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Local Elections and Political Leadership

Part of the Local and Urban Governance book series (LUG)


Spanish local government grassroots are composed of 8.132 municipalities, which constitute fragmented, atomized, and diverse electoral spaces. The local government regulations establish an executive body, the mayor, characterized by great political and functional power ad intra and ad extra as regards the municipality. The mayor can therefore be depicted as a strong mayor with presidential overtones, thus providing an excellent base on which to project political leadership. Mayors emerge from the councilors of each municipality, who in turn are elected in competitive electoral processes, in which, on analyzing the electoral results in aggregate terms, factors such as nationalization, regionalization, and localism of the local party system appear, together with an incipient interdependence of factors, given the multilevel nature of governance in Spain. It is in this scenario that Spanish local leadership is inserted, which can be nuanced according to the importance of the municipalities and the personality of the mayor, allowing the mayor to be a true manager of interdependencies in a governance environment.


  • Local government
  • Municipal electoral system
  • Leadership
  • Mayor
  • Nationalization
  • Regionalization
  • Localism
  • Electoral Results
  • Governance
  • Spain

7.1 Introduction

Local elections in Spain, although unjustifiably, have occupied a secondary place in electoral research, which is more concerned with national or regional elections (Delgado 2010). Perhaps the premise that the local level of government enjoys less autonomy (albeit of an intermediate nature and similar to that of other European states) and the consideration of municipal elections as second-tier has contributed to this. This study seeks to mitigate that deficit.

This chapter aims, firstly, to provide an overview of the basic institutional aspects underpinning the municipal electoral system and then to analyze the electoral results of May 2019 (the last municipal elections held). Secondly, the aim is to promote reflection on whether the electoral results of local governments really respond to the logic of second-tier elections, whether or to what extent they effectively incorporate nationalization of the party system, what role the personalization of candidates plays, and what general assessment the electoral system deserves. Thirdly and finally, we would like to explore municipal political leadership and its importance in a governance environment.

To this end, the chapter will begin by describing the general aspects of the Spanish municipal level to subsequently analyze the institutional design of local governments with a view to describing what type of mayoral profile it creates, as this is a conditioning factor of local government political leadership. Next, the local electoral system will be analyzed (or should we say, more appropriately, systems, since the majority system coexists for municipalities with up to 250 inhabitants and the corrected proportional system for the rest) as a preliminary step to the study of the 2019 electoral results. Based on data, the Spanish local electoral system will be outlined, questioning some traditional positions on this matter, and lastly, the phenomenon of political leadership at the local level will be reflected.

7.2 The Spanish Local Level of Government: General Aspects

The local Spanish level of government is defined as being made up of a plural universe of institutions that, despite relatively uniform treatment from a regulatory point of view, are characterized by strong territorial fragmentation and diversity. For this reason, a detailed analysis would require examining the reality of thousands of entities that make up the local level of government (see Table 7.1), together with their territorial, social, political, and economic contingency factors, beyond the institutional isomorphism, each one of them responds to a specific reality that is difficult to extrapolate. However, this does not prevent us from drawing some operational lessons that may be an expression of processes that, to a large extent, affect all local authorities.

Table 7.1 Institutional profile of the Spanish mayor: strong with presidential overtones

In general terms, in this chapter, a distinction must be made between local bodies whose governing bodies derive from electoral processes (municipalities and provincial councils) and those whose usefulness is fundamentally instrumental and are made up of representatives of the bodies interested in their existence. The political aspects dealt with here obviously focus on the former, but before moving on, there are other sources of complexity and diversity that should be highlighted:

Firstly, local governments have a dual profile: On the one hand, they are organizations that provide services and produce goods and, on the other, institutions of a representative nature that generate political identification. It is precisely this representative function, together with other aspects of a cultural nature, that has led to successive projects to rationalize local government, to reduce the number of municipalities, so their responsibilities are carried out more efficiently through economies of scale, has resulted in relative failure.

Secondly, it is important to highlight the territorial and demographic diversity of the municipalities since small rural-based organizations in demographic terms (the vast majority of them) are combined under the same umbrella together with others of an intermediate nature (populations with over 20,000 inhabitants) or other relatively large ones (populations over 100,000 inhabitants) and, finally, the large, highly populated cities (Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Valencia, etc.).

Thirdly, the Spanish local government incorporates cultural aspects of Mediterranean municipal culture, especially French culture. This is evidenced by the similarity between our strong municipal fragmentation with that of neighboring countries (Portugal, France, Italy, and Greece until 1997), which differs greatly from that of Northern European countries and Great Britain, particularly committed to larger local units. This aspect has required the profusion of inter-municipal cooperation and collaboration formulas for the provision of basic services.

Fourthly, and as a product of the aforementioned municipal culture that frequently identified municipalities with population nucleus, a process of mythification of the constituted municipalities has arisen. It is true that they are the closest public organization to citizens and the one with which they can interact and participate most directly; however, this does not justify their immutability. A quick historical review shows how the municipality in Spain went from being a system for organizing local interests or a legal association of all the people living in the same municipal district to forming a “natural” association of people and goods recognized by law (Calvo Sotelo’s Municipal Statute), and from there to constituting one of the institutions of Franco’s organic democracy (along with the family and the trade union). The “natural” consideration of the municipality implies that modifications tend to be seen as “unnatural” and result in stagnation (Olmeda 2017).

