Voting & Politics in Spain

Spanish politics is a complex and fractious subject. You'll learn more about the average Spaniard's views by sitting in a bar and chatting than you will from guides like this, but I hope this overview is useful (it might prepare you for the pub conversations).

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Spain is a parliamentary monarchy, which means that the state is ruled by a monarch (King Felipe VI) and the government is ruled by a prime minister (currently Pedro Sanchez – see below).

Voting in Spain

Voting rights – Spanish citizens

Spain practices universal suffrage. All Spanish citizens over the age of 18 may vote.

Voting rights – foreign residents

In theory, foreign resident who is the citizen of a country that has a reciprocal bilateral agreement ratified by Spain can vote and even stand in a municipal (local) election.

In practice, this only applies to EU citizens and citizens of Norway.

However, there are campaigns to allow all foreign residents to vote regardless of reciprocity.

To vote in a municipal Spanish election you must:

  • Be over 18
  • Be a resident in Spain
  • Be registered with your local municipal authorities
  • Declared that you wish to vote
  • Be on the electoral roll

If you wish to stand in a municipal election you must:

  • Meet all of the requirements above
  • Qualify to stand under Spanish law (the requirements are the same for foreigners and Spaniards)
  • Be able to stand in your own country

The Spanish monarchy

The Spanish monarchy has a fascinating relationship with Spanish politics.

Felipe VI’s father, Juan Carlos I, was appointed as the successor of the dictator Franco (who had restored Spain’s status as ‘kingdom’ in 1947 without ascending an actual monarch). Juan Carlos I took the throne in 1975 and defied expectations by facilitating Spain’s transition into a democracy. He also played a major role in quashing a 1981 coup that sought to restore a Francoist regime.

The result was a monarch who was to be, as far as possible, apolitical and neutral. The wording of the Constitution was carefully created to reflect this.

Juan Carlos I abdicated in 2014, and his son has shown every sign of continuing to act on the advice of his government (although, interestingly, a 2014 poll showed that Spanish people wanted their King to take more of a role in pushing political parties into agreement).

The role of the King of Spain

The King of Spain has a largely ceremonial, but still important, role in Spanish politics.

It is “incumbent upon the King” (note the wording here – these are to be seen as duties rather than powers) to:

  • Appoint the prime minister
  • Sanction and promulgate laws
  • Issue decrees
  • Call elections and referenda
  • Summon and dissolve parliament (the Cortes Generales)

He is also the head of the military although, again, this is largely ceremonial.

Another important duty of the King of Spain is his role as a diplomat. He represents Spain in affairs of foreign relation (although he cannot direct any foreign policy). Juan Carlos I was an excellent example of this: his many foreign trips helped secure both respect and economic benefits for Spain.

The Government of Spain

The Government of Spain (Gobierno de España), like most governments, comprises the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.

The executive is the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, and the members of the Cabinet.

For more on the judiciary see our Guide to the Spanish Legal System.

The legislature, or Parliament (Cortes Generales) is made up of two chambers, each of which have different roles:

The Congress of Deputies (Congreso de los Diputados)

The Congress of Deputies has 350 members, who are elected in their constituencies through proportional representation.

They are the representatives of the Spanish people, but the members themselves are chosen by the political parties – the ‘closed list’ system means that the voters choose parties rather than people.

The Congress of Deputies is the more powerful of the houses.

The Senate (Senado)

The Spanish senate is made up of 266 representatives of the autonomous communitieslightbulb image, the mainland provinces, the Spanish islands, and Ceuta and Melilla (two Spanish cities in Morocco).

Directly elected members – voted for by name, by the Spanish people – make up 208 of the total. (This is the only time Spanish voters pick a representative individual, rather than a party.)

Each province has four senators, with the exception of the insular provinces – the islands and the Moroccan cities – who have fewer (between one and three, depending on population size).

The remaining 57 senators are appointed by the regional legislatures.

The Senate can usually be overridden by the Congress of Deputies, but it does have some executive powers: the appointment of certain constitutional posts (e.g. judges of the Constitutional Court) and the ability to suspend local government (e.g. when the Marbella city council was dissolved in 2006 due to widespread corruption).

The Gürtel case

This scandal has been in the public eye since 2009, but has only recently (2018) severely impacted Spanish politics.

A ring of prominent businessmen, led by Francisco Correa Sánchez, and many members of the People’s Party (PP – see below) were implicated in a complicated case that involved party funding and the awarding of contracts.

In May 2018 the Audiencia Nacional (Spain’s highest criminal court) found dozens of businessmen and party members – including allies of Mariano Rajoy, who was Prime Minister at the time at the time – guilty of fraud, money laundering and accepting illegal kickbacks. The court ruled that the party had been involved in taking kickbacks since 1989.

