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A SHORT GUIDE TO THE

SPANISH POLITICAL SYSTEM

Contents


INTRODUCTION

In its present democratic form, the Spanish political system is very new, dating from the death of the dictator General Francisco Franco in 1975. The current Spanish Constitution was approved in 1978. The name chosen for the new two-chamber Spanish Parliament - the Cortes Generales (literally General Courts but rarely translated as such) - reflects the use of the term Cortes since Medieval Times and the addition of the word General signals the nationwide character of the Parliament as the legislatures of some autonomous communities are also labeled "Cortes".

For four decades, the political institutions of Spain have been fought over by two major parties that reflected the Centre-Right/Centre-Left divisions in so much of European politics - a system known in Spain as "bipartidismo". But chronic corruption in the political system and the economic crisis of recent years following the global downturn, which saw a double dip recession and unemployment peaking at 26%, has led to the perceived failure of the two establishment parties and given rise to tumultuous electoral change that is still working its way through the system.

Furthermore, the tensions between the constituent parts of Spain - which go back centuries - have recently become especially acute in relation to the province of Catalonia which comprises 16% of Spain's population and 19% of its output.

THE EXECUTIVE

Spain is a constitutional monarchy with a hereditary monarch, currently King Felipe VI. For all practical purposes, however, the head of the executive is the Prime Minister (formally the Presidente del Gobierno, literally President of the Government).

On 1 June 2018 when, following the conviction for corruption of leading members of the governing People's Party (PP), the then Prime Minister was deposed in a parliamentary vote of no confidence. The vote was instigated by the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (SPOE), and supported by four other parties, providing a majority of four.

The Spanish constitution of 1978 has two sorts of confidence vote. Under Article 113 the Prime Minister can move a confidence vote in his or her own government to reassert their authority, which has happened twice. The government must resign if, on the basis of a simple majority of votes cast, the confidence vote is defeated and the King decides, after advice, who should become Prime Minister. This has happened twice since 1978.

If, however, opposition parties move a vote of no confidence under Article 114 that has to contain the name of a replacement Prime Minister and also gain the support of an absolute majority of deputies, i.e. more than the combined number voting for the government, abstaining or absent. Both these are tougher requirements than just a simple majority of deputies voting for confidence or no confidence. The vote on 1 June 2018 was the first time that Article 114 had been used successfully.

As a result of this vote, the leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) Pedro Sánchez became head of a new minority government. In both April and November 2019, Sánchez called a snap election. On each occasion, his party won the largest number of seats but failed to secure an overall majority. Therefore Sánchez remained Prime Minister. After the country's second inconclusive election in seven months, eventually in January 2020 his ruling socialist party very narrowly won parliamentary approval for a coalition with the anti-austerity Unidas Podemos. This is Spain's first coalition government since the restoration of democracy in 1978.

Following a poor performance by his party in local elections, Sánchez called a surprise election for 23 July 2023 in which neither of the two main blocs secured an overall majority. It took almost four months for a new government to be put together with Pedro Sánchez remaining as Prime Minister. Sánchez and his partners in the leftwing Sumar alliance managed to cobble together the necessary backing for their coalition by acceding to the amnesty demands of the two main Catalan pro-independence parties – the pragmatic Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and the hardline Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia).

The Prime Minister chairs the Council of Ministers (Consejo de Ministros) which is a collegiate body composed of the President (Prime Minister), Vice Presidents when existing, and the various Ministers. In the Spanish political system, the executive has to power to make decree laws, but the Congress of Deputies can ratify or reject these.

The Council meets on weekly basis, usually Fridays in the morning at the Moncloa Palace which is the official residence of the Prime Minister.

THE CONGRESS OF DEPUTIES

The lower house in the legislative branch, known as the Cortes Generales, is the Congress of Deputies (Congreso de los Diputados) with 350 members. This is a relatively small size of membership for a lower chamber and this is felt to favour the larger political parties.

The voting system used for electing Deputies is that of proportional representation with closed party lists following the D'Hondt method in which the province forms a constituency and must be assigned a minimum of two deputies, while the autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla, are each assigned one deputy. Deputies are elected to serve four-year terms, the last election to the Congress was on 26 June 2016, so the next election might not be until mid 2020.

In the Congress, members of the Parliament from the political parties, or groups of parties, form parliamentary groups. Groups must be formed by, at least, 15 Deputies, but a group can also be formed with only five Deputies if the parties obtained at least 5% of the nationwide vote or 15% of the votes in the constituencies in which they fielded candidates.

The Congress of Deputies determines the nature of the executive because it elects the Prime Minister and can vote out the Prime Minister by majority vote. It is the more powerful of the two legislative chambers with the power to overrule the Senate if there is an absolute majority for such action.

THE SENATE

The upper house in the legislative branch, known as the Cortes Generales, is the Senate (Senado) and its size varies with population changes. For the 2019 elections, the system allowed for 266 Senators, 208 of which were elected and 58 of which were designated by the autonomous communities.

