elections

   After the long dictatorship of Franco, the elections of 1977 successfully established a democratic regime in which the ballot box served its usual functions of government control, parliamentary representation, and political legitimation. Since then, elections have been held at regular intervals to elect the bi-cameral parliament, formed by the 350 members of the Congress of Deputies and the approximately 200 members of the Senate. These are regarded as the most important, and have the highest electoral turnout. Elections are also held for the parliaments of the seventeen autonomous communities, the 8,000 municipal councils, and the Spanish seats in the European Parliament. The general elections held since 1977 display three distinct phases. The first, extending from 1977 to 1982, and including the general election of 1979, was characterized by a moderate pluralist party system, and minority government by the centre-right UCD led by Adolfo Suárez, which steered through the transition to democracy. Facing them was a fragmented opposition, dominated by Felipe González's socialist PSOE. The second phase (1982–93) dates from the extraordinary electoral result of October 1982, when with the collapse of UCD the PSOE was able to win an absolute majority, and become the dominant party. The PSOE went on to win the next two elections, maintaining a considerable lead in terms of both votes and seats over the Popular Alliance, the staunchly conservative party led by Manuel Fraga. The 1993 elections brought the socialist supremacy to an end, though González, by then the longest-serving Prime Minister in Spanish history, was still able to form a minority PSOE government. However, greater competition on the left between the PSOE and the United Left, the coalition centred on the PCE led by Julio Anguita, and on the right between the PSOE and the PP, paved the way for the political changeover which eventually took place in 1996. For the first time, José María Aznar's PP won an electoral contest, although his minority government depended, as had the PSOE since 1993, on the support of the Catalan and Basque nationalists of, respectively, CiU and PNV. Throughout these changes there has been a certain continuity in electoral behaviour. First, electoral and parliamentary fragmentation (that is, the number of significant parties) has remained low. Despite the presence of numerous nationalist and regional parties in parliament, the two main political parties have generally won over 70 percent of the vote and more than 80 percent of the seats. Second, the ideological polarization between the principal parties has been relatively limited. The majority of voters have opted for centre-right or centre-left parties; the extremist parties (with the exception of Herri Batasuna in Euskadi) are insignificant. Finally, electoral volatility (that is, changes in voting choices in successive elections) has shown some unusual features. It was relatively low in the first elections (1977 and 1979) and exceptionally high in 1982, when more than 40 percent of citizens changed parties in what is considered to have been one of the biggest swings in European electoral history. Since then, however, swings have remained within narrow limits, comparable to those found in the most stable European party systems.
   In the light of the various general elections held since 1977, Spaniards" electoral behaviour can be described as stable, and the overall framework of the party system has been institutionalized. The principal characteristics of electoral behaviour are (i) the weakness of party identification, amongst the lowest in Europe; (ii) the virtual absence of social or political organizations serving to anchor votes; (iii) the limited role of class conflict, due to the typically catch-all strategies adopted by all the parties; (iv) the even weaker impact of the religious cleavage, in the wake of an intense process of secularization; (v) the extraordinary importance, by contrast, of the regional cleavage in some autonomous communities, especially the Basque country, Catalonia, and Navarre; and (vi) despite the absence of sharp polarization between the two main parties, the decisive importance of ideological preferences between left and right, which are stronger than party loyalties. The proportional system used for elections to the Congress of Deputies is sometimes described as a "strong" system because of its capacity to restrict voter behaviour and exert a restraining influence on parties. The combination of the highly uneven distribution of seats in thinly populated provincial districts, its small magnitude (the majority have six seats or fewer), and the use of the D'Hondt "additional member" formula, have favoured the emergence of strong majority parties. Any imbalances in the system have been compensated for by its capacity to produce governability, reduce parliamentary fragmentation, contribute to stability, respect party pluralism, and foster political integration, in a situation characterized by profound territorial differences.
   Further reading
   - Del Castillo, P. (ed.) (1994) Comportamiento político y electoral, Madrid: Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (a thorough and useful symposium volume on Spanish elections and electoral behaviour).
   - Gunther, R., Sani, G. and Shabad, G. (1986) Spain after Franco: The Making of a Competitive Party System, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press (an excellent and well-documented account of the 1977 and 1979 elections).
   - Linz, J.J. and Montero, J.R. (eds) (1986) Crisis y cambio: electores y partidos en la España de los años ochenta, Madrid: Centro de Estudios Constitucionales (a very detailed analysis of the 1982 elections and their consequences).
   JOSÉ RAMÓN MONTERO

Encyclopedia of contemporary Spanish culture. 2013.

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