Lastly, the municipalities and provinces (together with the Autonomous Communities that are constituted) are recognized by the Constitution and enjoy autonomy for the management of their respective interests (Article 137 EC78). This does not imply that “autonomy” is the same for all since local governments have administrative but not political autonomy and therefore lack superior regulatory capacity and must adapt their actions to State and Autonomous Community legislation. Both municipalities and provinces have full legal personality, as well as representative and governing bodies (Articles 140 and 141 of the EC78). The basic structural aspects of the municipal sphere were introduced by Law 7/1985 of 2 April 1985, regulating the foundations of local government (LRBRL).

7.3 The Organization of Municipalities, Provinces, and Other Local Authorities. A Strong Mayor in a Presidential-Type System

In order to define the basis for political leadership in the local sphere, it is important to possess previous knowledge of the institutional powers the regulations grant to the most relevant bodies in accordance with the singularities of municipal and provincial organizations.

7.3.1 The Organization of Municipalities: A Strong Mayor in a Presidential Framework

The essential elements of the municipality are the territory, or municipal area, over which the City Council exercises its powers, the population, composed of all the people registered in the municipal register, and the organization, constituted by the government and the administration at its service. Here we will deal with this last element: the organization.

According to the Constitution and the LRBRL, municipalities possess some common bodies, which are required in all municipalities (the mayor, deputy mayor, councilors, plenary, and special accounts committee), and others that depend on the size of the municipality (local government council, in municipalities with a legal population of over 5000 inhabitants, or those with fewer if their organic regulations so stipulate) or if they are considered to have a large population. Municipalities with a large population are made up of those with a legal population of more than 250,000 inhabitants, which are capitals of provinces, autonomous regions or seats of autonomous institutions, or those cities with more than 75,000 inhabitants with special circumstances, and their system includes specific bodies: a special committee for suggestions and complaints; bodies for citizen participation, among others.

For the purposes of this chapter, the most important bodies are those on which the executive power (the mayor and the local government board), or the supervisory power (the plenary), pivots. Note that the plenary does not perform all the functions of the “legislative branch” at other levels of government, since local regulatory powers are very limited and control functions over the executive are limited.

The figure of the mayor has traditionally been important in the Spanish Administration; even in the nineteenth century, he had, in addition to executive functions, judicial functions, which, however, he no longer possesses. Historically, his position was also strengthened by the fact that he was the State representative in the municipality, a role that no longer exists today.

The mayor is a necessary body and, despite the aforementioned, he has a privileged position in institutional architecture. Indeed, his status is trifold: representative of the municipality ad extra, a unipersonal body with its own functions as the mayor’s office holder, and he is part of and presides over the collegiate and political bodies, including the plenary. His political capacity is further reinforced by his ability to appoint deputy mayors and the councilors who form part of the local government body. It should be highlighted that the mayor’s functions as holder of the mayor’s office, which allow him to form his government team (among councilors and, in the larger municipalities, with the possibility of incorporating a quota of external people), direct the government and municipal administration, be in charge of personnel, direct and inspect municipal services, impose sanctions for disobedience to his authority or for infringement of municipal ordinances, among others.

The mayor may delegate functions to the deputy mayors and the governing body, except for convening and presiding over plenary sessions and local government body sessions, casting the deciding vote, arranging credit operations, heading the staff, issuing decrees, taking legal action, and approving urban development plans and aspects related to putting them into effect.

The deputy mayors, who are freely appointed and removed by the mayor from among the councilors, are responsible for replacing him in the event of vacancy, absence, or illness.

In municipalities with a large population, the mayor’s managerial or executive powers are limited as regards the aforementioned scheme and, instead, the law attributes them to a strengthened local government body (thus, for example, the local government body appoints or dismisses management positions, has the power to impose sanctions, grants licenses, approves the draft budget, etc.) but, nevertheless, the mayor’s authority is still present, since it is he who appoints and dismisses the members of the local government body at his discretion.

The plenary is the body made up of all the councilors grouped into municipal groups and is chaired by the mayor. Its main functions are to control and supervise the municipal government bodies, approve ordinances, regulations, and other general provisions, as well as the City Council’s budget. It also has the power to elect and dismiss the mayor.

The relationship between plenary and mayor is not comparable to that between parliament and government. For example, the mayor presides over the plenary and performs the functions of directing and organizing the sessions, but he cannot dissolve it or call new elections. On the other hand, the plenary incorporates numerous, typically administrative or managerial powers, together with oversight of the municipal government’s actions (Ruano 2002).

From the aforementioned, it can be concluded: the mayor is a strong figure from an institutional and organizational viewpoint, and from a political perspective, the local political system is presidential. Firstly, this is influenced by the important role the mayor has from an organizational and representative standpoint. He, therefore, constitutes the nodal point for City Council activity. Secondly, the imbalance that is produced in favor of his figure in his relationship with the plenary (the body that he presides over and directs), together with the ability to appoint the members of the local government board and deputy mayors and chair the rest of the collegiate bodies. Furthermore, and finally, these political roles are exacerbated if the mayor is also the secretary general of his political party (and the discipline this implies for the militants due to the mayor’s ability to propose candidates) and if, as occurs in municipalities with a large population, he has at his disposal a support staff office with the personnel he trusts both on a personal and political level.

7.3.2 The Organization of Provinces

As a political-administrative body, the province in Spain has been recognized by the current Spanish constitution and has two basic characteristics: on the one hand, it is the demarcation privileged by the state administration for the provision of services in the territory through the peripheral or decentralized administration; and on the other, it is a local entity. For the purposes of this study, it is of interest as a local entity, and in this respect, its action focuses on the set of municipalities in its territory, with its own sphere of interests guaranteed by the constitution.

