Since the death of General Franco in 1975, the Kingdom of Spain has evolved from a centralized dictatorship to a democracy with relatively extensive autonomy for the country’s regions.
The current constitution was adopted in 1978 and states that the king is head of state. The monarch can dissolve the legislative parliament on the advice of the prime minister or if he is cast in a vote of no confidence in parliament.
- Countryaah: Total population and chart of Spain for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023 and 2024. Also covers population density, birth rate, death rate and population growth rates.
In June 2014, King Juan Carlos decided to abdicate in favor of his son, Crown Prince Felipe. After Parliament passed a special abortion law, which was required for the process to be supported by the Constitution, it could take office as King Felipe VI.
Parliament, las cortes, has two chambers: the congress (the lower house) and the senate (the upper house). The congress shall have at least 300 and a maximum of 400 members; the number depends on the size of the population. Since 2008, the number is 350. The members are elected for four years in general elections according to the proportional method. Each of the 50 provinces constitutes a constituency, the number of seats allocated depends on the number of people living in the province. The exclaves Ceuta and Melilla each receive a mandate. A party must get at least three percent of the votes in the constituency to take a seat in Congress. The election system benefits small provinces, the large national parties and parties that are strong in a region.
The Senate consists of 266 senators serving a four-year term. 208 of the senators are elected directly in conjunction with the congressional elections and 58 are elected by the regional parliaments in relation to the number of residents in each region.
The government is formed by the Congress, formally at the advice of the King, appointing the Prime Minister. He then chooses other ministers, who are then formally appointed by the king.
The voting age is 18 years.
Central power and the regions
Short for ES by Abbreviationfinder, Spain has 17 autonomous regions and two autonomous cities, Ceuta and Melilla, which were given limited autonomy in 1995. The regions are divided into 50 provinces, which in turn are divided into over 8,000 municipalities.
The regions have gradually had more to say, but the degree of self-government varies. The Basque Country and Catalonia were the first to have their own parliaments in 1980. Nowadays, all regions have a parliament, government and regional president along with their own administration and supreme court.
Navarra and the Basque Country have control over virtually all taxes and replaces the central government for the services it performs, while other regions handle some of the taxes. The Canary Islands are exempt from customs and other taxes. The Basque Country and Navarra, together with Catalonia, also have their own police forces and, together with Galicia and Andalusia, have the right to announce new elections themselves.
The central government is normally responsible for, for example, defense and foreign policy, foreign trade, the judiciary, fishing and maritime and air transport, the regions for such things as health, education, housing policy and social and elderly care.
Crisis in Catalonia
In the Basque Country, but especially in Catalonia, tensions exist between the central state and the region as to who should decide what; in Catalonia, this has led to increased demands for independence. The situation peaked in the autumn of 2017, when the Barcelona regional parliament proclaimed Catalonia’s independence following a controversial referendum (see Current Politics and Catalonia). The central government in Madrid responded by taking direct control of Catalonia by, for the first time ever, activating Article 155 of the Constitution, which gives the central government the right to take “all necessary measures to persuade society to live up to its obligations or to protect public interests”.
In 2006, when the Socialist Party took power, the then Spanish government presented a bill that would give Catalonia greater autonomy. It was approved by both the Catalan Parliament and the voters in Catalonia. The law was appealed by, among other things, the Conservative People’s Party (PP), which then sat in opposition, and was rejected in 2010 by the Constitutional Court. This helps many Catalans see the court as an extension of political power, and not as an impartial judge on sensitive issues surrounding the constitution (see Foreign Ministry).
Few changes have been made to the Spanish constitution since it was adopted in 1978, and since 2013, in particular, the Socialist Party has wanted a constitutional reform, partly to clarify the position of the regions. Among other things, it has been mentioned that Spain could become a federation of 17 regions. In an attempt to break the deadlock following the referendum in Catalonia, the then PP government and the Socialist Party agreed to start discussions on constitutional reform in 2018, but after that not much has happened on that point.
