Politics For Members

A foreigner's guide to understanding Spanish politics in five minutes

Conor Faulkner
Conor Faulkner - [email protected]
A foreigner's guide to understanding Spanish politics in five minutes
The Spanish Congress (Las Cortes) in Madrid on January 7, 2020. Photo: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP.

Do you find Spanish politics a bit confusing? Don’t know PSOE from PP? Deputies from Senators? The Local has broken it down in simple terms, as well as what's to come over the next few weeks, heading into the general election.


Spanish politics is often difficult to understand for foreigners. Not only the language, but the number of parties and coalition governments, the new parties that pop up, and then seemingly disappear, the interplay and power structures of local, regional and national governments.

Foreigners in Spain are probably familiar with some politicians. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, for example, perhaps the far-right leader Santiago Abascal, or Madrid President Isabel Ayuso.

But to really integrate into Spanish life, a better understanding of the political system - and how it affects your life - can help. 

What is the Spanish system?

Like the UK, Spain is a constitutional monarchy. Spain’s King Felipe VI is the ceremonial head of state, but the democratically elected Prime Minister heads the national government. 

The basis of the Spanish political system is the 1978 Constitution, written during the 'la transición española' from Francisco Franco’s dictatorship to democracy.

How is the Spanish government structured?

The 1978 constitution outlined the separation of powers into the executive, legislative and judicial branches:

  • Executive: Spain’s Prime Minister (currently PSOE’S Pedro Sánchez) is head of the national government, the executive branch of Spain’s system. The Prime Minister has a deputy and a cabinet of ministers.
  • Legislative: The Spanish parliament, the Cortes Generales, is the legislative branch and like the UK has two chambers: the directly-elected lower house, Congreso de los Diputados (Congress of Deputies) and the upper house, Senado (Senate).
  • Judicial: Spain’s judicial branch is headed by the president of the Tribunal Supremo (Supreme Court) and nominated by 20 judges of the General Council. 

As you might've noticed, Spain is an intensely regional country. Many parts of Spain have their own language and identity, and as a result of this, regional politics play a much greater role in Spain than in many other countries, and the autonomous communities (comunidades autónomas), as they are known, also have an executive and a legislative body, with their own Statute of Autonomy, approved by the national parliament. 

The exact structures differ depending on the region, and additional powers of devolution are given to the regions with particularly independent histories and cultures, namely the Basque Country, Catalonia, and Galicia. The regional parties can often be partners (or uncomfortable bedfellows) for the national government.


Who are the main players?

Although the UK does, technically speaking, have a multi-party system, one major difference between British and Spanish politics, and something that also might seem a little strange to our American readers, is that in Spain there are several parties that can affect national politics and tens more at the regional level that can have an effect on regional politics, which in turn, can then have a knock-on effect at the national level.

At the national level, however, the government has been headed by one of two parties since the early 1980s. In many regards, though Spain does have a multi-party system, its democratic history has been effectively dominated by a traditional two-party system.

Here are the major players to know in Spanish politics:

Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE): The major partner in the current coalition government. Founded in 1879 and known as the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party in English, PSOE is the oldest party in Spain, and is generally perceived to be, or its policy platform is largely made up of, what we would understand in the UK and US as largely centre or soft left. The current leader is Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, known as ‘el guapo’ (the handsome one) and the man who shocked the country by calling a snap general election. 

PSOE is particularly popular among older Spaniards, especially retirees, from working-class backgrounds.

What their voters generally like: PSOE's economically and culturally soft-left, progressive approach, pro-European outlook and cooperation with regional groups.

Pedro Sánchez in October 2021. Photo: Gabriel BOUYS / AFP Pedro Sánchez in October 2021. Photo: Gabriel BOUYS / AFP

Partido Popular (PP): Much younger than PSOE, PP (Partido Popular or the People’s Party in English) was founded in 1976 and has historically adhered to a socially conservative, economically liberal, Christian-democratic ideology, although the emergence of Vox has forced the party rightward on certain cultural issues.

The party was in power until 2018 when corruption downed the Mariano Rajoy government, and its current leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo, is the man likely to be Spain's next Prime Minister. 

READ ALSO: PROFILE: Who is Alberto Núñez Feijóo and could he be Spain's next PM?

What their voters generally like: They're fans of the PP's stance on small-state governance, low taxes, pro-business, traditional values, bullfighting, and patriotism.

The Popular Party (PP) party's leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo. Photo: Pierre-Philippe MARCOU/AFP.

Unidas Podemos (UP): widely referred to asPodemos’, UP is a left-wing populist party born from the various far-left groups involved in the 15-M anti-austerity movement. These include Podemos, Izquierda Unida, and several other fringe groups. Podemos is an anti-austerity, anti-corruption, democratic-socialist party, although some of its views may be perceived as far or hard left. Since 2020, Podemos has been the junior coalition partner in government. The leader is Ione Belarra, who took over former leader Pablo Iglesias, the divisive former Deputy Prime Minister who quit politics in 2021.


Podemos suffered huge losses in the recent regional and local elections, losing two-thirds of its regional deputies and failing to gain any in Madrid or Valencia. The party's popularity has suffered enormously following the disastrous Solo Sí es Sí sexual consent law (the brainchild of Equality Minister Irene Montero, Iglesias' wife) that accidentally reduced the sentences of hundreds of rapists. Podemos' ministers in Cabinet are among the most unpopular politicians in Spain according to polling.

