Learn about Spain’s government and political systems to ensure you can keep up with the news and current events while living as an expat in Spain.
The current political system in Spain is based on the 1978 Spanish Constitution which came into place after the country’s transition to democracy in the late 1970s.
Following decades of military rule under General Franco which ended with his death in 1975, the country moved gradually to a multi-party democracy and is today classified as a “full democracy” ranked 19th on the Economist’s Democracy Index.
The Spanish political system
The political system in Spain is a parliamentary monarchy with the ruling monarch serving as the official head of state and the prime minister as head of government.
The current ruling monarch is Felipe VI , King of Spain – he has been king since 2014.
The current prime minister is Pedro Sanchez of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), who replaced Mariano Rajoy in June 2018.
Executive power is exercised by the Spanish government consisting of the ruling prime minister, their deputy and a Council of Ministers which form the Cabinet. The prime minister has the power to appoint and fire ministers to and from the Cabinet. There is also a Council of State that exists as a consultative body giving non-binding opinions to the Spain government.
The national parliament is known as the Cortes Generales which consists of two chambers: the Upper House, which is the Senate of Spain, comprises 208 elected officials and 57 appointed by regional legislatures; and the Lower House, called the Congress of Deputies, which has 350 members elected by the public.
The judiciary is independent of the Spain government and parliament, composed of different courts with the Supreme Court (Tribunal Supremo) the highest-ranking court.
The Spanish government has the responsibility of running the country, although the Cortes Generales controls the actions of the government and has the power to approve budgets. The Congress of Deputies (Lower House) is the more powerful of the two chambers, able to approve or reject laws, initiate legislation and with the power to vote the prime minister in or out.
The Senate (Upper House) can veto legislation but this can be overturned if there is an absolute majority in the Congress of Deputies. It has a greater degree of power regarding the autonomous communities at regional level.
Local and regional government in Spain
In addition to the national government, there are three other tiers of government in Spain – regional autonomous communities, local provinces and municipalities. There are 17 autonomous communities (plus two autonomous cities), which are subdivided into 50 provinces. Provinces are then further divided into municipalities.
Regional identity and organization are very strong in Spain, and the 1978 Constitution emphasized the right to autonomy and self-government in recognition of this. However, although the Spanish political system is highly decentralized and devolved, the central government retains full sovereignty.
The autonomous communities are organized along the lines of a parliamentary system, each one consisting of an executive and a legislative division with its own Statute of Autonomy approved by national parliament. However, the exact structures vary between the communities, with more power devolved to the “historic nationalities” in the Basque Country, Catalonia, and Galicia.
The autonomous communities in Spain are Andalucia, Aragon, Asturias, Balearic Islands, Basque Country, Canary islands, Cantabria, Castilla-La Mancha, Castilla Y Leon, Catalonia, Extremadura, Galicia, La Rioja, Madrid, Murcia, Navarra and Valencia. The two autonomous cities are Ceuta and Melilla.
Local government in Spain is mostly conducted at the municipal level. Citizens elect local councilors who then choose a Mayor who will appoint a board of governors. Duties of municipalities include managing the local police, traffic policy, urban planning, social services, and local taxation.
How the Spanish political system works in practice
Spain operates a multi-party democracy. Political parties can put forward representatives for election. Representatives of the Congress of Deputies are elected through proportional representation. The majority of Senators are directly elected by popular vote, with the remainder appointed by regional legislature.
Although a multi-party system, in practice Spanish politics has been dominated until fairly recently by two parties – the PSOE and the People’s Party. Because each province is given an equal number of seats in parliament, sparsely populated provinces are over-represented while those with larger populations are under-represented.
If no party achieves an overall majority in general elections, the party with the most seats can choose to form a minority Spain government or a coalition with other parties to give them an overall majority. Since the transition to democracy there have been a number of minority governments in Spain, making it difficult for legislation to pass through parliament.
Recently Spanish politics has been dominated by frictions between central and regional government, with the Catalan parliament voting for independence from Spain, and by a corruption scandal which led to a vote of no confidence in prime minister Mariano Rajoy and the fall of his minority government.
As with most constitutional monarchies, the role of the ruling monarch in the Spain government is largely symbolic and ceremonial, officially appointing prime ministers, dissolving parliament, etc. but not intervening in the running of government.
Elections in Spain
General elections are held every 4 years in Spain, or earlier if the prime minister decides to call an election. Local elections are also every 4 years and are held on the same day in all regions. All Spanish citizens aged 18 or above are eligible to vote and can do so as long as they are registered. EU citizens can vote in local/municipal elections as well as in European elections. Spanish citizens aged 18 or above can stand for election.
The most recent general election in Spain was held in 2016, resulting in the People’s Party winning 137 seats in Congress (and 33% of the popular vote) ahead of the PSOE who won 85 seats and 22.6% of the popular vote. The People’s Party formed a minority government, which was replaced in June 2018 by a PSOE minority government after a vote of no confidence.
Universal suffrage in Spain was originally granted in 1933 when women won the right to vote. Revoked by Franco during his rule, it was re-established in 1977. Voter turnout for general elections since 1977 has varied from 68.13% to 79.83%.
Main Spanish political parties and leaders
Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol – PSOE) – democratic socialist and pro-European party formed in 1879 that has governed Spain for periods throughout its history. Currently led by prime minister Pedro Sanchez.
People’s Party (Partido Popular) – conservative Christian party, formerly known as the People’s Alliance that has frequently formed the Spain government, both majority and minority. Ousted from power in June 2018, the party is currently led by Pablo Casado.
United We Can (Unidos Podemos) – socialist party formed from an alliance of left-wing parties to contest the 2016 election. Led by Pablo Iglesias, the party currently has 71 seats in Congress.
Citizens (Ciudadanos) – Catalan centre-right liberal party formed in 2006. Campaigns on a pro-European, anti-Catalan nationalism platform. Led by Albert Rivera, the party won 32 seats in the 2016 election.
Republican Left of Catalonia-Catalonia Yes (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya-Catalunya Si – ERC CatSi) – coalition party made up of pro-Catalan independence parties and formed in 2011. The party has 9 seats in Congress.
Catalan European Democratic Party (Partit Democrata Europeu Catala – PdeCAT) – pro-European Catalan nationalist party founded in 2016. Has 8 seats in Congress.
Basque Nationalist Party (Partido Nacionalista Vasco – PNV) – centre-right Basque nationalist party founded in 1895 and currently led by Andoni Ortuzar. Has 5 seats in Congress.
Basque Country Unite (Euskal Herria Bildu – EHB) – left-wing basque nationalist party formed in 2011. Won 2 Congress seats in 2016.
Canarian Coalition (Coalicion Canaria) – centre-right party that has governed the Canary islands since its foundation in 1993. Has one seat in Spanish parliament.