One of the most remarkable achievements of modern-day Spain has been the consolidation of the democratic institutions established more than forty years ago, after almost four decades of authoritarian rule. A description of the system used to elect members of the Cortes Generales or national legislature since 1977 - specifically those of the lower chamber of the legislature, the Congreso de los Diputados or Congress of Deputies - is presented here.
Spain held an early general election on Sunday, April 28, 2019. The official Elecciones Generales España 2019 website has preliminary results in Spanish, Catalan, Basque, Galician and Valencian. National-, (autonomous) community- and provincial-level results for the Congress of Deputies are available here (and also in CSV format) for the following general elections:
The election statistics presented in this space come from official reports issued by the Spanish Ministry of the Interior, the Central Electoral Commission and the Spanish National Statistics Institute. Except for preliminary results, voter turnout data for general elections held in Spain since 1986 reflect the inclusion of the electorate residing abroad, which usually has a far lower turnout rate than that of the electorate residing in Spain, as detailed in the following table:
Since the 2011 general election, Spaniards registered in the Censo Electoral de Residentes Afuera or Absentee Voters Registry must expressly request the electoral documentation in order to vote - the "voto rogado" or "requested vote." This requirement has resulted in a sharp decline of the already low turnout rate among Spanish voters residing abroad.
For information about the electoral systems of Andalusia, Catalonia, Euskadi and Galicia, visit Elections to the Andalusian Parliament, Elections to the Catalan Parliament, Elections to the Basque Parliament and Elections to the Galician Parliament.
The legislature of the Kingdom of Spain, the Cortes Generales, consists of a lower house, the Congreso de los Diputados or Congress of Deputies, and an upper house, the Senado or Senate. Although legislative initiative belongs to both the Congress and the Senate (as well as to the Government), Congress has greater legislative power than the Senate.
The Congress of Deputies is composed of 350 members directly elected by universal adult suffrage for a four-year term of office. Each one of Spain's fifty provinces is a constituency entitled to an initial minimum of two seats; the cities of Ceuta and Melilla elect one member each. The remaining 248 seats are allocated among the fifty provinces in proportion to their populations. Parties, federations, coalitions and agrupaciones de electores (electors' groups) may present candidates or lists of candidates. The lists are closed, so electors may not choose individual candidates in or alter the order of such lists. Electors cast a ballot for a single list, or for a single candidate in Ceuta and Melilla.
The seats in each constituency are apportioned according to the largest average method of proportional representation (PR), conceived by the Belgian mathematician Victor D'Hondt in 1899. However, in order to participate in the allocation of seats, a list must receive at least three percent of all valid votes cast in the constituency, including blank ballots. The single-member seats in Ceuta and Melilla are filled by the plurality or first-past-the-post method, under which the candidate obtaining the largest number of votes in the constituency is elected.
Elections to the Senate take place under a limited vote system, in which each of the forty-seven peninsular provinces is assigned four seats, while the larger islands on Balears (Baleares) and Canarias - Mallorca, Gran Canaria, and Tenerife - are assigned three seats each, and the smaller islands - Menorca, Ibiza-Formentera, Fuerteventura, Gomera, Hierro, Lanzarote and La Palma - one each; Ceuta and Melilla are assigned two seats each, for a total of 208 directly elected seats. In constituencies with four Senators, electors may vote for up to three candidates; in those with two or three Senators, for up to two candidates; and for one candidate in single member constituencies. Electors vote for individual candidates: those attaining the largest number of votes in each constituency are elected for a four-year term of office. In addition, the legislative assemblies of the self-governing or autonomous communites into which the provinces of Spain are grouped are entitled to appoint at least one Senator each, as well as one Senator for every million inhabitants.
To illustrate the functioning of the system, the allocation of seats in the three provinces of the Self-Governing or Autonomous Community of Aragón - Huesca, Teruel and Zaragoza - for the June 1993 general election is presented here in detail. At the time, Zaragoza province had seven seats in Congress, while both Huesca and Teruel had three.
