Regional Government

Spain Table of Contents

The framers of the 1978 Constitution had to deal with many controversial issues arising from the advent of democracy to a nation that had been under dictatorial control for decades. Among these, the most divisive was the historically sensitive question of regional autonomy. The Spanish state is unusual in the extent and the depth of its regional differences, and the society includes ethnic groups--notably the Basques, Catalans, and Galicians--that are each culturally and linguistically distinct from the rest of the country. The strength of regional feeling is such that, in many areas, Spaniards identify more closely with their region than they do with the nation.

Long-standing tensions between the center and the periphery were repressed, but not extinguished, by Franco's rigid centralism. After his death, there was considerable popular and official support for some degree of decentralization; a key feature of the democratic reforms was the devolution of increased power and responsibility to the regions. This applied not only to those regions that historically had enjoyed a degree of autonomy- -Galicia, the Basque region, and Catalonia--but to the rest of Spain as well.

This transformation from a unitary state into a more decentralized structure was not accomplished without bitter conflict. Reactionary elements objected to any reference to regional autonomy in the Constitution as a threat to national unity, while, at the other extreme, militant Basques demanded the right of self-determination for the regions. After prolonged and acrimonious debate, a compromise was agreed upon by all the major parties except the Basque nationalists. Discontent in this region has been a major disruptive element in the post-Franco years.

The Constitution proclaims the indissoluble unity of the nation, but it recognizes and guarantees the right to autonomy of the nationalities and the regions of which the state is composed. Adjoining provinces with common historical, cultural, and economic characteristics, as well as the Balearic Islands (Spanish, Islas Baleares) and the Canary Islands (Spanish, Canarias), are granted the right to form autonomous communities. These communities are, however, expressly prohibited from forming federations. Castilian Spanish is declared to be the official language of Spain, but other languages are recognized as co- official in their respective autonomous communities. In addition, flags and emblems of these communities may be displayed alongside the Spanish flag on their public buildings and on public occasions.

The Constitution provides two procedures for achieving regional autonomy. The rapid procedure was for those regions that had sought autonomy in the 1930s. After approval by the Constitutional Committee of the Congress of Deputies, the proposal for autonomy was voted on in a regional referendum. The "historic nationalities" of Galicia, the Basque Country, and Catalonia acquired regional autonomy in this way. The slow procedure required initiative on the part of municipal and provincial governments as well as final approval by the Cortes, for a degree of regional autonomy less than that enjoyed by the "historic nationalities." A compromise procedure was devised for Andalusia because, although it had not sought regional autonomy earlier, there was widespread support for such autonomy among its inhabitants. Although the communities employing the rapid procedure gained a greater degree of autonomy than the other communities for the time being, ultimately--although probably not until sometimes in the 1990s--all were to have an equal degree of autonomy.

Following the attempted coup of February 1981, those who had urged a more cautious approach to regional autonomy prevailed, and the process was brought under stricter control by the controversial Organic Law on the Harmonization of the Autonomy Process (Ley Organica de Armonizacion del Proceso Autonomico-- LOAPA), approved in July 1981. Among the law's stipulations was that--with the exception of Andalusia, which was already nearing autonomous status--the remaining regions would have to proceed according to the more protracted and complicated method.

The regional reorganization of Spain into autonomous communities was completed in May 1983, when elections were held in the thirteen new autonomous communities, although the actual process of transferring powers was far from complete. The state consists of seventeen autonomous communities, each of which includes one or more previously existing provinces. These communities vary widely in size, in population, and in economic development; moreover, the political weight of an autonomous community is not necessarily related to its land area or population.

Each regional entity is governed by its own statute of autonomy. It has its own capital and a political structure based on a unicameral Legislative Assembly, elected by universal suffrage. This assembly chooses from among its members a president who is the highest representative of the community. Executive and administrative powers are exercised by the Council of Government, headed by the president and responsible to the assembly. There are also regional supreme courts, which are somewhat less autonomous than the legislative and the executive organs because they are subject to the ultimate authority of the Supreme Court in Madrid.

The division of powers between the autonomous regions and the central government is outlined in Article 148 and Article 149 of the Constitution. The language used to differentiate between the authority of the central government and that of the regions is, however, imprecise and ambiguous, resulting in varying, and sometimes contradictory, interpretations. Further confusion arises from the constitutional provision enabling the autonomous communities to extend their powers gradually, although it does not indicate specifically what these new powers are to be.

The areas enumerated as belonging under the exclusive jurisdiction of the national government include international affairs; defense; justice; criminal, commercial, and labor legislation; merchant shipping; civil aviation; foreign trade and tariffs; economic planning; finances; and public safety. Whereas the central government clearly is granted exclusive jurisdiction in these and in other matters, the provision that sets forth the rights of the autonomous communities is stated in less precise language. It declares that these communities may assume authority--a more equivocal mandate--over certain areas. These include the organization of their own institutions of self- government, municipal boundaries, town planning, housing, public works, forestry, environmental protection, cultural affairs and organizations, tourism, sports and leisure events, social welfare, health and hygiene, and noncommercial ports and airports. In addition, the state may delegate to the communities part of its authority in areas reserved to its jurisdiction. Therefore, although the regions have very limited primary authority, the Constitution permits the extension of this authority by subsequent delegation.

The Constitution recognizes the right of the autonomous communities to have financial autonomy "for the development and enforcement of their authority." These communities receive revenue directly and indirectly from central government sources as well as from their own local taxes and special levies. They also may borrow money. The Constitution declares that the financial autonomy of the communities must be exercised in coordination with the policies of the central government, which is ultimately responsible for taxation and for guaranteeing equal opportunities for all citizens.

The mechanism for this arrangement was established by the 1980 Organic Law on the Financing of the Autonomous Communities, which provides for a Council for Fiscal and Financial Policy, to be composed of the finance ministers from the autonomous communities, the state finance minister, and the minister for public administration. This council is to function in a consultative capacity in order to coordinate policies concerning public investment and debt, cost of services, and the distribution of resources to the regions.

The state's ultimate responsibility for financial matters enables it to exercise a significant degree of control over the activities of the autonomous communities. A further element of control is the presence in each region of a central government delegate, appointed by the Council of Ministers at the recommendation of the prime minister, who monitors the activities of the regional government. Moreover, the state may challenge any measures adopted by the autonomous communities.

The Constitutional Court makes the final decision in any question pertaining to the constitutionality of regional legislation. In 1983 this court made a ruling that had the effect of increasing the powers of the autonomous communities. It invalidated portions of the controversial LOAPA and declared that this law did not harmonize the autonomy process. Significant provisions that were struck down included those stipulating that the state's legal norms should have automatic precedence over those of the autonomous regions and that regional civil servants should be seconded from Madrid rather than recruited locally.

The Constitution permits the government to intervene if an autonomous community fails to carry out its constitutional obligations or acts against the general interests of the nation. In such a case, the state is to ask the president of the autonomous community to correct the matter; if he or she fails to do so, the government, with majority approval from the Senate, may adopt measures necessary to enforce the community's compliance. As of mid-1988, this provision had never been invoked, and it remained unclear what such measures might entail.

In spite of these limitations on the jurisdiction of the communities, regions have enjoyed an unprecedented degree of autonomy since the death of Franco. Because rigid centralism was so closely identified with Francoism, Spaniards have come to associate democracy with greater regional independence. Although difficulties in the devolution process remain to be resolved, the development of such an extensive system of regional autonomy, by what had been one of the world's most centralized nations, is an indication of its peoples' commitment to democracy.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress