A guest blog by Dylan Difford. Dylan is a researcher specialising in elections and voting systems, as well as a regular contributor to the Electoral Reform Society blog.

Voters in Spain will be electing both houses of their parliament this Sunday (23rd July), a few months ahead of schedule. This early election is not due to a collapse of the previous government, but because, like in the UK, the Prime Minister has large amounts of discretion over when an election is held. Counter-intuitively, perhaps, Socialist Party PM, Pedro Sánchez chose to call an early election after both his party and his left-wing coalition partners, Podemos, suffered significant losses in May’s regional elections.

While the political contours of this election will no doubt serve as a case study for other democracies, the system under which the contest is to take place also merits examination. Spain, like much of Europe, uses a PR system, but one with several unusual features and which, for nearly 40 years, enabled exclusively single-party government. Having now successfully accommodated itself to competitive multi-party politics, what lessons can be drawn from Spain’s democratic experience?

Transition to democracy

After the death of fascist dictator General Franco in 1975, Spain underwent a period of transition to democracy. The first elections were held in 1977 and, a year later, a democratic constitution was drawn up and later endorsed by 92% of voters in a referendum. And, despite a failed coup in 1981 and some small-scale political violence, by the mid-1980s, Spain had firmly established itself as a liberal democracy.

Voting system

Since those first elections in 1977, the Spanish Congress of Deputies has been elected by a straight Party List PR system which uses the 50 Spanish provinces as the constituencies. As Party List systems go, it is one of the most similar to that used in Great Britain for European elections between 1999 and 2019 – the constituencies are largely fairly small (half elect five or fewer MPs), voters choose from ‘closed’ party lists (i.e., which candidates will be elected is pre-decided by the parties), and seat allocation to parties takes place solely in the constituencies (there is no top-up).

However, the Spanish voting system also has a few quirks that can appear somewhat unusual or even questionable. It has a 3% vote share threshold in place in every constituency that parties have to cross to win seats. But only Barcelona and Madrid have enough seats for a party plausibly even to be able win one on 3% of the vote anyway, rendering it somewhat redundant. Also unusually, blank ballots are counted as valid votes: they count towards overall vote totals, including when calculating the thresholds, albeit a vacant seat could not be ‘elected’ even if enough voters submitted a blank vote.

Most significant, though, is that, while most PR-using countries give each constituency a number of seats in proportion to its population, Spain gives each a guaranteed minimum of two, with the remainder then allocated proportionately. This creates a bias towards the less populated rural provinces – at the last election, small Soria had one deputy per 38,000 voters, while Madrid had one per 138,000, with 11 fewer deputies than it would under a fully proportional allocation. Such an arrangement is undeniably somewhat unfair and benefits parties with rural support bases. The one factor in its favour is that it ensures no provinces have just one deputy and thus makes it likely that all Spanish voters have deputies from more than one party.

Party system

Since the end of the transition, Spanish politics has been dominated by two major parties – the centre-left Socialist Party (PSOE) and the conservative People’s Party (PP). From 1982 to 2020, they were the only two parties to sit in government, usually as minority governments, though both parties have also won two majorities each. This level of dominance is partially down to the voting system – the small constituencies create a clear bias towards the larger parties, with both PSOE and PP typically seeing their seat share exaggerated by five percentage points each compared to their vote share.

However, despite their national domination, the two parties were never quite able to create a true two-party system. This was down to the strong regional dimension in Spanish politics, particularly in the independence-curious Basque Country and Catalonia. In those areas, regionalist parties have been able to win significant shares of the vote and, collectively, have held around 7-10% of seats in most parliaments – resulting in influential or even hinge status for some of the parties during hung parliament situations.

But, as with many European countries, Spain’s party system has changed significantly in the last decade – with combined support for the two largest parties falling below 50% in the most recent elections. Anger at austerity was effectively channelled by the left-wing Podemos movement – which nearly eclipsed PSOE as the largest left-of-centre party in 2015. The right-wing liberal Citizens party, which debuted with 14% of the vote in that election, posed a comparable challenge to the PP four years later, though has since collapsed to the extent of not even contesting this election. The far-right Vox party, off the back of significant gains in May’s regional elections, will be hoping to hoover up the lion’s share of Citizens’ party voters in 2019.

PR does not equal instability, and can even produce majorities

The adjustment to multi-party politics has taken a little bit of time to bed down in Spain, with second elections held after just six months in 2016 and 2019. However, the PSOE-Podemos coalition formed after the last election, the first multi-party Spanish government since the 1930s, has successfully governed throughout the parliament and called an election on its own terms – a return to pre-2015 levels of Spanish political stability. Whether this can serve as a blueprint for future governments, or we will see a return of two-party dominance and single-party government, remains to be seen.

Parties of the right are expected to win a majority at Sunday’s poll – whether in such a scenario the PP would indeed decide to enter into coalition with Vox, and whether such a government would hold, only time will tell. Nevertheless, the experience of the past few years has shown Spanish voters that a more pronounced multi-party politics – and coalition government – are nothing to be worried about.

Bonus trivia

At the same time as elections to the Congress, voters also elect the majority of the Senate (currently 208 of the 266 seats). This largely takes place using the Limited Vote system, where each province has four seats and each voter has three votes. Much like First Past the Post, it is the candidates with the most votes who win – typically three seats going to the first-placed party and the fourth to the second-placed. The remaining 58 seats are appointed by regional parliaments.