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EACEA National Policies Platform


5. Participation

5.1 General context

Last update: 28 November 2023
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  1. Main concepts
  2. Institutions of representative democracy

Main concepts

The Kingdom of Spain is divided into 17 Autonomous Regions and two Autonomous Cities, which enjoy a high degree of self-government. Spain is a Constitutional Monarchy ruled by the Constitution of 1978 (CE in short). Its institutional structure follows the parliamentary model (Article 1.3CE), to which is added the existence of a Constitutional Court separate from the structure of the Administration of Justice. The territorial structure is typical of complex or federal territorial systems. Although at no time does the Constitution refer to the Spanish State as a federal state, the right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions of Spain is granted by the article 2.

The Head of State is hereditary, currently King Philip VI, occupied by the descendants of the Bourbon family, with patrilineal preference (Article 57CE). The current Head of State is King Philip VI. The Head of State has no effective political powers and all acts must be countersigned by the respective representatives of the different powers of the State (Article 64CE).

Executive power rests within the government, which is a body with collegial responsibility, composed of the President, the Vice-Presidents, if any, and an indeterminate number of Ministers (Article 98 CE) that has varied throughout legislatures; between a maximum of 23 and a minimum of 15. In recent legislatures there has been a tendency to balance the executive on gender grounds, but there is no specific action aimed at the incorporation of young ministers.

The government is the head of the Public Administration and directs and designs national and international policy (Article 97 CE).

The structure of the Administration of Justice is pyramidal and hierarchical, with the Supreme Court of Justice being at the top. This body is divided into different Chambers specialized by the type of matters that they attend. The members of the Supreme Court accede to it by merits at the end of their professional career, which is the reason why their average age is relatively high. Access to the judicial career is by public examination and the average age of people who pass it and become judges is 30 years.


The Spanish Parliament has the given name of Cortes Generales. It is characterized by being an asymmetric two-chamber parliament (Ruiz Martínez, 2012). The Lower Chamber or Congresode los Diputados, has responsibility for almost all the totality of legislative functions and is, in any case, the final arbiter in cases of conflict with the Upper Chamber, called Senado. In addition, the position of the President of the Government (Chief of the Executive) is voted only by the Congress of Deputies, without any participation of the Senate (Article 99 CE). The Senate is the chamber of territorial representation (Article 69.1 CE) although, in practice, it does not carry out any work as such.


Institutions of representative democracy


The Congress of Deputies houses a total of 350 deputies, who are elected in 52 electoral districts, which correspond to the provinces into which Spain is divided. Citizens vote via direct universal suffrage on closed and blocked lists, and the distribution of seats is done using a proportional distribution method based on the d'Hondt method (Article 68 CE and Organic Law of Electoral Regime (LOREG)). The proportionality in the distribution ratio of the seats among the population is not exact and favours circumscriptions with lower populations.

The Senate has a variable number of members, although the average is around 260 senators, and they are chosen by means of a double procedure (Article 69 CE). On the one hand, a total of 208 senators are elected by direct universal suffrage by citizens, distributed into 59 electoral districts: the 47 peninsular provinces, the two cities of Ceuta and Melilla and ten insular territorial groups. The Spanish people vote through a majority system to a restricted number of senators that varies between one and three depending on the size of the constituency (Article 69.3-4 CE).

On the other hand, the parliaments of the Autonomous Regions (Comunidades Autónomas) elect one senator for each Autonomous Region plus one additional senator per million inhabitants of the respective Autonomous Region. Each Autonomous Region can decide the election formula of its respective senators.

The Congress of Deputies directly elects the President of the Government, in a first session by absolute majority or a later one by simple majority. Once the President of the government has been elected he chooses his Vice-Presidents and Ministers and forms his government without any obligation to give explanations to the lower chamber. In principle, any Spanish person over 18 years of age may hold the position of Vice-President or Minister although a person under 30 years old has never held the office of President, Vice-President or Minister. Very exceptionally, persons under 30 years old have held the position of Secretary of State (a position just below that of Minister, but not directly belonging to the Government (López, Ortega and Castillo, 2010).

The Autonomous Regions are each governed by their own Statute of Self-Government. All replicate the structure of the division of powers of the Central State. Each has its own Parliament, Government and Higher Court of Justice. The autonomous parliaments are in practice a replica of the Congress of Deputies: their functions and their internal organization are similar to those of the Lower Chamber. The Governments and Autonomous Administrations are structured and behave similarly to the Central Government. Meanwhile, the High Courts of Justice of the Autonomous Communities are the highest places in which to understand issues related to autonomic powers.


Each autonomous parliament retains full legislative powers. The autonomous parliaments are all one-chamber and their size depends on the population of each Autonomous Community, ranging from the 33 deputies of the parliament of La Rioja to the 135 of the parliament of Catalonia. The autonomous parliaments each receive their own name, according to the historical tradition and language of each territory and its members are elected by a proportional system of direct election similar to that of the Congress of Deputies, although in some territories there are small differences.

The third level of self-government in Spain is made up of local entities, which are of two types: municipal and supra-municipal. The first are the smaller territorial units with autonomous government capacity. In Spain there are more than 8,100 municipalities and their size varies from 3 inhabitants to the more than 3,100,000 inhabitants of the municipality of Madrid according to the National Institute of Statistics (Instituto Nacional de Estadística, INE).

The self-governing body of the municipalities is called the Town Hall (Ayuntamiento). It is chosen by a proportional system of direct voting similar to that of the Congress of Deputies, by means of which a certain number of Councillors is selected that varies between three and 57 depending on the size of the population of each municipality (with the exception of those who have a small population and decide to govern in an assemblage way through an institution known as Open Council). The Councillors, in turn, choose between them by majority vote to the Mayor (Alcalde), who heads the City Council. In cases where no councillor obtains an absolute majority of votes, the councillor who heads the most voted list is automatically proclaimed Mayor.

A second group consists of territories of historical origin, known by the name of provinces, and their governing body is the Provincial Council. These bodies are composed of an assembly elected indirectly between and by the councillors of the municipalities that make up the province. Among them they choose the president of the Council. In the insular territories, there are no provincial councils but rather City Halls (called Cabildos) in the Canary Islands and Consells in theBalearic Islands. Each island has one of these institutions, chosen and functioning in a similar way to a provincial council.

At all territorial levels voting is a right but not an obligation. Therefore, electoral abstention is not punishable by law. The exercise of the right to vote is regulated by the Organic Law of Electoral Regime (Ley Orgánica de Régimen Electoral, LOREG), and it is possible to exercise it either in person or remotely by mail. In the first case, it is carried out in polling stations where physical ballot papers are held in closed envelopes. Only in recent years has there been the possibility of voting through electronic procedures in computers enabled for this purpose in polling stations. It is also possible to vote in advance through the state postal service, which is responsible for collecting and depositing in each polling station. Spaniards who reside officially abroad can also vote in the corresponding consulates.