Spain's former socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero

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Spain’s government tiers reflect the historic
struggle between regionalists and centralists
By Daniel González Herrera

27 December 2006: In 1977, two years after the death of dictator General Franco, the first freely elected Spanish parliament for 30 years, sitting as a constitutional assembly, mandated a seven-member council to draw up a new constitution. The so-called ‘Fathers of the constitution’ submitted their draft to parliament in 1978, where it was endorsed in October of that year. The new constitution came into effect on 29 December 1978 after the Spanish electorate's approval in a nationwide referendum.

| Overview | State | Autonomous Communities | Provinces | Islands | Local government | Conclusion |

One of the most important tasks, if not the most important, of the constitutional council was the territorial re-organization of power. The fascist regime of Franco had spared no effort to get a unified Spain under the strict command of a central power. The motto of the Franco era was: Spain, One, Great and Free! Franco's intention was to destroy a constant theme in this old European country: the existence of territories with historic, linguistic and cultural characteristics, each with claims for the recognition of their identity.

However, the regime’s efforts proved ultimately fruitless. Even before the death of the dictator, this system of power was unsustainable. The policy of centralisation not only failed to destroy the nationalisms, but it reinforced the will of Spain’s various nationalities. The result of this dialectic between 'centralists' and 'nationalists' or, more properly, 'decentralists' is now expressed in the territorial organization of the state included in the 1978 Spanish Constitution, which is a product of consensus of all the political forces from that time.

After many troubles during the constituent process, the parliament opted for a unique method, not attempted before, but which seemed to respond to the expectations of most of Spanish society. This way, the state of the autonomous communities was born, an intermediate model between the regionalist nations (as in Italy or France) and the federal ones (as in the US and Germany). Initially, this autonomous conception was not imposed, but the "provinces with common historic, cultural and economic characteristics, insular territories and provinces with a historic regional status" could decide if they wanted to addopt self-government or not. In fact, the entire nation was constituted according to this model.

The result is that today we find a state divided into 17 autonomous communities (plus the two autonomous cities in North Africa: Ceuta and Melilla). These communities are subdivided, also, into provinces, and further subdivided into municipalities, all of them with legal personality, and established powers, in a system configured from a highest to the lowest level in order to attain more closeness to the citizen and their issues. In this article we shall attempt a summary review of the basic schema of this system that has achieved to solve, at least by now, the eternal dilemma of the identity of Spain as a country or as a nation of countries.

The State
Spain is, at its centre, a parliamentary monarchy. King Juan Carlos I is the head of state, and the country’s highest representative among the international community. However, this role is today almost symbolic, as the real centre of the executive power is occupied by the President of the Government (Prime Minister), democratically elected by the lower house of the parliament the General Courts (Cortes Generales), the Chamber of Deputies (Congreso de los Diputados). Today, the President of the Government is José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, leader of the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers' Party). The parliament is bicameral, and is composed of a Chamber of Deputies and a Senate (Senado). However, the Senate plays a secondary role in the political and legislative process, since it is in the lower house where the more important decisions are adopted. The upper house is, actually, more deliberative chamber, mandated to meditate and to deliberate legislative measures to be adopted.

The Autonomous Communities
Autonomous Communities describes a set of territories that do not all share the same characteristics. Some have a more developed level of political decision-making than others.

The Autonomous Communities (Comunidades Autónomas) are similar to the federated states in most federal nations. They have greater autonomy in matters that concern them. They all have their own executive and legislative powers, so they can enact their own laws and design policies reflecting the will of their inhabitants.

Of course, as mentioned, there is also the Spanish national parliament and Government. This duality of powers is possible because there is in the Constitution a specific distribution of functions: this way, the Autonomous Communities only can pass laws in those areas which the constitution recognises as their competence. They have no jurisdiction over other policy matters, such as foreign policy, defence or monetary policy, unless the central government passes to the regions temporary and/or limited authority in such areas. Furthermore, as far as the judiciary is concerned, there exists no decentralization, since it is common to the whole country. The judicial centralisation is designed to ensure that every Spaniard is equal before the law. Today most cases finish in a superior court settled in each Autonomous Community (Comunidad Autónoma), while the most important cases are reviewed by the national Supreme Court.

Under its constitution, Spain adheres to two principles: unity and autonomy. But a state configured this way cannot exist unless there are strong links of solidarity between all Autonomous Communities. If this solidarity did not exist, there would not be one country but many. This solidarity means in practice that all the powers, whether central or autonomous, must act on the basis that they are members of a whole, and therefore share common interests. Nevertheless, this do not mean that they renounce their own particular needs, but that they must combine the general and particular autonomy interests in the best way they can. This solidarity also implies the duty of reciprocal help, support and loyalty of all to the constitution.

The Autonomous Communities do not have their own constitutions. Instead, they have a basic law called Autonomous Statute (Estatuto de Autonomía). This law encapsules that every community has a process which enshrines unity and autonomy. The Autonomous Statutes are negotiated rules between the national parliament and the legislative assemblies of each community but, as important as they are, are subordinated to the constitution.

The political leaders of the Autonomous Community are elected through universal suffrage among all the inhabitants of each region, in a parliamentary system. This means that the voters choose the parties that will be part of the different parliamentary groups of each legislative assembly, and, for their part, these groups choose, according to their majority, the autonomous government. In the regions with longest historical tradition, these tend to be governed by nationalist parties, while the rest of Spain is divided between the two larger national parties: the centre-right Peoples Party (PP) and the centre-left socialist party PSOE .