The scandal led to a vote of no confidence in the ruling PP party being passed in June 2018.

Political parties of Spain

Spain is a multi-party democracy. However, two parties – PSOE and PP – have dominated the political landscape for decades. Critics of the Spanish political system say that it favours this kind of two-party dominance.

General elections are held every four years, unless an early election is called by the Prime Minister. The next general election is due no later than 26 July 2020.

Only four parties got more than 10% of the vote in the last general election:

Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español/PSOE)

The PSOE is a centre-left party. It is currently in power, led by Pedro Sánchez.

It usually wins between 30-50% of the vote, and has spent more time in power than any other party in modern Spain.

However, the 2015 general election left the party with only 20% of the vote, due largely to the splitting of the left-wing vote – many PSOE supporters jumped ship to Podemos and United Left (see below). The ruling People’s Party was dealt a similar blow.

The fragmented result saw Spain without a functioning government, and a new general election was held in 2016 – PSOE’s share crept up to 22.63% of the vote. PP took power, led by Mariano Rajoy.

But Mariano Rajoy’s government fell in 2018 (see below) and Sánchez became Prime Minister on 1 June 2018. He said he would soon be calling a general election but, as of early August 2018, this does not look like it will happen.

PSOE hold 85 seats. An opinion poll released on 2 August 2018 suggests that the party would easily hold power at the next election with an estimate 29.9% of the vote.

People’s Party (Partido Popular/PP)

The PP is a conservative party. It is currently led by Pablo Casado, whose election was seen as a clear swing to the right for the party.

The PP usually wins between 25-45% of the vote, but was dealt a similar blow to the PSOE in the 2015 and subsequent 2016 general elections. They hold 134 seats.

The PP has been embroiled in various corruption scandals, but the most recent and severe is the Gürtel case (see above).

In June 2018, Pedro Sánchez presented a vote of no confidence against the PP government, accusing them of fostering, “a genuine and effective system of institutional corruption through the manipulation of central, autonomous and local public procurement.” After some negotiation with smaller parties, the vote passed. Sánchez became Prime Minister.

United We Can (Unidos Podemos)

Unidos Podemos is a left-wing alliance formed from Podemos, United Left (Izquierda Unida/IU), Equo and some other, smaller parties. It was formed in May 2016, incorporating Popular Unity (Unidad Popular) to contest the extraordinary general election.

They did not perform as well as expected in the 2016 election, holding steady-ish at 71 seats and 21.2% of the vote.

The alliance is sometimes an uneasy one, as harder-left members’ views clash with the more polished, mainstream-friendly party message of Podemos.

Citizens (Ciudadanos/Cs)

Centre-right party led by Albert Rivera.

Originating in Catalonia, it is heavily against Catalan nationalism and separatism. It stands on liberal policies including lower tax, electoral reform, less bureaucracy and the legalisation of marijuana.

Although it stands against Spanish nationalism in theory, in practice it has attracted criticism for alleged nationalist rhetoric.

Cs attracted 13.06% of the 2016 vote, and holds 32 seats. It had a higher proportion of voters in federally-friendly Madrid and Murcia than it did in Catalonia.

Secession crises

Spain’s Autonomous Communitieslightbulb image make the country one of the least centralised in the OECD. Some 50.3% of civil servants in Spain are employed by the autonomous communities rather than central or provincial administrations. Amazingly, that figure includes the police and military.

Different regions have different levels of autonomy. The Catalonia, Basque and Galicia regions hold some of the greatest devolved powers.

However, Basque and, more recently, Catalonian separatists have caused strife for the Spanish government.


Violent Basque secession group Eta killed nearly 850 people over four decades of attacks before disbanding in 2012, and disarming even more recently in 2017. Any peace processes started with Eta were quickly quashed by further violence from the group.

Basque sentiment does not currently appear to favour secession.

2017 Catalonian secession attempt

Catalonia caused crisis on 1 October 2017, when the region’s independence referendum (illegal, according to the Constitutional Court of Spain) came out in favour of Catalonia becoming an independent republic.

The Spanish government handled this controversial referendum with little subtlety or diplomacy. The police raided polling stations and confronted largely peaceful protests. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others, condemned the actions as an excessive use of force.

On 27 October 2017, the Parliament of Catalonia passed a declaration of independence. It was not recognised by the international community.

Hours later, Prime Minister Rajoy dismissed the Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, along with his whole cabinet. In early November, the Spanish National Court jailed eight members of the deposed government, following by five more in March 2018.

Catalonia held new elections in December 2018, where independence-supporting parties won a slim majority (although anti-independence party Citizens was the single largest party).

Never popular, Rajoy’s party was destroyed in the region, collapsing in the December 2017 election to 4.2% of the vote. For the first time in history, PP was unable to form a parliamentary group in Catalonia.

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