Politics has for many years been dominated by two major parties: the Socialist Party, really the Socialist Workers Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, PSOE) and the Conservative People’s Party (Partido Popular, PP). Both parties have gradually approached the political center, not least in terms of economic policy, but they differ in value issues. The 2008 economic crisis in Spain, as well as a series of corruption scandals, have shaken the policy, leaving more room for other parties. These include Podemos (We Can) and Citizens (Ciudadanos) who won the votes of especially young voters. In April 2019, a right-wing populist party, Vox, joined Congress. It was the first time since 1982 that a party with far-right views was elected to the Spanish Parliament. The fragmentation of so many different parties has made it difficult to achieve sustainable governments (see Current policy).
The Socialist Party (PSOE) was founded in 1879 but was banned during the Franco era (1939-1975). The PSOE stood a long way to the left, but developed under party leader Felipe González, Prime Minister 1982-1996, into a Social Democratic Party. In 2014, economics professor Pedro Sánchez took over the party leader post. However, he had to leave it under tumultuous forms since he failed to form government after the 2015 elections and then opposed all attempts by PP to form government, while PSOE did poorly in the regional elections in Galicia and the Basque country in the fall of 2016. He returned as party leader in May 2017. In June 2018, the PSOE took over the government after seven years of PP rule. The PSOE became the largest party in both of the two parliamentary elections held in 2019.
PP was founded in 1976 under the name Alianza Popular (Folkalliansen), but received weak support because party leader Manuel Fraga had been close to dictator Franco. In 1989, the party adopted a Christian Democratic program and changed its name to the People’s Party. The following year, José María Aznar was elected party leader. Under Aznar, PP was transformed into a modern right-wing party and had government power in 1996–2004. The party returned to power after the victory in the 2011 election, now under Mariano Rajoy, who ruled Spain until the summer of 2018. Rajoy was replaced as party leader in July of the same year by lawyer and economist Pablo Casado. PP is strongest among older voters and among those living in rural areas.
The national groupings also include the United Left (Izquierda Unida, IU), which was formed in 1986 and consists of a number of left and environmental parties. IU is dominated by the Communist Party (Partido Comunista de España, PCE).
Ahead of the 2014 European elections, the Podemos Party (We Can) was formed. It had emerged from a youth movement protesting against the government’s tough austerity policy. Podemos is led by charismatic political science professor Pablo Iglesias. The party stands for anti-globalization, direct democracy and democratic socialism. It advocates radical economic reforms, among other things, that the clause in the constitution which states how large the budget deficit should be abolished and that the changes in labor market laws and pensions implemented in the early 2010s must be torn down (see also Labor market and Social conditions).). Podemos also wants to nationalize the energy and transport sectors as well as telecommunications. The party supports the idea of a referendum on independence in Catalonia.
Prior to the new election in 2016, Podemos formed a Alliance Alliance, Unidos Podemos (United We Can, UP), with United Left (IU). However, the cooperation was not frictionless, among other things, some of Podemo’s members were critical of the party campaigning with the traditional left, while at the same time hoping to attract middle voters.
In the fall of 2018, Podemos signed a budget pact with the PSOE (see Current policy). In the past, the party has entered into similar agreements with the PSOE at local and regional level. At the same time, Podemos received a lot of criticism from the anti-capitalist movement within the party who felt that the party leadership could have achieved more through the cooperation.
In the 2019 congressional elections, Podemos re-arranged with UI, but now under the name Unidas Podemos, Together we can (women). The change of name took place in February 2019 after pressure from feminists within the alliance. The party has been shaken by internal contradictions and in early 2019 Íñigo Errejón, one of the party’s founders, left Podemos and later formed a new party Más País (More for the country). The new party is based on a left-wing alliance Más Madrid, which was created before the regional and municipal elections in Madrid in May 2019.
Ciudadanos is a liberal middle party. It was founded in 2006 in Catalonia where it opposed the region’s independence aspirations. From the end of 2014, the party, which was then led by Albert Rivera Díaz, began to have an ever greater impact on the national stage. In its party program, Ciudadanos advocates a reduction in income and corporate taxes, while at the same time seeking to increase tax revenues by closing the gaps in the existing system and fighting corruption in politics. The party made a lousy election in the fall of 2019, losing most of its seats in Congress, which led to Rivera resigning as party leader. Earlier in the year, several senior members had left the party in protest against Rivera’s opposition to a dialogue with the PSOE.
