Spanish Election Guide

The electoral system, the parties, the issues and possible coalitions, explained.

Spanish Congress Madrid
Palacio de las Cortes, seat of the Spanish Congress of Deputies, in Madrid, August 16, 2017 (Shutterstock/Vivvi Smak)

Spaniards elect a new Congress and Senate on Sunday. Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the leader of the conservative People’s Party, hopes to unseat Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, a Socialist, but surveys give neither man a majority. The relative strength of the far left and far right, which have been polling at a combined 25 to 30 percent percent, could decide who forms the next government.

This election guide explains everything you need to know: the Spanish electoral system, the parties, the issues and which coalitions may be possible.


Polls open at 9 in the morning and close at 8 in the evening. The paper ballots are counted on election night.

Usually the results for Congress are known within a few hours, but a higher share of postal voters could delay the results this year. Many Spaniards are on holiday. A record 2.5 million, 7 percent of the voting population, have requested postal ballots, up from 1 million last time.

The electoral system

348 members of Spain’s lower chamber, the Congress of Deputies, are elected by proportional representation in Spain’s fifty provinces. Seats are allocated according to the population of each province. There is an electoral threshold of 3 percent. The autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla on the North African coast get one seat each.

208 members of the Senate are elected at the provincial level. Each province of mainland Spain gets four senators. The larger Balearics and Canary Islands each get three, the smaller islands one. Ceuta and Melilla have two senators each. The remaining 56 senators are appointed by the seventeen regional governments. As a result, lightly populated provinces have relatively more power in the upper chamber. The parties that control the regional governments also have an advantage. In the Basque Country and Catalonia, that’s the separatists.

The congressional elections use closed-party lists: Spaniards vote for a party, not a candidate. (That is why counting the congressional votes only takes a few hours.) Senate elections use open-party lists, so a candidate who is placed lower can still get elected if he or she wins a lot of personal votes. (Tallying those results takes longer.) Both chambers get a four-year mandate.

The Senate can only veto, not initiate, legislation, and its veto can be overturned by an absolute majority in Congress. The Senate does have a special role in enforcing, or potentially changing, the distribution of powers between the national government and the regions. When the People’s Party suspended home rule in Catalonia in 2017, after the region had organized an independence referendum in defiance of Spain’s Constitutional Court, it needed to ask the Senate, not Congress, for permission.


Until 2015, Spanish democracy was almost a two-party system with the Socialists on the left and the People’s Party (PP) on the right alternating in power.

That year, two new parties — the liberal-nationalist Citizens and the far-left Podemos (We Can) — broke through, winning a third of the seats between them. Negotiations for a grand coalition between the Socialists and People’s Party failed, and voters returned to the polls in 2016.

The PP won and formed a minority government with the Socialists’ acquiescence. Sánchez reversed his party’s position in 2017, when he ousted the PP with the support of Socialist, Podemos and Basque and Catalan deputies.

Most Citizens voters have returned to the PP. The liberals are not projected to win seats in this election at all. They have been overtaken by another party on the right: Vox (Voice), which is anti-immigrant, socially conservative and vehemently opposed to Basque and Catalan nationalism. Podemos has merged into a united far-left party, Sumar (Unite).

Spanish law forbids polling five days before the election. When the ban went into effect, the People’s Party was in first place with 32 to 36 percent support. The Socialists had 28 percent, and Sumar and Vox 12 to 14 percent each. The three pro-independence parties in Catalonia would win half the votes in the region, or 5 percent of the votes nationally.


  • Agriculture and animal welfare: The Socialists legally declared animals “sentient beings” and required cameras in all slaughterhouses. They would raise penalties for abandoning, abusing or euthanizing otherwise healthy animals. Vox has vowed to “protect” the Spanish food industry from animal-rights and environmental legislation.
  • Autonomy: Vox would defund the self-governments of the Basque Country and Catalonia. Sumar would negotiate devolution with Catalonia and put the outcome to a referendum. It also wants to recognize regional languages like Basque and Catalan in the public sector throughout Spain.
  • Business: Sánchez cut taxes for small businesses and startups, and raised taxes on large companies and capital gains of at least €200,000. The PP would lower taxes for banks and energy companies.
  • Climate and energy: Sánchez funneled 40 percent of Spain’s €70 billion in EU COVID-19 recovery funds into climate-related spending, including money for clean energy, energy efficiency and green mobility. The PP would put a tax on solar panels. Sumar would freeze public investments in fossil fuels and ban domestic flights under three hours where a high-speed train is available. Vox doesn’t believe human activity causes global warming.
  • Health: The Socialists banned “gay conversion therapy,” legalized euthanasia and required all public hospitals to offer abortions. The PP and Vox would ban gender changes under the age of 18 without a parent’s approval and repeal a new law on sexual assault that expanded the definition of rape but also lowered prison sentences for nonviolent assaults. It’s unclear if the PP would recriminalize assisted suicide, but they voted against its legalization. Vox would recriminalize both euthanasia and abortion.
  • Housing: The Socialists capped rent increases, banned evictions if it would cause renters to become homeless and expanded the share of public housing in new developments. The PP would speed up evictions of squatters. Sumar would build more public housing.
  • Income: The Socialists cut taxes on incomes under €300,000 and raised taxes on incomes over €3 million. The PP would further cut taxes on incomes under €40,000 and abolish the wealth tax. Vox would lower all income taxes. Sumar would give €20,000 to Spaniards when they reach the age of 18.
  • Justice: The Socialists overturned the “gag law” of the previous conservative government that banned demonstrations outside parliament and taking photos of police. The PP and Vox would bring back sedition as a crime. Sánchez abolished it after nine Catalans, including seven former regional ministers, were convicted of sedition for organizing the 2017 independence referendum. The PP and Vox would also withdraw public funding from the exhumation of mass graves from the Franco era.
  • Labor: The Socialists raised the minimum wage, reduced severance pay and gave contractors the same collective bargaining rights as employees. They also reined in temporary work contracts. The PP would liberalize labor laws. Sumar would shorten the workweek to 37.5 hours.

Possible coalitions

Feijóo has said he would first seek the acquiescence of the Socialists to form a minority government. That may be an option if Sánchez resigns or is forced out as leader. The centrist wing of his party never warmed to his alliance with Basque and Catalan separatists and the far left.

The PP’s alternative is a coalition with Vox. The two right-wing parties govern various regions and towns. The PP has ruled out deals with Basque and Catalan separatists.

If the PP and Vox fall short of a majority, Sánchez may be able to renew his coalition with the far left if the Basque parties and Catalonia’s Republican Left give him another chance.

Junts, the Republican Left’s rival, has ruled out supporting either a People’s Party or a Sánchez-led government.

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