In Zaragoza province, only four tickets, namely the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), the Popular Party (PP), the Aragonese Party (PAR) and the United Left (IU) won at least three percent of the valid votes cast in the election - including blank ballots - and were thus entitled to participate in the allocation of constituency seats. The tickets were sorted by number of votes from top to bottom, and the votes polled by each of these were then divided by 1, 2, 3, and so on until the number of seats to be allocated was reached, as detailed below:
Seats were then awarded to the tickets obtaining the largest quotients or averages (shown in bold). As indicated, the PSOE won three seats, the PP two, the PAR one and IU one. The seats won by each ticket were awarded to the candidates included therein, according to their ranking on the lists: therefore, the first three candidates on the PSOE list were elected to Congress, as were the first two candidates on the PP list and the candidates at the top of the PAR and IU lists, respectively.
The apportionment of constituency seats can also be obtained by dividing the votes for each ticket by the smallest quotient used to allocate seats, disregarding the remainders. For the election in Zaragoza, the votes obtained by each ticket would be divided by the seventh largest average - 58,020 votes - with the following results:
As such, the smallest quotient used to allocate seats is also the effective representation threshold, that is the number of votes necessary to secure one seat. For Zaragoza province, this threshold amounted to 10.8% of the vote.
Meanwhile, the results of the election in Huesca province were as follows:
The effective representation threshold in Huesca was 25,360 votes, or 19.0% of the valid vote.
Finally, the outcome of the election in Teruel was the following:
The effective representation threshold in Teruel was 18,163 votes, or 20.2% of the valid vote.
Having concluded the allocation of Congress seats in the three Aragón constituencies, the following peculiarities stand out:
Notice how the Socialists, with a lead of just 1.4% over the Populares, won seven of the community's thirteen seats, or 53.8% of the total, whereas the PP won only four, that is, 30.7% of the seats. On the other hand, both the PAR and IU won a seat each (7.7%), despite the fact that the former polled almost twice as many votes as the latter, as well as just over half the votes polled by the two major parties.
A decisive factor in the election was the split of the center-right electorate between the PP and the PAR, which allowed the Socialists to prevail in all three constituencies. These victories proved to be decisive, due to the fact that the D'Hondt rule generally works in favor of the majority party, especially in small constituencies. On the other hand, the system clearly penalized the two center-right parties - especially the PAR - for running separately: although both parties polled 51.9% of the vote between themselves, they only won 38.4% of the community seats.
The outcome of the 1993 general election in Aragón didn't go unnoticed by PP and PAR leaders: when the next election was held in March 1996, the two parties ran a joint ticket, which scored an overwhelming victory at the polls, as detailed below:
Notice that this time around, the joint PP-PAR ticket - which prevailed in all three constituencies - won eight seats out of thirteen (61.5%), while the Socialists dropped to five seats (38.4%), despite securing a slightly higher vote than in 1993. Meanwhile, neither IU nor the Aragonist Council (ChA) were able to win any seats, despite polling a substantial number of votes in Zaragoza province. As in 1993, the D'Hondt rule clearly favored the majority ticket at the expense of minor parties, thus suggesting a tendency in the Spanish electoral system to rectify proportionality in favor of the major parties.
The last period of democratic government in Spain before 1977 had been the ill-fated Second Republic of 1931-36: the legislatures of that time (which, incidentally, were not elected by PR) had been characterized by extreme party fragmentation, short-lived, unstable governments and an intense political polarization which eventually led the country to a civil war. After nearly three years of intense conflict, the rebel or National forces led by Gen. Francisco Franco prevailed over the Republican side, and Franco became Spain's absolute ruler or Caudillo until his death in 1975. Prince Juan Carlos de Borbón y Borbón, grandson of King Alfonso XIII and legal heir to Franco since 1969, became King Juan Carlos I.
In July 1976, Adolfo Suárez was appointed prime minister, and his government initiated a program of democratic reforms. In December, the Spanish electorate voted overwhelmingly in favor of a Political Reform Law approved in November by the Cortes, which provided for the election of a popularly elected bicameral legislature composed of a Congress of Deputies and a Senate. In April 1977 the National Movement was disbanded, and the Communist party legalized. Finally, in May, Juan Carlos' father, Don Juan de Borbón y Battenberg, Conde de Barcelona, renounced all rights to the Spanish throne in favor of his son.
