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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 (over the past four years as many as 500 elected representatives have been or are being investigated for corruption) and the economic crisis of recent years following the global downturn, which saw a double dip recesssion 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.

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 (Presidente del Gobierno, literally President of the Government).

The current Prime Minister is Mariano Rajoy of the People's Party but, in the general election of December 2015, his party lost its overall majority. Over the next six months, he tried and failed to put together a coalition with a combined majority in the Cortes. So another general election was held in June 2016 when again the party failed to secure an overall majority. It took until the end of October 2016 - a period of 10 months during which the country only had a caretaker government - before Rajoy could win an investiture vote when the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (SPOE) finally agreed to abstain in the vote (15 actually defied their leadership to vote no).

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. The Council meets on weekly basis, usually Fridays in the morning at Moncloa Palace.

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 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 20 December 2015, so the next election might not be until the end of 2019.

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 2011 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.

POLITICAL PARTIES

Traditionally two major political parties have dominated Spanish politics. But more recently the situation has become more complicated with four significant parties now vying for votes. So, in the general elections of 20 December 2015 and 26 June 2016, these two parties - which have previously won some 70-80% of the vote - only secured a combined share of around 50%. This is in spite of the fact that the electoral system is designed to support the bigger parties.

The two established parties are the Centre-Right People's Party (PP), led by Mariano Rajoy, and the Centre-Left Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (SPOE), temporarily led by Javier Fern7ández. Before the last two general elections, these two parties held a total of 295 seats out of the total of 350 in the Congress of Deputies but, in the last two election, the PP won 123 and 137 seats respectively and the SPOE took 90 and 85 seats respectively - a combined total of just 213 and 222 respectively.

The recent period of economic austerity with high unemployment has given rise to the emergence and rapid growth of a new left-wing political party called Podemos (in English 'We can'). Founded in March 2014 by pony-tailed political science lecturer Pablo Iglesias, that year it won five seats in the elections to the European Parliament. Podemos is now the second largest political party in Spain by number of members after the People's Party (PP) and at first enjoyed spectacular electoral support which has subsequently peaked and ebbed. Neverthless, in the general election of December 2015, it won 69 seats and, in the general election of June 2016, it secured 71 seats.

The other new party is Ciudadanos (which means simply Citizens) led by Albert Rivera. It operates mainly in Catalonia and opposes Catalan nationalism, but it has recently attracted considerable electoral support across Spain more widely. Unlike other new political movements in Europe that have arisen as a response to the era of austerity, which have tended to be far Right or hard Left, Ciudadanos positions itself as centrist, although it is probably more Centre-Right. In the election of December 2015, it took 40 seats and, in the election of June 2016, it held 32.

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

As a result of the 1978 Constitution, Spain is now composed of 17 autonomous communities and two autonomous cities with varying degrees of autonomy. It is now a highly decentralised country, with the central government accounting for just 18% of public spending, the regional governments 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".

The disillusionment with the two establishment political parties that has given rise to Podermos 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

The Spanish political landscape is in a state of profound flux and the general elections of December 2015 and June 2016 represented a major upset to the political establishment of the nation. After six months with a caretaker government between the two elections and a recent election that was a near rerun of the previous one, we now await the formation of a new government that in the end could be another People's Party administration maintained in office by the abstention of the PSOE.

Meanwhile Spain is a divided country along several political clevages: Right-wing vs Left-wing, old parties vs new parties, centralist vs federalist.

ROGER DARLINGTON

Last modified on 30 October 2016

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