Local Government

Spain Table of Contents

Institutions of local government have undergone marked transformations since the Franco era, when they functioned primarily as instruments of the central government. The overhauling of administration at the local level had to wait, however, until a degree of political reform had been achieved at the national level. The first fully democratic local elections following Franco's demise were held in 1979, and limited reforms were introduced at the local level in 1981, but it was not until 1985 that the fundamental reorganization and democratization of local administration was completed with the passage of the Basic Law on Local Government (Ley Reguladora de las Bases de Regimen Local--LRBRL).

This law outlines the basic institutions at the municipal and the provincial levels, establishes guidelines for the sharing of responsibilities among the different tiers of administration, and lists the services that local authorities are to provide. The responsibilities of municipalities vary in proportion to the size of their populations. Municipal governments share responsibility with the regional government in matters of health and education. Both the central and the regional governments may delegate additional powers to municipalities. Because of the degree of authority that has been devolved to the autonomous communities from the central government, local institutions are politically dependent on these communities; however, they remain to a large extent financially dependent on Madrid.

Government at the municipal level is administered by a Municipal Council, the members of which are directly elected by universal suffrage and according to proportional representation. The number of council members is determined by the population of the municipality; a minimum of five is required by law. There is no limit to the number of times councillors may be re-elected. If they die, resign, or are dismissed, they are replaced by the next person on the electoral list of their political party; therefore, there are no by-elections.

The council is elected every four years, and it cannot be dissolved. The law requires it to meet in full session at least every three months; extraordinary sessions can be called by either the mayor or one-fourth of the council membership. The council does not formulate major laws, but drafts regulations related to legislation from the Cortes or the regional parliament. It oversees the budget, and it may raise taxes to supplement grants from the central and the regional governments.

Each Municipal Council is headed by a mayor, who is elected following local elections, from among the council members, and who, in most instances, serves as the leader of the majority party in the council. In addition to being chairman of the council, directing municipal administration, heading the municipal police force, and exercising extensive powers of appointment, the mayor plays a major public relations role and enjoys a great deal of prestige.

Municipalities of more than 5,000 inhabitants have a Municipal Commission to assist the mayor in the exercise of his duties. Municipal administration in such towns is divided into departments and districts, the leaders of which are ultimately responsible to the mayor.

Government at the provincial level has retained an element of its Francoist function as an outpost of the state. The Constitution defines the provinces as territorial divisions "designed to carry out the activities of the central government." The civil governor, who is the highest executive of the state administration at the provincial level, is appointed by the prime minister on the recommendation of the minister of interior. Thus, the governors are usually political appointees, as was the case during the Franco regime, although they have less power than they did formerly. They continue to be responsible for the state police and the security forces that operate at the provincial level. In addition to ensuring the implementation of state policies in the provinces, they function as a liaison between local authorities and the central government.

Provincial government is administered by a Provincial Council, which consists of deputies elected by the municipal councillors from among themselves. They remain on the Provincial Council for four years and may be re-elected for as many terms as they remain municipal councillors. As is the case with the municipal councils, the Provincial Council does not have the power to draft major laws, but it may establish regulations based on legislation from the Cortes or the regional parliament.

Each Provincial Council is headed by a president, who is elected by all the members of the full council. Although the civil governor is the highest representative of the central government in the province, the president of the Provincial Council has the responsibility for the government and administration of the province. The office of president of the Provincial Council was established during the Franco years, but it was largely overshadowed by that of the civil governor. Since the advent of democracy to Spain, the council president has acquired more prestige, and the role of the governor has been reduced.

Provincial government is administered differently in the Basque provinces, the single-province autonomous communities, the Balearic Islands, and the Canary Islands. The Basque provinces have more extensive privileges because of their status as "historic territories," which makes their provincial councils more powerful than those of other provinces. The autonomous communities that are made up of a single province assume all provincial powers and responsibilities, thereby obviating the need for provincial institutions. Because of the geographical separation that exists within the island chains, government and administration have been entrusted to island councils, which enjoy greater powers than their provincial counterparts. The small North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla have a special status: they are organized as municipalities of the provinces of Cadiz and Malaga, respectively. In both towns, civil authority is vested in an official, called the delegado del gobierno, who is directly responsible to the Ministry of Interior in Madrid. In 1986 the enclaves received municipal autonomy under the provisions of Spain's devolution of authority to regions, but, unlike Spain's other regional assemblies, they were not granted legislative powers. In March 1986, a large crowd of demonstrators in Ceuta protested this denial of full autonomy.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress