Soñando Sunday: Introduction to the Spanish Political System

Map of Spain with overlying flag.

Soñando Sunday: Spanish Politics

We have briefly introduced the Catalan Independentista movement and the Basque separatist movement with ETA, and now we would like to present a basic overview of the Spanish political system since the end of Franco’s regime in 1975. Understanding the essentials of the Spanish political system can not only help you understand why it's hard to talk politics with Spaniards, but can also provide insight into their conversations, frustrations, and news.

Note: My personal in depth, sociological study of the Spanish political system was carried out in the spring of 2016. Since then things have changed, however, I’ve done my best to keep up to date with the current situation. In future articles we hope to dive deeper into the subject.


The Constitution of 1978

The most recent Spanish constitution was written following the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1978. It has not been modified since it was written, and you can find varying opinions from people whether or not they truly believe that it should be updated. In comparison with the American Constitution, the Spanish Constitution is fairly young (which is sometimes easy to forget as Spain is a much older country) but, like the American Constitution, personally I think some parts are already antiquated.

This Constitution refers to Spain as parliamentary monarchy. This means that the king of Spain rules the country although it is a democratic, representative, constitutional country*. In Spain the executive power is distributed between the prime minister (the legal head of the government), other ministers, and a cabinet where the legislative power is found in a bicameral parliament which is formed by the Congress and the Senate (together creating the Cortes Genales).

Within the distribution of power, we can also see how the various Autonomous Communities have control over many different aspects of political life, such as education and construction of roads. This means that university education costs different amounts in different regions and that in some places highways are toll roads whereas in others they are free. This highly decentralized system allows communities such as the Basque Country and Cataluyna to implement their preferences in many different areas of political life.


The Spanish Political Parties

The Spanish Political system is a multi-party system. However, until recently, it was primarily a bi-party system with the influence of regional parties (mainly the Basque and Catalan parties) having pull in their Autonomous Communities. Up to the 2015 elections, the two main parties in Spain included one that represented the community of workers, which I would consider to be the equivalent to the democratic party (currently called the Partido Socialista Obrero Español [PSOE] or the "Spanish Workers Socialist Party"), and a more conservative party (currently known as the Partido Popular [PP] or the "People’s Party"). These two main parties have evolved over time, changing leaders, names, etc., but their main purpose and ideology has remained similar.

The flag for the Spanish Republic.

The flag for the Spanish Republic.

Note: The left-wing party, PSOE, is known as the republican party in Spain because they originally supported the independence of the country from its king—essentially becoming a republic. In contrast, the right-wing is known as the democratic party.

However, the elections in 2015 changed this primarily bi-party system to a four-party one, leaving the country in a state of inability to majoritively decide on a leader. The two new parties that have gained ground since 2015 are Podemos (literally translated to be "We Can"), a left-wing party, and Ciudadanos (which means "Citizens"), a left-center-winged one (although Ciudadanos has been described as a right-winged party as well).

Note: I would just like to draw attention to the fact that ‘left’ and ‘right’ aligned parties are interpreted within the social context. That is to say, in Spain, the right-winged parties are often times more liberal/socialist that central or slightly left-winged parties in the U.S.

Elections in Spain

General elections in Spain are held every four year via a proportional representation system, per province, leaving sparsely populated regions with higher representation power. The way that representatives are chosen is by using the d’Hondt system (which you can find explained here as I don’t think you actually need to know this even though I did learn it is class). In addition, there is a 3% threshold where parties must obtain a minimum of 3% of the vote to be able to have representation. This often means that smaller, regional parties do not have representation at a larger, centralized level.

One of the biggest differences for me with the elections is that citizens vote for a closed list of representatives—that is to say, they vote, for example, for an entire PSOE government, not individual representatives. In addition, all members of the same political party should vote for the same amendments and laws, the details are carried out behind doors and voting against your party could lead to be abandoned by them (aka, from what I understand, being kicked out).

For those of you who have studied a little bit about recent Spanish politics, you will know that after this 2015 election, no actual leader was elected. This lead to subsequent voting until the parties reached an agreement, leaving Spain without an official, elected leader for about a year. In the end Ciudadanos supported PP, PSOE abstained from choosing, and the Partido Popular was allowed to continue to hold power in the country. This pacting upset many voters around the country, especially loyal PSOE followers who felt as though their leaders sold them out.

Do you like politics? Would you like to understand more about the Spanish political system? Let us know!


*It is interesting to note that this Constitution does not mark the first democracy in Spain, but that many people fought to restore their democratic government during the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s rule (hopefully we will get to these subjects soon).