READ ALSO: Why is Spain reducing prison sentences for rapists?

What their voters generally like: The fact that UP is anti-establishment, anti-facist, anti-austerity and sympathetic to regional identities.

Unidas Podemos' new leader Ione Belarra next to Pablo Iglesias (L), who has now retired from Spanish politics. Benjamin CREMEL / AFP

Ciudadanos (Cs): The ‘Citizens’ party in English, Ciudadanos was born in Catalonia in the mid-2000s. Although founded on social democratic principles, the party drifted rightward and is now widely considered a centrist, liberal-conservative, pro-European party. The current president is Inés Arrimadas, and after some initial electoral success, the party suffered setbacks in the 2019 elections and was all but wiped off the electoral maps in the 2023 local and regional elections. 


Ciudadanos has already announced that it will not contest the July general election, and the majority of its voter base will be absorbed by PP.

What their voters generally like: that CC was centrist, middle-of-the-road, pro-EU party that stood against the radical extremes of Spanish politics.

Vox: You’ve probably heard a bit about Vox in the last couple of weeks.

Not only because they're likely to play a big role in the next general election, and possibly enter into a coalition government with PP, but also because some of their views grab headlines. They are considered hard or far-right, populist, and have particularly hard anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, and anti-Islam stances. Founded by former PP members in 2013, Vox found electoral success on both a national and regional level in the 2019 elections, and tripled its number of local councillors in the 2023 local and regional polls.

Vox is led by the controversial Santiago Abascal, and has been constant and vocal critic of the POSE-led government and Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in particular. For those British readers who like to take trips to Gibraltar now and then, Vox is vocal about the issue and believes Gibraltar is rightfully Spanish.


What their voters generally like: They see the party as anti-establishment, anti-elitist, anti-globalist, anti-immigration and anti-Islam; pro-centralisation and law and order; anti-separatist; patriotic and upholders of traditional Spanish values.

Leader of the far-right party Vox, Santiago Abascal (2L) and Vox party members take part in a protest by right-wing protesters to denounce controversial Spanish government plans to offer pardons to the jailed Catalan separatists. Photo: Gabriel Buoys/AFP Leader of the far-right party Vox, Santiago Abascal (2L) and Vox party members take part in a protest by right-wing protesters to denounce controversial Spanish government plans to offer pardons to the jailed Catalan separatists. Photo: Gabriel Buoys/AFP


The newest party in Spanish politics, Sumar, is actually more of a coalition group that seeks to keep 15 different left-wing parties under one banner.

It was launched by Spain's Deputy Minister and Labour Minister Yolanda Díaz. Díaz is a Communist party member, and has, among other things, pledged to end tax privileges, introduce new environmental legislation, provide guarantees on housing standards, a commitment to reduce the working day without affecting Spaniard's salaries ("we want to work less to live better," in her own words), and overhaul how Spain's regions are funded to prevent "unfair competition between" them.

What their voters generally like: Sumar voters in the general election will be from across the far-left, perhaps even some PSOE voters too, and will be attracted to: taxing big companies; environmentalism; housing; and labour reform.

READ ALSO: Leader of Spain's far-left launches election bid

Spanish Minister of Labour Yolanda Díaz delivers a speech during a rally on April 2nd, 2023, in Madrid. Photo: Thomas COEX/AFP.


The state of play in 2023

Politics has been hard to avoid in Spain in the last few weeks, as you've probably noticed from our coverage. With the local and regional election campaigns, the elections and results, and then the plot twists of all plot twists when Sánchez called a snap general election after his party suffered big losses, Spanish politics has been hard to keep up with.

So, what's the lay of the land in 2023? Put simply, there's a general election on July 23rd. Everybody in Spain had assumed that it would be in December, so Sánchez's snap election has sped up the political timeline considerably.

READ ALSO: Five key takeaways from Spain's regional and local elections

PP and Vox both made gains in the local elections, with PP stealing traditionally PSOE town halls and regional governments, and Vox improving its vote share. In several regions, PP now governs with the support of Vox, whether formally or informally.

Polling suggests that PP will win the most votes in the coming election, but won't quite reach an absolute majority, even with the support of Vox.

On the left, Pedro Sánchez and PSOE have come out fighting and seem set to run an active campaign, attacking PP's far-right links and defending their own economic record, but the problems are with the parties to their left.


After Podemos' electoral hammering last week, many on the Spanish left feel it should be Díaz and Sumar leading the election campaign, not the damaged Podemos leadership. Sumar and Podemos are currently locked in negotiations to come to some kind of electoral arrangement but time is running out - any pact must be finalised and resisted by Friday 9th June at the latest.

The outcome of these negotiations will be key because polling suggests a united left vote (PSOE plus Sumar with Podemos included) could win enough votes to stop PP and Vox governing, though polls suggest this is the most likely outcome.


Comments (1)

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Anonymous 2021/10/16 23:30
I'm an ill informed American and even I know that the UK is not a Constitutional Monarchy. Parliament, yes, Monarchy, yes, Constitution, I don't think so.
  • Anonymous 2021/10/16 23:33
    My bad...even though the UK doesn't have a Constitution, it's still referred to as a Constitutional Monarchy. So much for my American Education.

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