The organization of the province is similar to that of the municipality. Its governing body is called the diputación (council) and is composed of councilors from municipalities in the province. The basic bodies constituting this council are the president, the vice-presidents, the governing body, and the plenary, with functions analogous to those described for the municipality. This is so at least for the prevalent councils. However, it is important to highlight that there are some notable changes with regard to the historical territories of the Basque Country, successors to the historical provincial councils of Alava, Guipúzcoa, and Vizcaya, which, apart from possessing the powers pertaining to the councils, are also directly responsible for managing the powers of the Basque Autonomous Community. These historic territories are organized internally into general assemblies (a representative body that oversees government action and has regulatory powers, which is a notable difference with respect to other local institutions), the deputy general (Head of Government), and the provincial council (government).

The provincial councils are indirectly elected bodies, as their political composition is established based on the results of the municipal elections. The number of deputies depends on the population, the lower threshold being 25 deputies for provinces with a population of fewer than 500,000 residents and the upper threshold being 51 for provinces with more than 3,500,000 residents. The election uses the judicial districts’ demarcations for distributing deputies. Thus, once the municipalities have been constituted, the seats are distributed among each judicial district and a variable allocation depending on the votes cast in each of them. Within this framework, the provincial deputies are elected from among and by the councilors in that judicial district.

7.3.3 Other Local Institutions

As a local organization, The Islands possess certain special features. Firstly, the seven main islands of the Canary archipelago have an organization called the Cabildo (Insular Council), with its own president, which has the same functions as the provincial councils but is limited to the territory of its island. Given that the Canary Islands have two provinces, two insular mancomunidades (intermunicipal partnerships) have been set up over the islands, which function only as a representative body since the powers and resources of the provinces have been taken over by the Canary Islands Autonomous Community and are composed of the insular council presidents and chaired by the capital’s insular council president. As regards the Balearic Islands, the situation is simpler since, as a single-province Community, the powers, personnel, and assets of the former Diputación (Council) were transferred to the Autonomous Community. Four Insular Councils were eventually set up as the governing and administrative bodies of the main islands (Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza, and Formentera), which function along the lines of the mainland provincial councils and are made up of the same members who are elected to the Balearic Parliament (except the government and Parliament president) for those islands.

The Constitution also contemplates the possibility of Autonomous Communities creating comarcas (counties). This possibility has also been included in their own Statutes of Autonomy. As local entities, these counties possess their own legal personality for managing the prevalent interests of several municipalities located in an area with cultural, geographical, or economic affinities. When the county is created, the Autonomous Community defines its territory, organization, powers, and resources. These counties’ internal organization varies, although they usually incorporate a permanent commission headed by a president, together with a general assembly that functions as a representative body for the municipalities involved. There are currently 83 such counties.

The Autonomous Communities also have the power to create metropolitan areas as local entities composed of municipalities in large urban agglomerations where strong social or economic ties exist amongst the population nuclei. The aim is to improve joint planning capacities and coordination. They have a governing body in which the municipalities of the metropolitan area are represented and, at present, there are three of them.

With the aim of municipal powers being executed correctly, municipalities can voluntarily group themselves together into inter-municipal partnerships in order to achieve more effective and/or efficient management of certain services or works. They are regulated by their statutes, which set out their name, territory, municipalities, purposes, financial resources, operating rules, duration, and governing bodies, in which the municipalities involved are represented. It remains to be said that practically all municipalities form part of one or more of the 953 existing partnerships.

And finally, there are the infra-municipal entities or sub-municipal entities (EATIM), which, being part of a municipality and under a decentralized system, manage some matters or services pertinent to the residents of that infra-municipal population nucleus. The bodies’ structure includes a mayor-type figure (usually called alcalde pedáneo) and a small collegiate body composed of people from the entity appointed in an open council or in accordance with the election results. Today there are still 3683 such entities (Table 7.2).

Table 7.2 Main Spanish local government actors

7.4 The Local Political System

Those who wish to understand a political system in some depth should begin with the basic institutional elements that it is composed of and, in particular, the characteristics of the electoral regulations that affect it.

7.4.1 The Local Electoral System and Electing the Mayor

The local electoral system is closely linked to the national electoral model established in the Organic Law 5/1985, 19 June, on the General Electoral System (LOREG), and most of the modifications related to the local electoral regulations have taken place since that distant date. The changes introduced include the right granted to European Union citizens to active and passive suffrage, the system for electing the mayor once a vote of no confidence has been presented, the inclusion of the question of confidence, the rules that outlaw candidates who support terrorism, and lastly, those that seek to reduce political turncoatism in councilors, which consequently has repercussions on local government election results. All these modifications, which have not changed the basic electoral system, mean the system has adapted to the needs of the time; it can be said that some sectors are calling for more changes, such as, for example, the direct election of mayors, but there is insufficient consensus on the urgency of such changes, nor is it clear what advantages they would bring over the current model. A debate has also arisen regarding the indirect way in which the diputaciones (councils) are elected, which some regard as a democratic deficit that minimizes the political accountability of their leaders to the citizens.

As a result of the aforementioned diversity, strictly speaking, one could speak of municipal electoral systems, since there are different rules for municipalities with a population of less than 250 inhabitants, which, although in global terms represent a minute portion of the population, compared to the rest of the municipalities, nevertheless account for almost 30% of the municipalities.

