This is a guest post by Bonnie N. Field, Professor & Chair, Department of Global Studies, Bentley University
Spain has been struggling to form a government since the December 2015 parliamentary elections transformed its party system from one that had been dominated by the center-left Socialist Party (PSOE) and conservative Popular Party (PP) to one in which there are four significant national parties, including newcomers Podemos and Ciudadanos, along with a variety of regionally-based parties, none of which has a majority of seats in parliament. After failing to form a government, new elections took place in June 2016, which, to date, have not produced a new government. The difficulty of forming a government is related to the parties’ calculations about the likely costs and benefits—in terms of political support from voters, achieving their policy priorities and attaining political offices—of supporting or not distinct governments. The rules for government formation and censure affect this calculation.
The rules that Spain adopted in its 1978 constitution are dramatically different than those in place during its first mass democracy, the second republic (1931-36), a coup against which led to a brutal civil war and decades of authoritarian rule under Francisco Franco. The current constitution, adopted during its transition to democracy, gives parliament a significant role in government formation, while simultaneously making it difficult for parliament to remove the government. In contrast, the 1931 constitution gave the president of the republic a critical role in government formation and censure. At the same time, parliament did not have a formal role in government formation yet it could more easily remove the government. Spain’s current rules are in part a reaction to the experience of governmental instability during the second republic.
Spain’s Parliamentary Monarchy: Government Selection and Termination
According to the 1978 constitution, to form a government, the monarch nominates a candidate for prime minister after a round of consultations with the political parties in parliament. Following a parliamentary debate, the candidate is subject to a formal investiture vote in the Congress of Deputies, the lower and more significant chamber of the bi-cameral parliament. The prime ministerial candidate, and it is only the candidate that is voted upon, must receive the absolute-majority support of the total number of deputies (≥ 50% + 1 yes votes) in a first-round vote. If an absolute majority is not attained, a simple majority of more yes than no votes suffices in a second-round vote forty-eight hours later. This means that a sufficient number of parliamentarians must cast their vote in favor of the candidate or abstain, which favors the candidate in the second-round, in a highly visible, public vote, if a government is to form. In other words, parties must clearly reveal their positions, and face the positive or negative consequences of their choices.
But, it is not only the formation rules that matter. Parliaments in parliamentary democracies can remove governments in a vote of no confidence. Yet Spain, in adopting a constructive vote of no confidence in its 1978 constitution, established a high threshold for removing the government. The constructive vote of no confidence requires that an absolute majority of parliamentarians vote to remove the government and simultaneously agree on a new prime minister. Therefore, in selecting the government, parliamentarians are cognizant that the existing rules make it very difficult to remove a government once it is formed.
Spain’s Second Republic: The President’s Role in Government Selection and Termination
Unlike in the parliamentary monarchy today, the president was the head of state during the second republic. The 1931 constitution stipulated that parliament would elect the first president through an absolute majority (first round) or plurality (second round) vote. Subsequently, the president would be elected jointly by parliament and by electors—equal in number to the members of parliament—who are popularly elected. The latter provision, which occurred in practice only in 1936, makes it an interesting hybrid between a parliament-selected and a popularly-elected president.
The second republic parliament did not give itself a formal role in government formation. According to the constitution, the president of the republic “freely names and removes” the prime minister, and, on the latter’s instructions, the government ministers. While many of the governments that formed between the approval of the constitution and the outbreak of the civil war called a confidence vote to demonstrate they had parliamentary support, legally the government was presumed to have the confidence of parliament unless or until it formally withdrew it (Vintró Castels 2007). With a highly fragmented parliament, and more parties than in Spain’s parliament today, the president in practice had great influence over the composition of the government. The rules also eased government formation because parliamentarians did not need to agree before the government formed.
Once formed, governments of the second republic could be removed more easily than is the case today. The constitution gave the president the power to “freely” dismiss the prime minister, and stipulated that the president must dismiss the government if parliament withdrew its confidence in it, making the government separately responsible to both institutions. The unicameral parliament could censure the government or one of its ministers with the support of an absolute majority of its members, in contrast to today’s constructive vote of no confidence.
After the approval of the 1931 constitution, the parliament selected Niceto Alcalá Zamora to be president of the republic. The role of the president in the selection and dismissal of the government was often controversial (Juliá 1995; Linz 1978; Villaroya 1975). Amongst others, he has been criticized for engaging in extensive consultations prior to selecting the prime minister, which extended far beyond the individuals and parties in parliament; yet he refused to consult with anti-Republican political forces. He fostered the formation of governments that included his friends and excluded key party leaders. He withdrew his confidence in Prime Minister Azaña when Azaña still had the confidence of parliament in 1933. He very broadly interpreted his constitutional authority to include making nominations that differed from the preferences of the majority of parliament, especially after the 1933 elections produced a victory of the political right. Additionally, after 1933, he attempted to shape the government’s objectives through “presidential notes” that accompanied the nomination of the government.
President Alcalá Zamora also dismissed parliament on two occasions during his term. While constitutional, the constitution also stipulated that the new parliament would assess the necessity of a second dissolution during a president’s six-year term. If parliament found the president’s dissolution unnecessary, the president would be removed from office. In April 1936, parliament removed President Alcalá Zamora from office after it deemed the second dissolution unnecessary. After a brief interim presidency, Manuel Azaña was elected president in May. Shortly thereafter, in July, the civil war began.
The experience of the second republic shaped numerous aspects of Spain’s current democracy. Government instability, as indicated by the 17 governments that existed between the approval of the 1931 constitution and the outbreak of the civil war in 1936, led the designers of Spain’s current constitution to adopt institutions that they believed would foster government stability. These provisions included a parliamentary investiture vote to select the government and a constructive vote of no confidence. Yet, combined with the new party system, these rules have made it more difficult to form a government.
Julía, Santos. 1995. “Sistema de partidos y problemas de consolidación de la democracia,” Ayer 20: 111-139.
Linz, Juan J. 1978. “From Great Hopes to Civil War: The Breakdown of Democracy in Spain.” In The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, eds. Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP).
Villaroya, Joaquín Tomás. 1975. “La formación de Gobierno durante la Segunda República,” Revista de Estudios Políticos 204: 49-94.
Vintró Castells, Joan. 2007. La investidura parlamentaria del Gobierno: perspectiva comparada y Constitución española (Madrid: Congreso de los Diputados).