Federal Countries



Historically, the territory which now comprises contemporary Spain was a network of different kingdoms ruled by a variety of monarchs. For several centuries the majority of the Iberian Peninsula was ruled by Islamic Caliphates, until the European Christian rulers ultimately came to dominate the territory once more at the end of the fifteenth century through the Reconquista. By 1492 Spain had unified multiple kingdoms into a single nation, albeit one in which regional identities remained strong.

Federalism, historically a democratizing force in Spain, has long been seen as one potential response to the challenge of maintaining a unified state and building the nation. The First Spanish Republic, a political regime which developed following the abdication of King Amadeo I, introduced federalism as an official principle of Spanish government. This new form of government was, however, unsuccessful and short lived. It did not give rise to autonomous states as intended, but political opposition led instead to the development of independent, rebellious cantons. The First Federal Spanish Republic came to an end in December 1874 with the restoration of the monarchy.

In the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, General Francisco Franco’s Nationalists fought against Republican forces in a conflict in which clashes over regional autonomy versus strong national unity played a key role. Franco’s victory and subsequent dictatorial regime led to the repression of regional culture and identity throughout the country, most prominently in the Basque Country, Catalonia, and Galicia. The death of Franco in 1975 enabled a transition to democracy, which included the enacting of the current Spanish constitution in 1978. The Constitution enshrined in law that Spain is a nation composed of 17 Autonomous Communities and two autonomous cities with vary degrees of autonomy and powers of self-government. Spain is not officially a federation, but shares many of the institutional features of federal countries.


Spain consists of 17 Autonomous Communities and two autonomous cities (situated on the coast of North Africa). Spain is not a federation as the central government retains full sovereignty. Spain is often referred to as having a form of asymmetrical federalism – comprised of regions with differing powers.

Spain is a democratic social representative constitutional monarchy in which the monarch acts as Head of State and the Prime Minister as Head of the Government. Executive power is exercised by the government – the Prime Minister and his ministers. Legislative power is vested in the Cortes Generales, the bicameral parliament of Spain which is composed of the Senate (the upper house), and the Congress of Deputies (the lower house). The Judiciary, integrated by judges and magistrates, operate the judicial system in the name of the King. The highest court in Spain for everything but constitutional matters is the Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction over the whole country. The Constitutional Court is the highest appellate court on constitutional matters and also has jurisdiction over the whole of Spain.

Since the Spanish Constitution of 1978 came into force, the central government has asymmetrically devolved and transferred powers to the governing authorities of the Autonomous Communities. Some Communities, particularly those that have strong regional identities based on historical precedent, have received more powers than others. Each Autonomous Community has a Statute of Autonomy, which effectively acts as that Community’s constitution (although it cannot override the Spanish Constitution of 1978). Each Community also has some form of government of its own, consisting of an executive and a legislature.

Tensions between the central government and the regions are a constant theme in Spanish political life. Several regions have expressed their desire for full independence from Spain in the past, but the central government has strongly opposed any such moves. Since the 1960s the paramilitary group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (commonly known as ETA) has undertaken acts of terrorism against the Spanish central government authorities in order to achieve their political goal: independence for the Greater Basque Country. More recently, popular support for the secession of Catalonia from Spain has been growing, illustrated by the November 2014 Catalan Self Determination Referendum, in which more than 80% of the votes cast answered the questions ‘Do you want Catalonia to become a State?’ and ‘Do you want this State to be independent?’ affirmatively. The central government, however, has thus far remained resolute that there will be no secession from the Spanish state.