Elections are held in over 8,000 Spanish municipalities, 38 provinces and twelve out of seventeen regions on Sunday.
They are the first test for Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’ Socialist Party regional elections were held in the Basque Country and Galicia during the pandemic in 2020.
This guide explains how the elections work, what municipalities, provinces and regions do, and how the political landscape has shifted in Spain in the last few years.
How Spanish elections work
All Spaniards over the age of 18 are eligible to vote. Residents without Spanish nationality can vote in municipal elections.
Spaniards vote for a party, not a candidate. Party leaders decide the order of electoral lists. This enforces discipline. Politicians seldom deviate from the party line for fear of not getting an electable spot next time.
Elections are held by proportional representation with a threshold of 5 percent.
Spain has 8,131 municipalities, including the autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla on the North African coast.
The most populous municipality is Madrid with 3.3 million residents. The smallest is Illán de Vacas in Toledo, which has a population of three (including the mayor).
The governing body in most municipalities is called the ayuntamiento. Mayors are elected by their local councils.
Spain consists of fifty provinces. 38 have provincial councils, which are chaired by a president. The Balearic and Canary Islands have island councils. Regions with only one province — Asturias, Cantabria, Navarre, Madrid, Murcia and La Rioja — don’t have separate provincial councils. There, the regional governments assume the duties of the provinces, which consist of little more than coordinating municipal services in rural areas.
Most provincial councils are indirectly elected by municipal councilors except in the Basque Country and Balearic and Canary Islands, where popular elections are held.
Twelve of Spain’s seventeen regions (formally: autonomous communities) hold elections on Sunday. Andalusia, Galicia, the Basque Country, Catalonia, and Castile and León will hold theirs in 2024.
Of the regions that go the polls, six are closely contested:
- Aragon: Socialists took over from the conservative People’s Party (PP) in 2019 with the support of smaller left-wing and regional parties. Polls put the PP in first place with around 35 percent support. They have grown at the expense of the liberal-nationalist Citizens but would still need the far-right Vox (Voice), which is polling close to 10 percent, for a majority. Support for the Socialists is unchanged from the last election, just over 30 percent, but they would need all remaining parties for a majority.
- Balearic Islands: Socialists have governed since 2015. They are strong on Mallorca and Menorca. The conservatives do better on Ibiza. Polls put the People’s Party in first place with around 30 percent support, but they would need Vox for a majority. The Socialists are polling at 25 percent, the far left at 18 percent. The autonomist El Pi, polling at 6 percent, may be the swing vote.
- Cantabria: Regional party has governed since 2015 with the support of the Socialists. Socialists are stable at 20 percent, but regionalists have fallen from 38 to around 25 percent in the polls. People’s Party and Vox could win majority with combined 45 percent.
- Castilla La-Mancha: Vast but sparsely populated province where the People’s Party and Socialists are traditionally neck and neck. The Socialists are still in first place with over 40 percent support, but the conservatives are catching up, polling at 37 percent. The first would need the far left, the second Vox for a majority.
- La Rioja: Governed for a quarter-century by the PP before the Socialists won the election in 2019. Both have around 40 percent support in surveys, but the PP is in the lead. Other parties are polling in the single digits.
- Valencia: Governed by the Socialists and center-left regional party Compromís since 2015. Both parties are stable in the polls at 25 and 15 percent, respectively, but the People’s Party has shot up from 20 to almost 35 percent. Could form a majority with Vox.
The powers of the autonomous communities vary. The Basques have the most self-government, controlling their own environmental laws, police and taxes. Navarre has its own police force and tax system, Catalonia has its own police. The Balearic Islands, Basque Country, Catalonia, Galicia, Navarre and Valencia have officially recognized languages. (Although Valencian is identical to Catalan.)
All regions control their own child services, local roads and water infrastructure, primary and secondary schools, and some welfare provisions. Power over health care, highways, rail and unemployment insurance is shared with the central government.
Political landscape has shifted
Between the end of the dictatorship and 2015, the People’s Party and Socialists were able to alternate in power. Three new parties — the far-left Podemos (We Can), the liberal-nationalist Citizens and the far-right Vox — ended this de facto duopoly. Spain went through four elections in four years, resulting in its first national coalition since the Second Republic fell to Francisco Franco in 1939.
Sánchez’ reliance on the support of the far left (“communists,” according to the right) and Basque and Catalan nationalists (“traitors”) fueled support for the far-right Vox, which would abolish the autonomous communities. A corruption scandal in the PP temporarily shifted center-right voters to the Citizens, but two leadership switches in the former threaten to make the latter irrelevant.
The outcome of Sunday’s elections is likely to confirm what national polls have shown for the last two years: Spain has two large parties, the PP and the Socialists, with 25 to 30 percent support each, and two midsized parties, Vox and the far left, who are needed for a right- or left-wing majority.
The Socialists and Podemos govern nationally. The PP and Vox govern in the region of Castille-León.
Podemos could be supplanted on the left by Sumar (Unite), a new party founded by Deputy Prime Minister Yolanda Díaz.
It’s not the economy
Spain’s economy is projected to grow 2 percent this year and next, faster than the EU average. Unemployment is at its lowest since 2008. Inflation is projected to fall from 8 to 4 percent. Spaniards pay almost the lowest energy bills in Europe thanks to a government price cap. Renewables provide 50 percent of Spain’s electricity.
Sánchez raised the minimum wage to €1,080 per month, capped rent increases at 3 percent, gave contractors the same collective bargaining rights as employees, raised taxes on high incomes and banks, and temporarily lowered sales tax on food and fuel.
The policies have been popular, but they are outweighed by culture-war issues. Especially the regulation of euthanasia and Sánchez’ concessions to Catalans have stirred resentment in right-wing Spain.
Right accuses Sánchez of “treason”
Sánchez pardoned the former Catalan ministers who were imprisoned for organizing an independence referendum in defiance of Spain’s Constitutional Court. He abolished one of the crimes for which they were convicted (sedition) and restored official dialogue with the regional government in Barcelona.
Although that dialogue has yet to yield meaningful results. Catalans have asked for control over housing policy, labor law and maritime rescue. They are jealous of the Basques’ fiscal autonomy. The Basques raise their own taxes and send a share to Madrid. In Catalonia, the central government collects most taxes.
Fiscal autonomy is a bridge too far for Sánchez. He rejects Catalan self-determination. He reneged on a promise to fund more Catalan-language film and TV, and he blocked a congressional inquiry into the revelation that 65 Catalan leaders, including the regional president, had their phones tapped by Spain’s national security agency.
The PP and Vox still accuse Sánchez of “treason”. Many voters agree.