The Spanish Political System explained


Politically Spain is a parliamentary system, in which governments require parliamentary support in order to be formed and to pass budgets and laws. There are two houses of parliament: a Congress and a Senate. Understanding the electoral system in conjunction with the party dynamics across regions is key to understanding how parliamentary majorities can be established. These are the two aspects that this article sets out to explore.


The Setup

Administratively Spain is made up of 17 autonomous communities with a relatively high degree of self-administration. Electorally, however, these regions are not relevant on a national level where, as set out in the constitution, provinces are the electoral districts. Each autonomous region is made up of a number of provinces (there are 50 in total), ranging from one, (such as Madrid), to nine (Castilla y León). These provinces vary greatly in population: from Soria (93,000) to Madrid (6.5 million).

In congress each province is assigned 2 members, plus an amount proportional to its population. So the province of Soria, gets 3, while Madrid gets 36, and Barcelona 31. Now, within each district representation is proportional, but obviously, in Madrid or Barcelona the threshold a party needs to pass in order to obtain representation is much lower percentage-wise than in districts with 3 or 4 representatives. So the system contains a bias towards parties that can muster high percentages in small provinces. These happen to be located mainly in Castile, as the two Castilian autonomous regions contain 14 out of 50 provinces, in spite of having a combined population of 4.5 million out of 47 million for the whole of Spain. Castile is Popular Party territory.

In the senate, the system is far more biased. Basically every province gets four senators (except provinces with islands which get more). In total 208 senators are apportioned in this manner. Additionally, autonomous community (regional) parliaments can appoint one each, plus one for every million inhabitants; 58 are apportioned in this manner.

Before we look at how elections to congress and senate translate votes into representation, in terms of parties and regional representation, a few factors need to be pointed out:

a) Elections to congress and senate are simultaneous. A single electoral process and campaign focuses always on parties and candidates for prime minister, never on individual candidates to congress and senate. Spaniards can therefore be taken to vote for the same party for both houses of parliament.

b) There are no primaries. In practice, for both houses of parliament, voters pick up a ballot on which the list of candidates appear in the order established by the party.

c) The senate has very low media visibility, senators are not generally public figures in Spain, and only experts understand how it works electorally due to its complexity and irrelevance in public debate. People vote for the party. People do not know senators by name.

d) Less populated provinces are generally located in central Spain. They are more conservative and have a notion of Spanish identity that is less plural. Here the Popular Party is strongest. More populated provinces are generally more urban, progressive and diverse.

Let us look now at how Spaniards voted as a whole in 2016 and how their votes translated into representation in both chambers.

Let us know compare how representation works out in regional comparison between the central Spain-Popular Party heartland (the 2 Castilian Autonomous Communities not including Madrid) and Catalonia.

As we can gather from these two charts, representation in the congress is considerably more proportional than it is in the senate. In both cases the bias is towards the less urban conservative, Castilian heartland provinces.

Some implications for Catalonia

The congress is Spain’s main legislating body, and the senate is not very visible in general. But, any constitutional amendment requires 3/5 majority in both congress and senate, 2/3 if it affects territorial matters. Each house appoints 4 members of the constitutional court on a 3/5 basis and to the Council of the Judiciary on a 3/5 basis too.

Article 155

In relation to the Catalan independence crisis, the senate has suddenly gained notoriety. Why? Article 155 of the constitution, which allows the central government to “give instructions” to regional governments who do not comply with their legal obligations, is triggered by the senate through a simple majority vote. This is clearly an anomaly, as it is the only exclusive power detained by the senate. One may wonder, what exactly the drafters of the constitution had in mind..

In late October 2017, for the first time since the adoption of the constitution in 1978, the senate voted the Rajoy’s proposed application of Article 155, which allowed him to remove the elected Catalan government, dissolve parliament and assume direct rule of Catalonia from Madrid.

Constitutional Reform

In relation to Catalonia obtaining the right to hold a referendum through constitutional reform one needs to look at the interplay between political party positions, political party representation and constitutional requirements. The most radical requirement in this respect is the 2/3 vote in the senate. The Popular Party is, and has always been, staunchly opposed to granting Catalans the right to self-determination. Looking, not only at current representation, but also at the party system over time, the obvious conclusion is that only the support of the Popular Party for a constitutional reform that would grant Catalonia self-determination could actually make such a reform feasible. But the Popular Party time and again has repeated that it will refuse to consider any constitutional change that would permit self-determination for Catalonia, or “break Spain”, as they prefer to put it. When considering this in conjunction with the actual dynamics of representation, one can only conclude that when the Popular Party arrogantly invites Catalan separatists to attempt constitutional reform, they are indeed being very cynical. Such invitations need to be predicated at the very least on a willingness of the PP to consider self-determination. That is the meaning of the dialogue between the (former) Catalan government and the Spanish government sought from Barcelona for the last five years.

Map showing most voted party by provinces in Spanish 2016 elections. Blue is Popular Party, red is Socialist Party, purple is Podemos-Catalan coalition, yellow is Catalan Republican Left. The 4 north-eastern provinces are Catalonia, the 3 in the north in the middle make up the Basque Country

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