Both Podemos and Ciudadanos want to reform the Spanish constitution, change the electoral system and de-politicize the judiciary. The PSOE has also advocated a new and more federal constitution.
The right-wing populist party Vox España was formed in 2013 by former PP members. The party is also described as anti-Muslim and immigration-critical. Vox also wants to take tougher methods against the independence movement in Catalonia. It is also critical of the legislation to counteract violence against women and increased rights for LGBT people. It achieved its first success in the regional elections in Andalucia in December 2018, when the party received 12 seats in the regional parliament. It was the first time since the dictatorship’s fall that a right-wing party won representation in a regional parliament. In the spring 2019 elections, the party was elected to the congress, and then doubled its mandate in new elections held in the autumn of the same year. Vox, led by Santiago Abascal, has, with some exceptions, mainly support among voters in Spain southern parts.
The regional parties have been of great importance since the early 1990s. Assembly and Unity (Convergència in Unió, CiU), a federation of two Catalan Conservative parties, the CDC and the UDC, had an important watchmaker role in the 1993–2000 congress and played the same role during part of the PSOE’s time in power from 2004 when the government needed its support. CiU stood for moderate nationalism and ruled out full independence for Catalonia. The party ruled in Catalonia from 1980 with a break for the years 2003-2010 when the socialists with support parties sat in power. However, adversities in the municipal elections in 2015 led to wear and tear within CiU, which was dissolved in its two parties of origin. The party has since changed its name to the Catalan Democratic Party (Partit Demòcrata Català, PDC) and later to Catalan European Democratic Party (Partit Demòcrata Europeu Català, PDeCAT) which has changed its footing on the issue of independence. Prior to the recent elections in Catalonia in December 2017, PDeCAT and CDC formed a new alliance: Together for Catalonia (Junts per Catalunya, JuntsxCat).
The Left Party Catalonia’s Republican Left (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, ERC), which was formed as early as 1931, demands independence from Spain. However, the party has softened its stance after the political crisis 2017/2018. Party leader Oriol Junqueras is one of twelve Catalan politicians who in 2019 were sentenced for their attempts to reach an independent Catalonia through a referendum in the fall of 2017 (see Current policy).
On the independence side there is also a small left-wing party unit (Candidatura d’Unitat Popular, Cup).
The Basque Nationalist Party (Partido Nacionalista Vasco, PNV, in Basque Euzko Alderdi Jeltzalea (EAJ) has also had a wave role in national politics. PNV is Spain’s oldest party after the PSOE. It sits in the Spanish Parliament and is the largest party in the Basque Congress.
The Basque Party Batasuna (Unity), the separatist movement ETA’s political branch, was banned in 2003 by Spain’s highest court. In later regional elections, Batasuna nevertheless gained some influence by supporting other Basque parties, such as the left and separatist alliance EH Bildu (Euskal Herria Bildu, United Basque Country) formed in 2012. The party became 2012 and 2016 the second largest party in the Basque Congress (see Basque Country). It is also represented in the Congress of Madrid.
The Spanish judicial system is controlled by a judicial council (Consejo General del Poder Judicial), which will guarantee its independence. The Council’s 20 members are appointed by Parliament. The highest court is the Supreme Court (Tribunal Supremo). Under this there are national, regional and local courts. The judicial system also includes special courts for labor law, tax law, violence against women and legal disputes, as well as military courts and a constitutional court.
The Special Court, Audiencia Nacional, deals with crimes against the state, corruption of suspected terrorist crimes and more. It was the court that initially handled the legal proceedings against Carles Puigdemont and other former members of the Catalan regional government (see Calendar). Later, however, the case was taken over by the Supreme Court (see also Democracy and Rights).
Spain – democracy in crisis. World Policy Day Issues # 2 2018
Read more about Spain in UI’s publication Foreign magazine:
Sánchez embraces the left – but Catalonia decides (2019-11-14)
Hard-to-read political situation after the election in Spain (2019-04-30)
Sánchez surprises both supporters and opponents (2018-06- 13)
Reform of Spain’s Constitution Can Unite the Country (2017-10-23)
Catalonia: What do we think of the people’s self-determination? (2017-10-19)
The Barcelona vs Madrid conflict in five acts (2017-10-08)
Referendum to save the government of Catalonia (2017-07-03)