When you're visiting Spain's famous landmarks and government buildings, it may help you to understand how Spain's government functions so you'll know what's going on around you. The government in Spain is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy based on the Spanish Constitution, which was approved in 1978 to establish a government with three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial.
The head of state is King Felipe VI, a hereditary monarch, but the actual leader of the government is the president, or prime minister, who is the head of the executive branch of government. He is nominated by the king but must be approved by the legislative branch of government. As of 2019, Pedro Sanchez of the Spanish Workers' Socialist Party (PSOE) is the prime minister of Spain.
The Executive: King and the Prime Minister
Spain's head of state, King Felipe VI, replaced his father, Juan Carlos II, on June 2, 2014. However, Spain has not always been a monarchy; in fact, it was abolished in the elections of 1931 when Francisco Franco rose to power as a fascist ruler of the country. When Franco died in 1975, Juan Carlos II—the grandson of Alfonso XIII (the last king before Franco overthrew the government)—immediately began to restore a constitutional monarchy to Spain, which resulted in the 1978 adoption of the Spanish Constitution.
In Spanish, the elected leader of the country is generally referred to as El Presidente, but this is misleading because the office is that of the prime minister of Spain. Presidente, in this context, is short for Presidente del Gobierno de Espana, or president of the Government of Spain. The prime minister's role is dissimilar to that of, say, the president of the United States or of France; rather, it is analogous to that of the prime minister of the United Kingdom in that they are both elected according to the total number of parliamentary members each political party gets.
In 2019, Pedro Sanchez won a reelection campaign when his Spanish Workers’ Socialist Party (PSOE) won the most seats in Spain's general election.
The Legislative and the Judiciary
Spain's legislative branch, the Cortes Generales, is made up of two houses. The lower house is the Congress of Deputies, and it has 350 elected members. The upper house, the Senate, is made up of elected members and representatives of Spain's 17 autonomous communities. The size of its membership varies depending on population; as of 2019, there are 266 senators.
Spain's judicial branch is governed by lawyers and judges who are on the General Council. There are several different levels of courts, with the top one being the Supreme Court. The National Court has jurisdiction over Spain, and each autonomous region has its own court. The Constitutional Court is separate from the judiciary and settles issues relating to the Constitution and disputes between national and autonomous courts that turn on constitutional issues.
Autonomous Regions and Political Divides
The Spanish government is decentralized, with 17 autonomous regions and two autonomous cities, which have significant control over their own jurisdictions, making the central Spanish government relatively weak because each one has its own legislature and an executive branch.
As a result, Spain is deeply divided politically, with left-wing versus right-wing, new parties versus older ones, and federalists versus centralists vying it out for control of seats in the central government. The world financial crash of 2008 and spending cuts in Spain have increased division and fueled drives in some autonomous regions for more independence.
Tumult in Catalonia
One of the wealthiest and most productive regions of Spain, Catalonia is a major destination for tourists year-round, especially the capital city of Barcelona—and a huge source of the country's income. It also has its own identity and language, Catalan, and is famous for its art and architecture. As a result, drive for independence erupted in Catalonia in 2017, with leaders backing a full referendum for Catalan independence in October.
The referendum was supported by 90 percent of Catalonia's voters, but the Spanish Constitutional Court declared it illegal, and violence broke out, with police beating voters and politicians arrested. On October 27, the Catalan parliament declared its independence from Spain, but the Spanish government in Madrid dissolved parliament and called another election in December for all the seats in the Catalan parliament where the independence parties won a slim majority of seats but not a majority of the popular vote.
In April of 2018, Catalonia's Separatist party Barcelona boosted their standing in Spain's national parliament to 39 percent of lawmakers. Citizens are expected to vote in a regional election for in September of 2019.
Travel to Catalonia
In October 2017, the U.S. Department of State issued a security message for travelers to Catalonia because of the political turbulence there. Additionally, in 2019, the Department of State issued a travel advisory for Spain in general for the possibility of terrorist attacks.
The U.S. Embassy in Madrid and the Consulate General in Barcelona said U.S. citizens should expect increased police presence and be aware that peaceful demonstrations could become violent at any moment because of heightened tensions in the Catalonia region. The embassy and the consulate general also said to expect possible transportation disruptions if you are traveling in Catalonia. This security warning included no end date, and travelers should assume it will continue until the political situation in Catalonia is resolved.
However, travel to Catalonia and Spain is still allowed without restrictions for United State citizens. The best times to visit Spain are typically spring and fall—March to May and September to November—when the weather is nice but the crowds aren't at their summer height.