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By defining the state as a parliamentary monarchy, the Constitution makes it clear that the king is not sovereign and that sovereignty resides with the people as expressed in their democratically elected parliament. The king is a hereditary and constitutional monarch, who serves as head of state.
The decision to retain the monarchy, which had been restored under the Franco regime, represents a historically significant compromise. As the Constitution was being formulated, parties of the left were strongly opposed to a monarchy, which they saw as a Francoist legacy; they favored establishing a republican form of government. At the same time, reactionary elements wanted to preserve the monarchy in order to use it as a means to perpetuate Francoism. In between these two extremes were the reformers, who thought that the monarchy could serve as an element of stabilization during the transition to democracy.
A compromise eventually was reached whereby the left-wing parties accepted the institution of a parliamentary monarchy as reflecting the will of the majority. Constitutional provisions dealing with the king's role were worded in such a way as to make clear the neutral and apolitical nature of his duties. The success of this arrangement has been largely attributable to King Juan Carlos de Borbon's willingness to relinquish the powers that Franco had conferred upon him and to rule as a constitutional monarch within a democratic system of government.
The crown is hereditary, and the king's eldest son is first in the line of succession. (In the case of Juan Carlos, there is only one son, Prince Felipe, and there are two daughters.) Whereas Franco's fundamental laws forbade a female monarch, the 1978 Constitution allows a female to inherit the throne, but only if there are no males of the same generation. If all hereditary lines entitled to the crown by law become extinct, the succession to the throne is to be determined by the General Cortes.
The king sanctions and promulgates laws that have been worked out by the other branches of government. He formally convenes and dissolves the Cortes and calls for elections and for referenda. He appoints the prime minister after consultation with the Cortes and names the other ministers, upon the recommendation of the prime minister. He also signs decrees made in the Council of Ministers and ratifies civil and military appointments.
Although the king does not have the power to direct foreign affairs, he has a vital role as the chief representative of Spain in international relations. The potential significance of this role has been demonstrated during the reign of Juan Carlos, whose many trips abroad and contacts with foreign leaders have enabled the Spanish government to establish important political and commercial ties with other nations. The king also has the duty to indicate the state's consent to international treaties and, with the prior authorization of the Cortes, to declare war and peace.
The Constitution confers upon the king the title of supreme commander of the armed forces, although he has no actual authority over them. Nevertheless, Juan Carlos has maintained close relations with the military, and he has used his considerable influence with them to counteract potential threats to the stability of the democratic regime.
The influence of the king depends largely upon the individual who holds the title, because he is granted no independent executive powers by the Constitution. Every one of his acts must be countersigned by the prime minister or by one of his ministers. In spite of these restrictions, the monarchy under Juan Carlos has achieved a significant degree of moral authority, largely because of his courageous and steadfast adherence to democratic procedures.
If the king has the symbolic role of representing the state, the prime minister has the more powerful role of chief of government. As the leader of the dominant political party in the Cortes, he bears the responsibility and the accountability for his own actions and for those of the government. He directs the preparation, promotion, and execution of the government's program and coordinates the functions of the various ministries. The prime minister nominates candidates for the king to appoint as his ministers. He also has the right to name candidates for civil service positions and to select the civil governors in each province as well as the government delegates to the autonomous communities. A reform law approved late in 1983 placed the armed forces under the control of the prime minister, although the king remained supreme commander.
The prime minister may ask for a vote of confidence from the Congress of Deputies with regard to his program or policies. He may propose the dissolution of the Congress of Deputies, the Senate, or the Cortes, unless a motion of censure is under consideration. The position of his government in the event of such a motion of censure is strengthened significantly by the requirement that such a motion must contain the name of a candidate to succeed the prime minister if the motion is approved. This provision makes it more difficult to overthrow the government, because minority parties may find it more difficult to agree upon a candidate than to concur in their opposition to the incumbent.
When the prime minister is appointed following elections, he must present his program to the Congress of Deputies and receive a vote of investiture by absolute majority before he can be sworn in by the king. If he cannot obtain a vote of confidence for investiture, a new vote is taken forty-eight hours later, requiring only a simple majority. If this procedure fails, the king is to propose other candidates until one gains a vote of confidence. Should no candidate succeed within two months of the first vote, the king dissolves the Cortes and calls for new elections.
The prime minister remains in office until such time as he and his government lose the support of the Congress of Deputies in a vote of confidence, or the Congress of Deputies approves a motion of censure. A prime minister also must resign if he and his party are defeated in the general elections, in which case he remains in office until the new prime minister has been sworn in. When a prime minister leaves office for whatever reason, even if it is his own choice, his cabinet must resign with him. They nonetheless retain their functions in a caretaker capacity until a new government has been installed.
A deputy prime minister assumes the functions of the head of government if the prime minister dies, or if he is ill or out of the country. The deputy also plays a coordinating role, working closely with the prime minister, senior ministers, and high- ranking party members. The deputy prime minister may assume other functions, at the discretion of the prime minister.
The prime minister, the deputy prime minister, and the other ministers together comprise the Council of Ministers, which functions as a cabinet, and which is the highest executive institution of the state. The Council of Ministers has both policy-making and administrative functions, and it is responsible for the implementation of government policy. In addition to overseeing the administration of the various ministries, it controls military affairs and is responsible for national security and defense. In the exercise of all of its functions, it is ultimately accountable to the Cortes.
Cabinet ministers are each charged with the responsibility of administering their individual departments. Although they may exercise a great deal of discretion and autonomy within their ministries, they are ultimately responsible to the prime minister. They present to the Council of Ministers draft laws that have been prepared within their departments, and they establish rules to implement government policy. They have the power to issue ministerial orders without the approval of the Council of Ministers and to sign state contracts in matters concerning their ministries. They also may resolve administrative conflicts within their departments. Ministers are responsible to the Council of Ministers as well as to the prime minister for their actions, and they can be called to explain their policies before one or both houses of the Cortes, or before one of the parliamentary committees.
The Constitution declares that government ministers may not hold any additional public posts not related to their governmental office, and it also prohibits them from engaging in professional or commercial activity. This provision is aimed at avoiding the corruption that prevailed in the Franco era, when senior government ministers frequently occupied important positions in the business community and sometimes held more than one post within the public administration.
Various advisory bodies serve the administration. The most important of these is the Council of State, which the Constitution refers to as the highest consultative organ of the government. It has no executive functions or powers and performs in a purely advisory capacity. The Council of Ministers appoints its president, who is usually an experienced jurist. The other members--approximately twenty-three in number--are eminent representatives of the autonomous regions, the armed forces, civil service, and the legal and academic communities. Permanent members are appointed by government decree for an indefinite period, whereas members termed elected are those who are also appointed by decree but who are chosen from among citizens who have held various specific jobs; the elected members serve on the council for a period of four years.
More about the Government of Spain.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress