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who is the leader of the PSOE – the socialist party – decided to call an early election after the right wing parties did surprisingly well in municipal elections in the spring. Snap elections are usually called by the prime minister in a parliamentary democracy either because they have lost a vote of confidence or think that early elections will favour them. In this case, the snap election was called because Sánchez decided to take advantage of voters’ fear of the main right wing party, the Partido Popular, forming a coalition with the increasingly popular far right, and some would say borderline fascist party, called Vox.

Now, let’s return to the title of the article itself, which contains two useful bits of vocabulary, namely stalemate and neck and neck.

A stalemate is a situation in which it seems impossible to settle an argument or disagreement, and neither side can get an advantage. Interestingly, we also use this to describe a game of chess to describe a position in which neither player can win. Let me explain how the Spanish parliament has reached a stalemate to illustrate this a bit better. Spain’s Parliament consists of two houses, the congress and the senate. The congress is the lower house and consists of 350 deputies, the equivalent of what we would call MPs or members of parliament in countries like the UK and Canada.

To form a government the Spanish constitution requires that a party or coalition of parties need to have at least 176 seats in the “congreso de diputados”, that is 50% + 1. We’ve reached a stalemate because both the leftwing and rightwing blocs currently have 171 seats. 

Let’s go back for a moment to the subtitle of the article: Votes from overseas means left and right blocs now neck and neck in race for power. If two competitors or groups are neck and neck in a competition or race, they are level with each other. This is a kind of binomial, that is, an expression containing two words joined by either and or or. Notice how “and” in connected speech gets reduced to “n” such that this expression is pronounced “neck’n neck”

Now, the kingmaker in this situation – that is, the person whose decision is decisive in choosing who gets chosen for an important job – is the small pro-independence party from Catalonia called Junts. Although they only have five seats, that’s enough to tip the scales in favour of the left bloc. If you tip the scales in favour of someone, you give them a slight advantage.

Because Carles Puigdemont, the leader of Junts, was involved in a pro-independence referendum six years ago, his involvement is potentially politically radioactive, that is, considered extremely dangerous or harmful. We say that a person or issue is politically radioactive when they are so controversial that people avoid them as if they were as harmful as actual radioactivity. In this instance, Puigdemont is politically radioactive because some Spaniards see him as a traitor to national unity.

Another interesting feature of the current situation in Spain is that it was actually the right wing People’s Party, known as the Partido Popular, is the party which won the most seats. The PP won 136 seats, while the Socialists won 122. As the Guardian article puts it, the PP narrowly beat the Socialists. This is a useful collocation to describe a victory in which both sides were close to winning. It can also be used in sports when one team beats the other by only a few points.

Alternatively, if there is a clear winner, we say that they beat their opponent by a wide or significant margin. Interestingly, the pre-election polls suggested that the PP was going to beat the Socialists by a wide margin.

Given that the left and right wing blocs are currently neck and neck we are faced with what’s called a hung parliament. This is a situation in which no single party or coalition of parties has an absolute majority of seats and therefore cannot easily pass new laws. As the article points out, everything depends on Pedro Sánchez’s ability to cobble together support from the smaller parties, including Junts.

If you cobble something together you quickly produce or make something that is useful but not perfect. You can cobble together an agreement, a coalition, a report, a presentation… and even a meal! 

This phrasal verb comes from cobbler, that is, a person who repairs shoes. If I were a cobbler I would none too happy about this, because cobble together suggests an improvised, imperfect solution, as if the work of a cobbler didn’t require attention to detail… 

Before I go over this week’s vocabulary I’d like to remind those of you who are teachers that my new paid community, known as Ethos English Lab, will be taking in a limited number of new members in September. If you’re interested in finding out more go to EthosEnglish.com and if you’d like to be given priority when I reopen the doors to the membership next month simply send me an email to sean@EthosEnglish.com.

Now, here are the definitions and examples of this week’s vocabulary.

a snap election: an election that is announced suddenly and unexpectedly

There is speculation about whether the Prime Minister will call a snap election in the coming weeks.

call an election/meeting/strike:  decide officially to have a particular event or take particular action

According to the law, the election must be called within the next two months.

a stalemate: a situation in which neither group involved in an argument can win or get an advantage and no action can be taken. 

Common collocations include reach a stalemate, end in stalemate, break a stalemate and resolve a stalemate.

The discussions with the miners’ union ended in stalemate.

Tomorrow’s meeting between the two leaders is expected to break a diplomatic stalemate that has lasted for ten years.

be neck and neck with someone: If two competitors are neck and neck, they are level with each other and have an equal chance of winning.

Opinion polls show the two main parties are running neck and neck.

a kingmaker: a person who influences the choice of people for powerful positions within an organisation

He emerged as the corporation’s largest shareholder and potential kingmaker.

tip the scales in favour of someone: give a slight advantage to someone or something

The evidence presented by the prosecutor was enough to tip the scales in the trial and led to a guilty verdict.

be radioactive or politically radioactive: a person or topic considered extremely dangerous or harmful and from which sensible people keep a safe distance

Who would have guessed that vaccinations would become such a radioactive topic?

narrowly beat someone or narrowly defeat someone: beat someone in a competition or election by only a few points or votes

The nationalists were narrowly beaten in the local election.

The proposal to change the rules was narrowly defeated by 201 votes to 196.

win/lose by a wide/significant margin: when there is a large gap between the winners and losers in a competition or election

The basketball team put on an impressive performance last night, managing to win by a wide margin against their rivals.

a hung parliament: a situation in which no single political party has enough seats to have total control

In a hung parliament, the defection of one or two members can be crucial.

cobble something together: quickly produce or make something that is useful but not perfect

The diplomats cobbled an agreement together.

She cobbled together a tent from a few pieces of string and a sheet.

I just had to cobble this meal together from what I had in the fridge.

none too: not very or not at all

I was none too pleased to have to take the exam again.