Municipal elections are held on the last Sunday in May every 4 years (unless there are European elections in the year in which they are called. In this case, they are held on the same day) and take place simultaneously in the 8132 Spanish municipalities.

All Spaniards of legal age have the right to vote in municipal elections, and also European Union residents in Spain without Spanish nationality or citizens from other countries that reciprocally recognize the right of Spaniards to participate in their local elections (such as residents from Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Norway, or Korea). In the 2019 municipal elections, almost 400,000 European Union residents were able to vote (Navarro and Lopez Nieto 2020).

The same group has the right to passive suffrage, i.e. to be eligible for election as councilor or mayor, unless they come under the grounds for exclusion recognized by the LOREG (being president of courts or magistrates, senior officials of State institutions, being sentenced by final judgment to imprisonment), together with the aforementioned possibility of banning candidates and electoral lists that support terrorism.

Regarding the constituency, municipal elections favor the municipality. It is a plurinominal constituency in which a variable number of councilors are elected according to the resident population, in the terms set out in the following table (Table 7.3).

Table 7.3 Number of councilors per population segment

Naturally, in a local scenario, as territorially and demographically fragmented as the Spanish one, there is an array of different situations ranging from municipalities with up to 100 residents (3 councilors) to the macro-cities of Madrid (3.3 million inhabitants elect 57 councilors) and Barcelona (1.6 million elect 41 councilors). In any case, it is estimated that, in terms of the number of councilors, Spanish urban local corporations are of a small average size compared to other similar European ones, thus affecting the proportionality of the results.

Candidates contesting local elections can take the form of parties, federations, coalitions, or groups of electors, with closed and blocked lists of candidates, except for the smallest municipalities, which use a system of open lists. Candidates can reproduce the national or regional political system at the local level (which is most often the case), or they can incorporate independent candidates. This may lead to local political life being nationalized, i.e., being influenced by the national parties’ political programs, as will be discussed later, because around 85% of the local vote is won by candidates incorporating the acronyms of national or regional parties, which is a high figure according to international experience. Electoral groups, formally detached from political parties, have had comparatively less weight than political parties, accounting for 16% of the councilors at the best of times.

The electoral threshold for representation is 5% of the valid votes cast, higher than the 3% that applies in other types of elections. This is undoubtedly intended to avoid excessive fragmentation that could jeopardize the governability of the municipality concerned, even if this is at the cost of restricting the diversity of representation.

The electoral formula is the same as that used for general or regional elections, proportional, with D′ Hondt’s formula.

The Spanish electoral system uses the indirect election formula to elect the mayor. During the session in which the corporation is formed, 20 days after the elections, the councilors proceed to elect the mayor. Therefore, the plenary session is constituted first, and the councilors choose amongst those candidates who are part of it and are at the head of the list. The one who obtains the absolute majority of votes is proclaimed mayor, either with the support of his political force alone or with the support of several others. If none of the candidates at the head of the list obtain an absolute majority, the councilor at the head of the list with the most votes is proclaimed mayor. If there is a tie, the mayor is elected by drawing lots.

It is therefore a model (see Table 7.4) that enhances the head of the list candidate’s personal profile. The model favor governability and has given rise to all possible government options: majority, minority, and coalition. Emphasis on the figure of the candidates at the head of the list, extremely evident in the electoral campaign, and recognizing their great abilities (as noted above), has led to talk of presidentialism in the local political system, but we will return to this later.

Table 7.4 Summary of the municipal electoral system’s main elements

The introduction and use of the vote of no confidence in the municipal sphere were incorporated in one of the LOREG’s successive reforms. Its current regulation aims to mitigate the proliferation of these votes that have no chance of succeeding, organize their presentation and voting process, and, at the same time, limit the phenomenon of political turncoatism, having an impact on the municipal government. As regards the first aim, the vote of no confidence must be endorsed by the majority of the councilors in the plenary session; as regards the second, the rules for holding a vote of no confidence are described in detail. The mayor is not allowed to obstruct the vote, and each councilor can only sign one vote of no confidence per mandate.

In any case, and despite the media coverage that usually accompanies these cases, votes of no confidence are relatively rare, since studies indicate that in the mandate in which they were most abundant, there were around 200 in the context of more than 8100 municipalities (Navarro and López Nieto 2020).

On the other hand, low-population municipalities (defined as those with up to 250 inhabitants) benefit from a special system. There is a significant number of this type of municipality (33%). They elect around 9000 councilors but barely exceed 1% of the Spanish population Navarro and López Nieto (2020).

It is important not to confuse this type of rural municipality with the entities. Their territorial scope is smaller than the municipality’s and is a very common phenomenon in Spain. The Entities’ electoral processes are regulated by the Autonomous Communities. The EATIM (infra-municipal entities) elections take place at the same time as the municipal ones. The institutions that are elected possess different names, depending on the territory they belong to (council, neighborhood council, parish, etc.), and the governing bodies are called alcalde pedáneo (village assembly) with a chairperson and spokespersons belonging to the neighborhood.

In municipalities with up to 250 inhabitants, the composition of the council elected is based on the majority system, which is also the case in municipalities operating under the open council system. In municipalities with up to 250 inhabitants, five seats are elected through open lists and the majority system with limited voting is applied (a maximum of four candidates can be voted for individually), and the five candidates with the most votes are elected; among them, the candidate with the most votes is proclaimed mayor (Delgado and Redondo 2020).

In municipalities that operate under the open council system, the mayor and neighborhood Assembly, of which all voters are members, are responsible for the municipal government and administration. This organization is deeply rooted in local customs and self-management traditions, thus replacing representative democracy with direct participatory democracy, since it is the citizens who directly make up the body equivalent to the plenary—the neighborhood Assembly. However, the municipalities operating under this system are very much in the minority among municipalities with less than 100 inhabitants since, for example, in 2016, only 29 of 648 municipalities with these characteristics in Castille and León adopted this system, a region where this type of municipalities is particularly proliferous (Navarro and López Nieto 2020).

7.4.2 The 2019 Municipal Election Results

The last municipal elections held in Spain took place in May 2019, the eleventh since democracy was restored in 1978. As is customary in this type of election, the turnout was lower than in the general elections and amounted to 65.19%, which is the average of the historical series (see Table 7.5).

Table 7.5 Percentage turnout and abstention in the 2011–2019 municipal elections

The parties with the highest percentage of valid votes registered were the PSOE (29.39%), the Partido Popular (22.62%), and Ciudadanos (8.73%). The importance of national parties in terms of results would, in principle, suggest that local elections have undergone nationalization, despite the fact that national parties have lost some support in recent years, thus favoring the regional and local parties. In this framework, it is also difficult to assess where the party Podemos lies in the local election context. In some places, it runs under its national label, while in others, it accompanies regional or local parties or groupings. Thus, in the latter cases, the results could be considered to be part of the regional or local parties’ framework. Considering the political formations that are among the top 20 in terms of the aggregate vote at the national level, there is a moderate decline in national parties, while regional and local parties have become stronger (see Tables 7.6 and 7.7). The strength of political parties or citizen platforms in the most important cities can also be seen. The Barcelona case is one example to be highlighted, where they have managed to gain access to municipal government (the case of En Comù Guanyem, an electoral platform headed by Ada Colau) by borrowing a vote from Ciudadanos. Also, in Madrid, where Más Madrid (a platform headed by a party with the same name called for a left-wing vote which was facilitated by Podemos when this party failed to stand on the city council lists) achieved a relative majority in the municipal elections, but not enough to govern, due to the support the Partido Popular’s candidate received from Ciudadanos and Vox.

Table 7.6 Voting share of the main national parties in the 2019 local elections (of the 20 most voted parties: % and number of councilors)
Table 7.7 Aggregate results of the top 20 parties in the 2019 municipal elections

The Spanish electoral system, a corrected proportional system, as mentioned earlier, encourages pacts between political formations to achieve the necessary majority (normally an absolute majority) of votes from the councilors in the newly constituted plenary. The high degree of political fragmentation produced by the emergence of platforms and new political formations on the Spanish political chessboard, and enhanced by local casuistry, often leads initially to the candidate at the top of the most voted list not obtaining the votes of the absolute majority of councilors, which is why all kinds of pacts are encouraged. An example of the importance and profusion of pacts on the Spanish municipal map: of the 10 most populated cities in the country, seven are governed through pacts (see Table 7.8), and it is estimated that they have been used in around 1500 municipalities. The content of the pacts varies and is sometimes even picturesque, such as when they take place between representatives of forces that are diametrically opposed in ideological terms or when a kind of rotating municipality is established, in which each party supporting the municipal government governs for half of the legislature. The latter has been agreed upon between PSOE and Ciudadanos (Alcobendas, Albacete, and Ciudad Real), Partido Popular and Ciudadanos (Badajoz), and between PSOE and Partido Popular (Cartagena).

Table 7.8 Agreements in Spain’s most populated city councils

The power of the national parties is overwhelming, especially in the most important municipalities, as shown in Fig. 7.1: of the 81 Spanish municipalities that are provincial capitals or with more than 100,000 inhabitants, the PSOE governs 44, the Partido Popular 16, and Ciudadanos 3, to which should be added some of those supported by Podemos and its confluences.

Fig. 7.1
figure 1

The governments of Spain’s main municipalities. (Source: Reproduced from

As previously mentioned, there are also clear divergences in some of the Autonomous Communities, which would seem to reflect a differentiated political culture, as is the case of the electoral map of Catalonia, the Basque Country, and to a lesser extent, Galicia. In these regions, parties of an autonomous nature are of great importance, be it due to their identity or cultural dimension.

Indeed, the electoral map of the Basque Country is very different from that of Spain as a whole, since the nationalist political forces comfortably exceed 60% of the vote, while the Basque Socialist Party and Podemos should not be considered mere local branches of the national parent parties. The purely national Partido Popular barely obtained 5.87% of the vote (Table 7.9).

Table 7.9 Most voted parties in the Basque Country’s 2019 municipal elections

The Basque case can be transferred to the electoral results in Catalonia. In this territory, the nationalist and Catalan nationalist forces occupy the leading positions. It should be noted that the Catalan Socialist Party, with its social democratic, Catalan and federalist ideology, is a party associated with the PSOE but not a local branch of the PSOE. Hence, the nationalist or Catalan forces almost monopolize the municipal vote, while the purely national parties obtain meager results: 5.11% for Ciudadanos and 3.11% for the Partido Popular (Table 7.10).

Table 7.10 Most voted parties in the Catalan municipal elections (2019)

And of course, the contrast is stark when compared to what is happening in the rest of the country’s Autonomous Communities, particularly in the country’s interior. In Castile and León, for example, the aggregate vote in favor of the national parties is simply overwhelming, despite the emergence of some nationalist or autonomist parties, such as the Unión del Pueblo Leonés, which has a certain presence in one of the provinces, or other minor local parties (Table 7.11).