It is important to note that some Autonomous Communities have higher historic weight than others, since they have their own idiosyncrasies and, in practice, a national identity. For example, this applies to Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country. These three regions have a particular self-governing system, based upon their linguistic and cultural identity. In extreme cases, the fierce defence of regional nationalism has resulted in demands for independence and led groups to resort to terrorism, as in Basque. However, this is not wide-spread since most citizens feel they can pursue their national and regional identities with equal intensity.

In addition to the state and Autonomous Communities, power is operated through provinces, the Islands and municipalities

The Provinces
With the abolition of royal absolutism and the acceptance of liberal ideas in Spain a new concept of local administration was formed. It gave legal status to local entities in order to organize and administer territories. This way, with the first Magna Charta, the Cadiz Constitution of 1812, all the Hispanic part of the Iberian Peninsula was divided into provinces (Provincias) and provinces into municipalities. However, with the return of the absolutist King Fernando VII in 1814, the liberal constitution was abolished and, with it, the system of provinces, which was not reintroduced until the death of the king.

Today, Spain is divided into fifty provinces. As a self-governing territory, a province (Provincia) is led by a Provincial Deputation. This is made up of a President and a number of Provincial Deputies proportionate to the number of residents. These deputies are elected by the members of the city councils. The deputation has no legislative authority, but exercises certain executive functions.

There are Autonomous Communities, which consist of one single province. Here, for obvious reasons, there is no provincial deputation. This is the case at Navarre, La Rioja, Murcia, the Principality of Asturias, the Balearic Islands, Cantabria and, finally, Madrid, which has a special status since it contains the City of Madrid as the capital of the state. In these communities, the entire administration is entrusted to the autonomous organ.

The Islands
Spain consists of its continental territory and also two archipelagos: in the Mediterranean Sea, the Balearic Islands, and in Atlantic Ocean, near the African coastline, the Canary Islands. Both archipelagos are Autonomous Communities, but because of their insular peculiarities the state gave them a power status intermediate between Province and Municipality: the Island (Isla).

The Canaries consist of seven principal islands, which are shared between two Provinces. The two main islands, Tenerife and Gran Canaria, share the capital status of the Autonomous Community. This dualism is due to the historic ‘insular fight’, the traditional rivalry between these sister isles. Each one of the seven islands is led by an Inter-Island Council (Cabildo Insular), made up of a varied number of Councillors, elected by the islanders through universal suffrage. The councillors are led by a President.

The Balearic Islands, as mentioned, is a single Province Community. But each one of its isles is also governed by an Insular Council (Consejo Insular), made up of some of the deputies elected to the Balearic parliament. This way, the deputies are, at the same time, councillors.

Both island councils have the executive and administrative functions, which in the rest of Spain belong to the Provincial Deputation.

Local government
Local government are considered the tier closest to citizens. It is most directly concerned with the daily life of people. Spain is divided into Municipalities (Municipios), with the exception of the Royal Bardenas, in Navarre, a territory declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.

The governance of the municipalities belongs to the City Council. It is a collegiate organ that leads the municipal administration.  The City Council is made up of Councillors, elected by popular vote. The number of councillors may vary according to the number of residents, from five to 25. In the municipal elections, all European Union citizens, regardless of nationality, may vote and stand for office, though of course they must reside in the Municipality (Municipio) concerned. The City Council in plenary meeting takes the decisions regarding the most important questions that affect the citizenry. It passes the general plans of urban development, and many other regulations, in areas such as taxes, urban policy, etc. 

The president of the City Council is the Mayor, which is elected by and from the councillors. Mayors organize, suspend and lead the sessions and debates of the plenary and of other municipal organs. They are also the highest representative authority of the municipality and responsible for its government and administration. Nevertheless, if the City Council in plenary is of the view that they are not addressing their functions properly, they can be removed through a "constructive vote of censure": this means that with the vote the meeting must also propose a new candidate, to avoid a power vacuum.

The functions that belong to the City Council are those that the state and the Autonomous Community give to it, generally those that most directly affect the citizen.

Finally, in some smaller rural municipalities in Northern Spain there is a particular form of direct democracy: the Open Council (Consejo abierto). This is a way of government similar to the one that existed in ancient Greece, where all the free citizens went together to the agora to take the most important decisions. In these Spanish towns all the inhabitants, called by bell tolls, may gather in an assembly to make fundamental decisions that affect them jointly. Because of its characteristics, this form of democracy can be viable only in communities with few members: one hundred or less.

To address specific issues of large urban concentrations, the metropolitan areas are recognized as real local entities. They are made up of the municipalities within urban agglomerations with common economic and social links. Its structure is similar to a ‘Federation of Municipalities’. The metropolitan area of Barcelona is the most important example. Within such a federation, all municipalities must be equally represented to ensure a fair distribution of economic benefits and burdens.

Finally, cities with more than 250,000 residents and those, which are provincial or autonomous capitals, have their own system, though it is not very different to the general model. The main difference is that in these big cities the mayor has the highest power, and with him the Governing Board, a cabinet-type set up that assists the Mayor in executive and organisational functions.

Nation states are the results of their particular historic evolutions. In Spain, this historic process has produced a permanent state of tension that has its origin in the birth of the country. It goes back to the Visigothic monarchs (fifth to eight centuries) which capitulated to the Moorish ascendancy because of the conflict between the centralist kings (following the Byzantine Empire model) and a nobility class with feudalist, decentralist ambitions. The conflicting ambitions of federalists and centralists have been a permanent feature of Spain, with the political classes, during dictatorship and democracy, attempting to find common ground between ‘both Spains’.

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