Spanish government

The political system of Spain

Spanish government

Following the death of General Franco in 1975, the Spanish constitution of 31st October 1978, arguably the most liberal in western Europe, heralded a radical transformation from a dictatorship to a democratic government.

The most important task of the constitution was to devolve power to the regions, which were given their own governments, regional assemblies and supreme legal authorities. The central government retains exclusive responsibility for foreign affairs, external trade, defence, justice, law (criminal, commercial and labour), merchant shipping and civil aviation. Spain has been a member of the United Nations (UN) since 1955, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) since 1982 and the European Union (EU) since 1986, and is also a permanent observer member of the Organisation of American States (OAS).


The national parliament ( las Cortes Generales) has two chambers, the lower of which is the Congress of Deputies ( Congreso de los Diputados) and the upper the Senate ( senado). The Congress consists of 350 members representing Spain’s 50 provinces and the North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Each province is an electoral constituency, with the number of deputies depending on its population. Members of Congress are elected by a system of proportional representation for four years.

The Senate has 259 members, directly elected by a first-past-the-post system. Each province provides four members plus additional members in the Balearic and Canary islands, where extra members represent the various islands, making a total of 208 members. The 17 autonomous regions also elect one senator each and an additional member for every million inhabitants, totalling a further 51 members. The Senate has the power to amend or veto legislation initiated by Congress.

Under Spanish law, the official result of a general election is made public five days after the vote, in order to allow sufficient time for recounts and disputed results. After the members have been sworn in, the King of Spain meets with the party leaders and asks one of them to form a government, which must then be ratified by parliament. The leader of the party of government becomes the president ( presidente) of Spain and has his official residence in the Moncloa Palace in Madrid.

The Constitutional Court ( el tribunal constitucional) is responsible for ensuring that laws passed by parliament comply with the constitution and international agreements to which Spain is party.

The Judiciary is independent of the government, with the highest legal body being the General Council of Judicial Power ( Consejo general del Poder Judicial), which has 20 independent members and is headed by the president of the supreme court ( tribunal supremo).

Autonomous Regions

Spain has 17 autonomous regions ( comunidades autónomas), each with its own president, government ( gobierno or junta), administration and supreme court (plus its own flag and capital city). The regions are funded by the central government and the regions of the Basque Country, Catalonia, Galicia and Andalusia are responsible for matters such as economic development, education, health, environment, police, public works, tourism, culture, local language and social security. The other regions have less autonomy and fewer responsibilities. The people of the Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia have also been recognised as separate ethnic groups and have the right to use their own languages in education and administration.

With the increasing influence of the Basque and Catalan regional parties in national politics, the whole question of regional power and autonomy has taken on a new significance. All regions are currently revising their Autonomy Statutes. The Catalan Statute was approved in referendum in June 2006, after months of political wrangling. Many Spaniards outside Catalonia disapprove of the new Statute, which awards more autonomy to Catalonia, mainly because the Statute’s introductory paragraphs describe Catalonia as a ‘nation’.


Each province has its own administration ( diputación) that is responsible for a range of services, including health (hospitals, nursing homes), public works (including roads), sports facilities (such as public swimming pools) and social clubs (e.g. for youths and the elderly). The civil governors ( gobernadores civiles), who were head of the provincial governments, have been replaced by sub-delegates ( subdelegados del gobierno), who co-ordinate the work of the different government offices in the provinces.


A municipality is run by a council consisting of a number of councillors ( concejales), each of whom is responsible for a different area of local services. The council is headed by the mayor ( alcalde), and has its offices in the local town hall ( ayuntamiento). The official population of a municipality includes everyone who’s registered in the list of inhabitants ( padrón municipal). Entry in the padrón municipal is a requirement for inclusion on the electoral roll ( censo electoral) and the right to vote in local elections every four years. Although it isn’t mandatory for foreigners to register in their community, it’s important to register, as the funds that municipalities receive from central and regional governments are based on the official number of inhabitants. Theoretically the more government funds a municipality receives, the lower the local taxes.