Table 7.11 Most voted parties in Castille and León municipal elections (2019)

In short, we can conclude that the Spanish municipal political map generally incorporates elements of political nationalization but without ignoring the fact that there are Autonomous Communities with their own singularities, since they are dominated by parties other than those at the national level, and where even the national-level parties do not always constitute mere organizational extensions of their main label, but formations that enjoy broad autonomy. To complete the picture, it should be noted that in recent years electoral platforms have emerged, made up of different parties and citizens’ movements, which have successfully competed in some cities and municipalities. It is to be expected that this movement will increase as the so-called Empty Spain (large areas of the country suffering a serious process of demographic, economic, and social regression) becomes aware of its situation and of the need to organize itself on a political level to reverse this situation.

7.4.3 Main Features of the Local Political System. The Impact of Local Political Leaders

In the following lines, the aim is, on the one hand, to depict the local political system and, on the other, to qualify some of the common areas that are identified, both academically and socially, as typical of the Spanish local government political system, including their consideration as second-tier elections, profoundly nationalized and presidentialized. To conclude, a brief assessment of the Spanish municipal electoral system will be performed. Second-Tier Elections?

Municipal elections have generally been conceptualized as second-tier elections, meaning that they are subordinate to political factors at other levels of government, especially the national level, and that citizens show less interest in them.

In Spain’s case, considering local elections as second-tier is perhaps too simplistic. The importance of these elections is supported by a number of factors: firstly, and of great significance, is the fact that these elections determine who will occupy the governing bodies of more than 8100 local governments, and indirectly, the governing bodies of the provincial councils; secondly, an agenda contemplating specific interests is gradually being incorporated and linked to the great global challenges (especially in urban municipalities); and, finally, it is the area in which citizen participation is most direct and simple, anticipating to a large extent the social changes and preferences that will later be perceptible on a political plane at other levels of government. On the other hand, if we take as an indicator the percentage of the census that has voted in the Spanish congressional elections compared to the municipal elections, we find that, although there is a higher turnout in the general elections, the difference is not overwhelming, and is in line with comparative experience (Table 7.12). Thus, these relevant factors suggest that considering local elections as second-tier should be reviewed along with adequately weighing their importance in the Spanish political system.

Table 7.12 Participation in the general and municipal elections (% of the electorate that voted) Nationalization of the Local Political System?

Somewhat related to the conceptualization of local elections as second-tier is the idea that the local political system is subordinated to national political factors. This postulate is based on the importance of national-level parties in the distribution of the municipal vote in the terms discussed above. In principle, this would imply that national interests prevail over local interests and that there would be an intense identification between local results and the local party system, with respect to national results and the national party system; hence, local governments would become an extension of the competition between national parties. However, this position, based on the analysis of aggregate data, does not take into account basic aspects that require further research. Firstly, because addressing the importance of the results of the various parties is different from understanding the processes by which voters vote for one candidate or another and whether or not factors exogenous to membership of a national party exist. Secondly, because it is clear that in the territory of some Autonomous Communities, rather than nationalization, we should speak of regionalization of local politics (especially in the case of Catalonia and the Basque Country). And lastly, because it does not take into account the importance of local platforms, parties, and candidates in electoral results. In other words, the conclusions that emerge from the analysis of the results in aggregate terms lead us to assumptions about the nationalization of electoral results that are highly nuanced (Carrillo 1989, 1997).

One indicator for discerning whether an election responds to national criteria is to understand the issues the political agenda and the electoral discussion focus on. There is little empirical evidence on this, except that obtained in the 2011 and 2015 Andalusian elections, in an Autonomous Community in which the nationalization of the results in aggregate terms is verified, shows that the electoral discussion, as felt by citizens, largely focused on local issues, and much less on national or regional ones (Ortega-Villodres and Recuero-López 2020). This leads us to think that when citizens cast their vote, they are not swayed by the national party component but rather by the fact that the electoral process deals with local issues, leading to a strong personalization of the candidates, who, in turn, are attached to national-level parties.

Thus, while studies have traditionally emphasized the predominant influence of national (nationalization), regional (regionalization), or local (localism) aspects on municipal electoral results, the Spanish situation is more complex. In fact, several of these factors may be present simultaneously, but the data also suggest, in line with the Spanish system of intergovernmental relationships, that there is a growing awareness of the interdependence of the levels of government with respect to the most important public policies. Thus, national, regional, and local or interdependent logics could appear in a local electoral process without being mutually exclusive, although one of them usually prevails. Presidentialization or Personalization in the Local Political System?

It should be immediately clarified that “presidentialization” of the main candidates in elections is conceptually different from the conception of the local political system with presidentialist overtones in the terms explained in Sect. 7.3.1 of this chapter. In the latter case, the aim was to emphasize the institutional strength enjoyed by the mayor with regard to the oversight and control body (the plenary); in presidentialization, however, the emphasis is placed on the candidate and the conduct of a particular campaign for him or her in which the candidate imposes himself or herself on the institutional logic and has a high degree of autonomy regarding the party. In the Spanish local world, this phenomenon is reinforced by the proximity of the candidate to the voters and by-elections being identified with the act of electing a mayor and not so much with the configuration of the corporation from which the candidate emerges.