Each province, with the exception of the islands, selects four Senators using block voting: voters cast ballots for three candidates and the four Senators with the largest number of votes are selected. The number of Senators selected for the islands varies, depending on their size, from three Senators to one. A similar procedure of block voting is used to select the three Senators from the three major islands whereas the Senators of the smaller islands or group of islands are elected by plurality (the candidate with the largest number of votes wins the seat). In addition, the legislative assembly of each autonomous community designates one Senator and another for each additional one million inhabitants.

Members serve four-year terms (although regional legislatures may recall their appointees at any time). The constitution allows for the election at separate times of the Congress of Deputies and the Senate but, by tradition, the two bodies are re-elected at the same time.

The Senate has less power than the Congress of Deputies: it can veto legislation, but its veto can be overturned by an absolute majority of the Congress of Deputies. Its only exclusive power concerns the autonomous communities. Therefore, it had to endorse the October 2017 suspension of the government and parliament of Catalonia and the imposition of direct rule of the province by the national government.

POLITICAL PARTIES

On 23 July 2023, Spain had its third consecutive inconclusive general election. This is a clear indication of the divided nature of Spanish politics today - a situation we now see in many European countries.

Traditionally two major political parties - the Centre-Left Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) and the Centre-Right People's Party (PP) - have dominated Spanish politics. But more recently the situation has become much more complicated with a larger number of significant parties now vying for votes.

This election, the ruling PSOE won 122 seats (up two), while the PP took 136 seats (up 47). So neither of the two major parties had an overall majority. The SPOE is in a coalition with the Sumar Party which won 31 seats, so this bloc has a total of 153 seats. Eventually it was able to put together a majority government by winning the support of two Catalan parties.

THE JUDICIARY

The Supreme Court of Spain (Tribunal Supremo) is the highest judicial body in Spain. Composed of five chambers, it has authority over all jurisdictional orders and its rulings cannot be appealed, except to the Constitutional Court, when one of the parties claims that their constitutional rights have been infringed.

The Judiciary of Spain consists of Courts and Tribunals, composed of judges and magistrates (Justices), who have the power to administer justice in the name of the King of Spain.

THE REGIONS

Spain is not a federation, such as countries like the United Sates, Germany and Australia, but it is a highly decentralised unitary state with asymmetrically devolved power to local communities. As a result of the 1978 Constitution, Spain is now composed of 17 autonomous communities and two autonomous cities with varying degrees of autonomy. Consequently, the central government accounts for just 18% of public spending, the regional governments for 38%, the local councils 13%, and the social security system the remaining 31%.

Many parts of the country want even more autonomy and some favour full independence. Indeed many in the Basque Country and Catalonia view their communities as "nations", not just "nationalities". In recent months, the political situation in Catalonia has become a major political and constitutional crisis. On 1 October 2017, Catalonia illegally held a self-determination referendum which, according to the organisers, resulted in a Yes vote of 90% with turnout of 43%. Then, on 27 October 2017, the regional parliament, where separatist MPs made up the majority, officially declared independence. As a result, on the same day, the national government used powers under Article 155 of the Spanish constitution to sack the Catalan President and dissolve the the Catalan Parliament, imposing direct rule from Madrid. An early regional election has been called for 21 December 2017.

The disillusionment with the two establishment political parties that has given rise to Podemos and Ciudadanos on the national stage has seen the emergence at local level of Left-wing groupings that have achieved some surprising successes, notably the election of former Communist activist Manuela Carmena as mayor of Madrid at the head of a leftist coalition called Ahora Madrid and anti-eviction activist Ada Colau as mayor of Barcelona as the candidate of the leftist coalition Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona Together).

These new parties and coalitions have come out of the anti-austerity movement in Spain, also referred to as the 15-M Movement, the Indignants Movement, and Take the Square.

CONCLUSION

Spain is a country deeply divided along several political cleavages: Right-wing vs Left-wing, old parties vs new parties, centralist vs federalist. Consequently, the Spanish political landscape is in a state of profound flux and the general elections of December 2015, June 2016, April & November 2019, and July 2023 - five polls in just eight years - represented a major upset to the political establishment of the nation.

After six months with a caretaker government between the first two of these elections, following the second election, there was a further period of 10 months with another caretaker government, before the People's Party was allowed to form a minority administration which fell in June 2018. The two most recent elections failed to return a party with an overall majority, which led to a PSOE/Podemos (later PSOE/Sumar) coalition. Following the most recent election, it took almost four months for a PSOE-led coalition government to be put together.

As if all this was not enough instability, the long-running wish of many Catalonians to have full independence has now burst out into Spain's most serious constitutional crisis since the formation of the modern democratic state in 1975. For the first time since the adoption of the current constitution, a region's political administration was suspended by the national government. The crisis continues ...

ROGER DARLINGTON

Last modified on 2 April 2024

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