The responsibilities of municipalities include rubbish collection, street cleaning, street lighting, drinking water, sewage disposal/treatment, road access and maintenance, public health controls, cemeteries, schools, urban planning, traffic control, consumer protection and policing. Municipalities with over 5,000 inhabitants must also provide public parks, a public library and markets, and those with over 20,000 must also provide civil protection, social services, fire prevention, public sports facilities and a municipal slaughterhouse.

Many town halls have a chronic liquidity problem, due to a combination of inefficiency (many Spanish communities are among the worst run in the EU), over-manning and a failure to collect taxes. It’s ironic that while municipalities are quick to fine residents for late payments, they are themselves the worst payers of bills in Spain and have run up debts of many millions of euros. Some are so bad at paying their bills that they have great difficulty in finding companies willing to supply or work for them, and municipal workers often have to strike to get paid (some towns cannot even afford to insure their police cars).

The financial situation of many councils is critical, many of which are paying thousands of euros a day in interest charges on their debts, and has been described as a financial time-bomb. As a result of town halls debts, property taxes have risen sharply in recent years and are expected to go even higher.


One of the most topical issues in Spain during the last few years has been corruption among public officials, including illegal financing of political parties, tax avoidance, fraud, bribery, institutionalised sleaze, nepotism, misappropriation of public funds, illegal patronage, influence-peddling and kickbacks. Spain has been described (in the Spanish press) as the most corrupt society among the original 15 members of the EU and corruption permeates political and public life at every level.

Marbella council has been affected by corruption on a massive scale, involving tens of millions of euros pocketed by council officials. The scandal was finally officially uncovered in early 2006 (although many people on the Costa del Sol claimed they had known for years what was going on) and by July 63 people were in prison, including most former council members. Further arrests are expected but the city’s crippling debts have left it in the hands of an administrative body, which has the colossal task of getting Marbella back on its feet before the next local elections (in early 2007). The scandals involving Marbella are almost daily news items, both in Spain and abroad, but numerous other councils, mainly on the Costas, are affected by planning scandals and many experts believe that Marbella is merely the tip of the corruption iceberg.

Foreign Voting Rights

The voting rights of non-EU residents depend on whether a bilateral agreement exists between Spain and their home countries. Foreigners must be registered on the electoral roll to vote in local elections. Foreign nationals of EU countries resident in Spain have been able to vote and stand as councillors in local elections since 1999. Candidates must be able to express themselves in a dignified manner in Spanish and have a good knowledge of their municipality and the local government laws in Spain. The non-political organisation Ciudadanos Europeos has long promoted voting rights for European Union citizens resident in Spain and other European countries and fielded candidates in local elections in 1999.

Despite the new voting rights for foreigners, few town halls take their foreign residents seriously (except just prior to elections!). However, many town halls make provision for foreign residents and have employees who speak English and other foreign languages, and in municipalities where there are a large number of foreign residents there are often special foreigners’ departments ( departamentos de extranjeros).

However, foreigners usually pay a disproportionate amount of taxes for what they receive in return, particularly non-resident homeowners. Local councils in resort areas often ignore the needs of certain communities and urbanisations, particularly those mainly populated by non-resident foreigners, and spend (waste) the vast bulk of their revenue beautifying their main town centre.

EU Residents of Spain are allowed to vote in European elections for Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), but cannot vote in Spanish general elections.


The ownership of Gibraltar (a British colony) has long been a thorn in the side of Spain’s rulers and on occasion it flares up. Although relations have improved, they remain strained and in recent years Spain has increased its diplomatic efforts (and obstruction) in its efforts to regain sovereignty over Gibraltar. Both the British and Spanish governments make concerted efforts to resolve the problem of Gibraltar sovereignty, although proposals are generally met with opposition from the Gibraltarians, who are unwilling to give up their status.

Spain also has concerns over the high level of crime associated with Gibraltar, including tobacco smuggling, drug-running and money-laundering. The smuggling of cigarettes and hashish is carried out openly in Gibraltar under the eyes of the local police, although there have been crackdowns in recent years

This article is an extract from Living and Working in Spain.
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