Delgado and Redondo (2020) consider that, in the Spanish case, the degree of presidentialization decreases as the size of the municipality increases, perhaps due to the difficulty of direct contact and the greater consideration of party political programs in more populated municipalities.

On the other hand, there is a more transverse process than presidentialization: personalism understood as that personal or direct relationship between voter and citizen that dilutes the “party” factor, and which is detected in small, medium, and large municipalities. This personalization enhances the possibility of independent candidacies emerging and succeeding.

Presidentialization and personalization of politics are concurrent phenomena but not synonymous. Spanish local elections incorporate a high component of personalization, but they have also progressively incorporated features of presidentialization in specific cases. In municipal elections, ideological factors and party identification exert less influence, which is both a cause and a consequence of personalization and allows for presidentialization Delgado and Redondo (2020). Assessment of the Local Electoral System

Elections are of great importance for the peaceful survival of democratic societies and are therefore part of their institutional capital. The role of democratic elections is to generate participation, produce a representation, provide governance, and offer legitimacy (Torrens 2006).

Spain‘s municipal elections, after more than four decades of democratic existence, have contributed to generating participation, bringing out the political preferences of citizens, who can choose between different political programs or simply exert political influence.

Municipal elections have generated representation, helping to select and elect local political elites and, indirectly, the rest of the levels of political power, as multilevel political careers starting from the municipal level are frequent (Jerez et al. 2019). Such representation reasonably reflects the pluralism of local society.

Municipal elections have fulfilled their function of providing local governments with sufficient political support, with an opposition that controls their action and providing general direction to municipal public policies.

Lastly, municipal elections have contributed to legitimizing the political system, either by facilitating political socialization and the shaping of political culture through the interaction of the political elite with public opinion or by generating public acceptance of the political system, political parties, and government.

Although these functions are performed, this fact should not lead to a complacent view of the electoral system, as there are aspects that could be improved (Magre and Bertrana 2020). Among them, it has been criticized that in some cases, it does not allow the candidate from the most voted list to govern, which leads to situations in which there are pacts between councilors from different minority lists, with very different programs, but who agree under different formulas (coalition, selective support without forming part of the municipal government, etc.) to support a mayor who does not come from the most voted list. The majority of the political forces have proposed direct election of the mayor through a majority system (PSOE) or a system of rewarding the majority candidacy (PP) (Navarro and López Nieto 2020); however, they have not achieved a sufficient degree of consensus to modify the regulations. On the other hand, serious criticism comes from the analysis of the degree of proportionality of the two electoral systems applied in the municipal world. In principle, although there is always a deviation, proportional formulas provide a more accurate approximation to the principle of equality (one person, one vote) and the representative ideal. An analysis of the data (see Table 7.13) shows that the Spanish municipal electoral system tends towards a notable disproportion, essentially derived from the concentration of population in a small number of municipalities (according to the INE (National Statistics Institute), in 2015, 85% of municipalities in Spain had fewer than 5000 inhabitants, concentrating 16% of voters; while municipalities with more than 2000 inhabitants account for 3.5% of municipalities and concentrate 65% of voters). In this sense, the data offered by Delgado and Redondo (2020:334) show how disproportion increases with the number of inhabitants. This derives from the design of the distribution of councilors by population brackets since the ratio of inhabitants per councilor ranges from 33 per councilor (municipalities with up to 100 inhabitants), to 57,989 inhabitants per councilor in the city of Madrid.

Table 7.13 Inhabitant/councilor in the municipal electoral system

7.5 The Importance of Local Leadership

As regards some of the international literature, Rallings and Thrasher (2003) argue that local candidates may have greater importance than they have been given in the past. Firstly, because the local level is a favorable setting for dual voting (voting for a candidate of a different party than the one voted for in the national elections), especially since the local candidate is often known directly. This suggests that local candidates of national parties tend to identify with or differentiate themselves from their party, depending on whether they see the party label as beneficial or detrimental. This would make it possible for local citizens to vote for candidates from parties different to those voted for in other elections, not so much because of the electoral label but because of the leader who represents them at the local level. Local leadership, therefore, is a critical factor in determining the vote, which does not indicate that it excludes other elements (nationalization, regionalization, etc.), the prevalence of which will be in accordance with the context and the hierarchy of issues (local, regional, or national) that appear relevant during the electoral process. Thus, as indicated above, we would be talking about local politics but in an interdependent framework of policy arenas.

A recent study Ortega-Villodres and Recuero-López (2020) makes a meritorious effort to analyze some of the dimensions related to the electoral process and the study of voting motivations. This study looks at the local elections in Andalusia in 2011 and 2015, and although the results are not totally applicable to the whole of Spain, they are nevertheless a valid approximation for drawing general conclusions, especially when the 2015 data already include the presence of the emerging parties: Ciudadanos and Podemos. Andalusia also has the advantage of being one of the few Autonomous Communities (along with Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia) that is not obliged to hold its municipal elections in conjunction with the autonomous elections, which would avoid excessive “regionalization” of the electoral debate, and which also incorporates in the electoral surveys questions on national and local leaders in the electoral context.

In the analysis, firstly, from the point of view of the aggregate results, it can be verified that the percentage of the vote for national parties is high, which would support the nationalization of the local political system. However, this does not necessarily indicate that voters mainly follow national criteria when casting their ballots, as the vote could have been induced by local factors or thanks to local candidates. The analysis of the process (individual, the authors call it) provides further evidence of the factors that help voters move from preferences to votes. Aspects such as the issues that dominated the electoral campaign in the municipalities become essential, since focusing on national, regional, or local issues could condition the direction of the vote. The results indicate that, contrary to what might be expected, citizens largely perceive the election campaign to have focused on local issues (57.9% and 64.1%), while those who consider that the political debate was monopolized by national issues only amount to 22%.