In order to prevent a recurrence of the excessive fragmentation and instability of the Second Republic years, the proportional system introduced by the Government for the June 15, 1977 elections - the first free elections held in Spain since 1936 - was modified with corrective devices, including the allocation of seats by means of the D'Hondt rule and the introduction of the three percent constituency-level threshold.
These electoral procedures were subsequently incorporated into the Spanish Constitution of 1978, and laid out in detail by the 1985 electoral law - the Ley Orgánica del Régimen Electoral General or General Electoral Regime Organic Law.
In practice, the three percent barrier has been of importance in just two constituencies - Madrid (34 seats in 2000, 35 in 2004) and Barcelona (31). The remaining provinces return an average of six seats, and in these the effective representation threshold - the number of votes needed to secure a seat according to the application of the D'Hondt rule - is well over three percent.
For the 2000 and 2004 general elections, the allocation of seats in Congress by the largest average method produced the following effective thresholds:
As previously noted, blank ballots are considered valid votes, and they must be taken into account for percentage calculations. In the 1993 general election in Madrid, this legal requirement resulted in the exclusion of the Social Democratic Center (CDS) ticket from the constituency apportionment process, as the party - which lost all its seats in the election - fell 438 votes short of the three percent threshold.
Although in most cases the three percent barrier is of little importance, the cumulative effect of the application of the D'Hondt rule over a large number of mostly small-sized constituencies - the provinces - makes a significant difference, given that the largest average method has a tendency to favor the major parties, which intensifies as the constituency size decreases: notice how the effective representation threshold, as a percentage of the total vote, increases as the number of seats to be allocated decreases. As a result, minor parties with evenly spread support usually have very little chance of winning seats outside the larger constituencies.
Moreover, the allocation of seats among constituencies, as set forth by law, clearly favors sparsely populated and largely rural provinces, which are over-represented in Congress at the expense of the more populated and predominantly urban provinces. Therefore, the number of votes required to win a seat in Congress varies significantly from constituency to constituency: in the 2004 general election, the number of votes needed to win a seat ranged from a low of 14,593 in Soria (15,941 in 2000) to a high of 92,743 in Madrid (85,267 in 2000).
Since the introduction of the electoral system in 1977 to 2011, Spain has held eleven general elections. In each of these, the winning party has been consistently over-represented in Congress; the second largest party has been over-represented as well, although usually in a less pronounced manner than the majority party. The smaller nationwide parties have been consistently under-represented, but some regionalist and nationalist parties have attained representation over the years, often in proportion to their electoral strength.
Incidentally, the mechanism used to elect Senators favors the majority party in an even stronger manner than the lower house electoral system. At the same time, it penalizes smaller parties with geographically spread support, often to the point of exclusion from the upper house of the Spanish legislature.
It should be pointed out that Spain has had no coalition governments since democracy was re-established in 1977: succesive administrations have all been single-party governments, at times with an absolute majority of seats in Congress (1982, 1986, 2000, 2011) or exactly half the seats (1989); on other occassions (1977, 1979, 1993, 1996, 2004, 2008) the largest party in Congress has formed a minority government with support from smaller parties (or their abstention in 2008).
At the same time, the party system has undergone several significant changes. The system that emerged from the 1977 and 1979 elections was characterized by the preponderance of two large political forces, the moderate Union of the Democratic Center (UCD), and the Socialist party (PSOE). In addition to the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) and the right-wing Popular Alliance (AP; in 1979 the Democratic Coalition or CD), there were also several regionalist and nationalist parties, mainly from Cataluña (Catalonia) and the País Vasco (Basque Country).
This system was drastically altered by the 1982 elections, in which the Socialists, led by Felipe González, won a sweeping victory with 202 seats in Congress, out of 350; AP became the major opposition party, while the UCD collapsed; the PCE also lost considerable ground in the election. The forces to the left of the Socialists subsequently regrouped under the United Left (IU) coalition, while the AP reorganized itself as the Popular Party (PP). The PP sought to portray a more moderate image than its predecessor, in order to win the support of the centrist electorate, which had leaned towards the Social Democratic Center (CDS) after the UCD disbanded.
