Elections will take place on 28 April for the Cortes (Parliament) of Spain. All seats in both Houses of Parliament – the Congress of Deputies and the Senate – are up for election.
What the two Houses of Parliament do
The Congress of Deputies is the main chamber for legislation and it decides who is in government.
The Senate also discusses and passes legislation and has a special role over intergovernmental relations (i.e. how the central and regional governments work with each other). Its wishes on ordinary and budget legislation can be overruled by the Congress of Deputies if necessary.
Electoral system: Congress of Deputies
The electoral system for the 350 members of the Congress of Deputies is proportional representation by party list, except for two single-seat elections in the Spanish cities on the North African mainland (Ceuta and Melilla). The other 348 seats are elected from 50 geographical constituencies which correspond to the provinces of Spain. The entitlement to seats varies with population but each province has a minimum of 2 seats. The population of provinces varies hugely, with eight of them having populations below 200,000 but the largest, Madrid, having around 6.5 million.
Voters choose a list of candidates put forward party (or coalition of parties presenting a joint list). The seats are allocated in proportion to the votes given to each list of candidates, and in the order that each party’s candidate is listed (i.e. the top two names on the list for a party getting two seats).
Electoral system: Senate
The Senate has 266 members. 58 of them are appointed by the 17 Autonomous Communities, the regional units of government in Spain. Each Community has a minimum of four appointed members plus an extra seat for every million inhabitants. The members are chosen by the elected legislature of the Community.
The other 208 members are elected. There are four Senators per province regardless of population and islands are divided into smaller constituencies. Voting is by an unusual electoral system called the ‘limited vote’ in which voters cast their votes for three individual candidates even though there are four vacancies, and the parties each put up three candidates. The four candidates with the most individual votes are elected.
Representation in the Senate is therefore biased in favour of smaller provinces and rural areas.
Why is there an election?
This is an early general election. The last election in Spain was in June 2016 and the term of office is 4 years, so the next was due by summer 2020.
The election has been called by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez because his government’s budget was defeated in parliament on 13 February. His Socialist Party (PSOE) only has a minority of seats in the Congress of Deputies and needed the support of pro-independence deputies from Catalonia (the region around Barcelona) to get its business through parliament. They voted with the main opposition People’s Party (PP) against the budget. Sánchez only became Prime Minister in June 2018 because the previous government of Mariano Rajoy lost a vote of confidence in parliament. Politics in Spain has been unstable in recent years and elections have produced indecisive results; the June 2016 elections followed on closely from the previous elections in December 2015. The 2019 election will therefore be the third in four years.
Sánchez hopes that new elections will produce an increase in support for the PSOE and parties that can work closely with the PSOE, so that in the next parliament he will be less vulnerable to defeat and able to get more of his policies passed into law.
Sources and further reading
The Spanish Congress of Deputies’ description of its functions (in English) http://www.congreso.es/portal/page/portal/Congreso/Congreso/Hist_Normas/Funciones1
The Spanish Senate’s description of its functions (in English) http://www.senado.es/web/conocersenado/temasclave/funcionessenado/index.html?lang=en
Roger Darlington’s article on the Spanish political system
Our article on the change of government in Spain in 2018
Guardian report on the decision to call an election in April 2019
Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) database on Spanish legislatures and elections