The study’s findings show that in the local elections analyzed, voters were strongly influenced by local candidates and to a lesser extent by national and regional leaderships. The results show the great importance of local leaders, who are not necessarily subordinate to the electoral influence of leaders at other levels. That said, there is also evidence to support the interdependence between levels of government, for if local leaders condition the vote, the rest of the leaders also have an influence (especially if it is a question of prioritizing the vote between parties of the same ideological spectrum).

Another noteworthy aspect of local leadership is its role as a gateway, a learning tool, and a mechanism for promotion within the political world. The analysis of the biographies of politicians at other levels of government shows that a significant proportion of them began their political life as councilors (for example, two of the last three Spanish government presidents began as councilors: Pedro Sánchez in Madrid City Council and Mariano Rajoy in Pontevedra City Council). IGR studies (Crespo-González 2021; Stein 1984) show the importance of public officials having had multilevel political-administrative careers since, in addition to providing a better knowledge of the grassroots reality, it generates a relationship culture more prone to cooperation and shared management, a real Achilles’ heel of polycentric political systems, with a strong internal distribution of power.

The aforementioned makes particular sense as regards the figure of the Spanish mayor. The leadership of the mayor, regardless of his personal characteristics, which can undoubtedly play favorably in the most charismatic cases (for example, Abel Caballero in Vigo City Council), is based on a solid institutional and social position. In the first place, as is well known by now, thanks to the strength that the regulations grant him with respect to the municipal political and administrative organization (what we call a strong mayor profile with presidential overtones), the position he occupies in the municipal society he serves, particularly regarding the citizens, their associations, businesses and the rest of the public administrations at the various levels of government. Some mayors tend to project their actions beyond the municipality and participate in the municipalities’ federations, in regional cooperation bodies, in the different supra-municipal cooperation bodies (local partnerships, consortiums, etc.), provincial councils, and in very specific cases, may extend their influence to the meetings of the sectoral conference for local affairs, the National Commission for Local Administration, or even the European Community institutions. Therefore, although in varying ways, depending on the personality of the mayor and the power of the municipality, he/she plays an important role as manager of interdependencies within and outside the municipality, facilitating State governance.

7.6 Conclusions

The main findings from the analysis carried out are the following:

Firstly, to speak of a local political system is to evoke the existence of more than 8100 municipalities or grassroots local governments, very different in terms of context, population, and powers. It can therefore be affirmed that it is an extremely diverse system, fragmented and, in terms of percentage, dominated by small municipalities of a rural nature.

Spanish local legislation designs a profile of a strong mayor with significant powers over appointments and internal organization and, although with certain nuances, holds a privileged position with regard to the control and oversight body (the plenary) since he presides over it and regulates its sessions. However, he does not have the power to dissolve it nor to call elections, and a vote of no confidence can be proposed against him. This asymmetrical power in favor of the executive body, together with the political powers of the incumbent and ad extra representation of the City Council, produces a presidential-type effect that has been highlighted in the literature.

The aggregate treatment of the municipal election results of 2019 reflects a situation dominated by the national parties (especially the PSOE and the PP, and to a lesser extent Ciudadanos, Podemos, and Vox). However, the profound regionalization of the municipal map in the Basque Country and Catalonia should be highlighted, where nationalist or regionalist parties obtain a very large majority of support. The rest of the country, especially the country’s central areas, responds to the general pattern of great strength enjoyed by the national-level parties, as opposed to the nationalist or regionalist parties, which obtain a low proportion of the vote, with the relative exception of Galicia.

A careful analysis allows us to clarify or question some old assertions about the Spanish local political system. Firstly, it is debatable whether it can be called second tier or level because the differences in participation compared to other first-tier electoral processes are not so relevant; moreover, it applies to more than 8.100 different local governments, a strategic level of local government actively participating in issues on the global agenda and advance towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Secondly, the nationalization of local electoral results has been questioned, as there is evidence that autonomous and local factors also have a decisive impact, and because an interdependent vision of the political system is gradually gaining ground, as a large part of public policies have a multilevel component. Thirdly, it has been found that Spanish municipal elections are strongly influenced by the personal factor (personalism) and, to a lesser extent, by presidentialization.

The Spanish electoral system, which has undergone certain reforms since the 1985 LOREG, has been able to adapt to the context while maintaining its fundamental elements, thus encouraging participation, generating representation, providing government, and offering legitimacy, which are the predictable aspects of any healthy electoral system.

Finally, it can be concluded that the institutional and organizational design of local governments, together with electoral legislation, favors a very ad intra powerful and ad extra interactive mayoral profile, which allows them, especially those belonging to medium-sized and large municipalities, to participate in policy networks and cooperative bodies between levels of government, an aspect that configures them as managers of interdependencies and allows them to set their own profile. In addition, local politics, together with training, induction into the public sector and contacts, often provide leaders with the possibility of a political career at other levels of government, which could ultimately improve the integration of the RGI system.


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Crespo-González, J. (2022). Local Elections and Political Leadership. In: Alonso, Á.I. (eds) Local Governance in Spain. Local and Urban Governance. Springer, Cham.

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