In the 1993 general election, the PP scored significant gains, while the CDS lost its parliamentary representation. Nonetheless, the Socialists remained in power until 1996, when the PP won an early election by a fairly narrow margin. The leader of the PP, José María Aznar, formed a minority government supported by Catalan, Basque and Canarian moderate nationalists. This state of affairs lasted until the March 2000 general election, in which the PP won an absolute majority in Congress.
In the 2004 and 2008 general elections, the Socialist Party defeated PP by decisive margins, although it did not secure an absolute majority in the Congress of Deputies in either election. The leader of the PSOE, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, formed a minority government on both occasions; in 2004 he was also supported by IU, left-wing nationalists from Catalonia (ERC), Galicia (BNG) and Aragon (ChA), as well as Canarian moderate nationalists (CC), but in 2008 ERC voted against him, while IU, BNG and CC-PNC abstained.
In an early general election held in November 2011, the Socialists suffered a crushing defeat and scored their worst result up to that point since the re-establishment of democracy in 1977, while the Popular Party won an absolute majority in Congress. The following month, PP leader Mariano Rajoy became Spain's new head of government.
PP remained the largest party in the 2015 general election, but lost its absolute majority in Congress as well as a substantial amount of votes, while polling its worst result since 1989. Meanwhile, PSOE continued in second place but lost ground once more and scored an even worse result than four years earlier. Most notably, two new major parties emerged in the election: the leftist Podemos (We Can), which arrived in third place, just behind the Socialists; and the centrist Citizens (C's), which finished fourth. In January 2016 King Felipe - the son of Juan Carlos, who abdicated in 2014 - asked Prime Minister Rajoy to form a new government, but the latter declined the offer, albeit without resigning from office, which he continues to hold as head of an interim government. As such, in February 2016 the King invited PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez to form a government. However, beyond his own party Sánchez was only able to secure the support of Citizens, and the Congress of Deputies rejected his investiture as head of government by a wide margin.
In May 2016 the deadline to form a new government was reached, but in the absence of an agreement to that end by the parties represented in Congress, the King had no other alternative but to dissolve the Cortes elected in 2015 and call a new general election, which was held on June 26, 2016.
The outcome of the 2000 general election illustrates the functioning in practice of the electoral system:
The main beneficiary of the rectified proportional system was the PP, with 183 seats out of 350 (52.3%) on a 44.5% share of the vote. The PSOE also benefitted slightly, winning 125 seats (35.7%) with 34.2% of the vote. On the other hand, IU-EUiA, with 5.4% of the vote, won only eight seats (2.3%), seven less than the moderate Catalan nationalist CiU, and just one more than the Basque Nationalists (EAJ-PNV), despite winning considerably more votes than either of these two groups. This seeming disparity was due to the fact that the IU-EUiA vote was spread across the Spanish territory, whereas the votes for CiU and EAJ-PNV were concentrated in their respective nationalities. This was also the case with the other nationalist parties, whose representation in Congress was more or less conmesurate with their electoral strength.
From 1977 to 2015, rectified PR contained parliamentary fragmentation in Spain. Although the system does not always guarantee political groups legislative representation in proportion to their electoral strength, it facilitated the formation of stable governments, and in this manner helped to consolidate Spain's once-fragile democratic institutions.
The electoral system continued to favor the two major parties in the 2015 and 2016 general elections, but the latter could not fully overcome the unprecedented political fragmentation brought about by the emergence of two new major parties. For the first time since 1977 no party won as much as a third of the vote in not one but two elections, and consequently none of the parties represented in the Congress of Deputies came even close to attaining the legislative body's absolute majority of 176 seats, which in turn has enormously complicated the task of forming a new government.
The 2015 and 2016 general election results leave no doubt that Spain's two-party dominant system has become a multi-party system, similar to those of other European countries. However, at this juncture it is not clear if this is a temporary deviation or a lasting transformation, and it remains unclear as well how effective or not will rectified proportionality continue to be under a multi-party system.
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