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Federations Magazine Article
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Local governments claim their space in the Spanish system

By Carlos Alba an d Carmen Nava rro
ities and municipalities ma y be the last governments
to regain their full powers in Spain’s return to
democracy after dictator Francisco Franco’s death
in 1975. The country’s 8,100 cities, towns and villages
are still struggling for what they see as their fair
share of taxes and municipal powers to carry out
their responsibilities.
Over the past three decades Spain has seen territorial devolution,
the creation of a solid welfare state, integration into the
European Union and significant economic and social development.
Yet in terms of revenue and urban development, local
governments lag behind both the central government in
Madrid and the governments of the 17 “autonomous communities”
that make up Spain.
Local government is scarcely mentioned in the constitution,
in contrast to the autonomous communities. The constitutional
charter limited its treatment to the formal recognition of local
government autonomy and the principle of financial self-sustainability.
Yet more than two decades later, neither of these
traits can be found in Spain’s municipalities. Local authorities
occupy a poorly-defined political space.
Powers denied
The autonomous communities, who had the power to improve
things for the municipalities, showed no interest in granting
them the powers and resources that the communities had only
recently acquired for themselves. In a way, they were reproducing
the old centralism except that, in this case, the
centre-regional conflict was being played out on the regionallocal
When the Spanish Local Government Act was enacted by
the national Parliament in 1985, it helped to clarify local competences
and responsibilities. The act also gave support to the
policies and actions that municipalities had developed – in a
legal vacuum – for nearly two terms of active democratic government.
In the late 1990s, further reforms were implemented
and local governments saw the lifting of former restrictions.
Today the end of that process is in sight. To prepare for full local
government, all political parties have joined in drafting a reform
to the 1985 Local Government Act, the last of a number of such
revisions, and the text has been submitted to the parliament for
its approval. If enacted, it will mean that local municipalities
will finally receive clearly defined powers and responsibilities,
as well as the economic resources to carry them out. Local governments
would then be given a defined and precise list of
areas of competence.
Approval postponed
Until now, the list of local powers was quite imprecise and it
meant that other levels of government could interfere in a number
of local areas. Also, city councils did not get the resources to
implement policies in those areas. With the passage of this act,
necessary transfer payments would come from other tiers of
government to allow municipalities to develop their welldefined
powers. But the draft reached parliament extremely
late in the national government’s term– only a few months
before the March 2008 general elections. Thus the process has
been interrupted by confrontation among the political parties.
Ratification will have to wait for the new government.
Today, local governments have only 15 per cent of the total
public-budget expenditure, and they want an increase to 25 per
cent. A representative of a group of Spanish mayors recently
declared: “We have to aspire to complete autonomy … which
saves us from being poor administrations. To do that we need
to work on the basis of a financial system that allows us to meet
claim their
space in the
Spanish system
Spain’s municipalities are the
last order of government to
Carlos Alba is a professor of political science at the Autonomous
University of Madrid. Carmen Navarro is an associate professor of
political science at the Autonomous University of Madrid.
FEBRU ARY | MARCH 2008 Federations
In Barcelona, commuters were jammed into buses for two months during repairs
and reconstruction of the city’s rail lines in October and November 2007. The
government of Catalonia provides funds for urban infrastructure renewal, but
other parts of Spain are not so fortunate.
SPECIAL SECTION : Cities an d thei r agen das
AP Photo/Man u Fernan dez
the demands of citizens, who come to us (for services) because
we are the closest administration to them.”
The challenge for local government is to improve performance,
which requi res autonomy and f inancial
self-sustainability. However, local governments have to act as
vehicles of democracy, providing services in response to local
needs. Local governments must also reinforce the legitimacy of
their actions, achieving their goals without wasting available
resources. Bureaucratic effectiveness and efficiency are clearly
factors here.
In general terms, Spain has levels of voter turnout similar to
other developed countries. Although local elections traditionally
have lower turnouts than national elections, they achieve
rates close to the national level. Local turnout varies between 61
per cent and 70 per cent. These elections usually indicate what
will happen in the national elections.
Confronting local challenges
In addition to holding free and fair elections, an important way
to strengthen local legitimacy is to have transparency and participation
in the governing process. Through participatory
democracy, citizens must be able to express their preferences
in designing and implementing specific policies. Election-campaign
slogans and poorly debated party platforms are a
one-way means of communication: governments must also
seek the specific views of residents. A more intense civic
engagement is needed; participatory tools such as neighbourhood
councils, public consultations and district boards are only
now beginning to be used in municipalities. Spanish local
authorities have been implementing such policies over the past
decade, more rapidly in the last four years. Some municipalities,
such as Alcobendas, a suburb of Madrid, have neighbourhood
councils, public hearings, improved access by citizens to city
councillors, and other participatory avenues for citizen involvement.
Still, a view of Spain’s entire local political landscape
reveals mediocre success in involving citizens in public life.
To reinforce political legitimacy through results, municipalities
must confront the task of delivering services effectively and
efficiently. This is complicated for several reasons. First, Spain’s
network of 8,100 local municipalities, with their corresponding
government structures and powers, is diverse and fragmented.
About 85 per cent of them have populations of less than 5,000
inhabitants. Asking for efficiency in such small localities is not
realistic. The only way of producing good outputs is for the
municipalities to come together to provide at least part of their
services in common, particularly for the very small communities.
Second, municipalities also have to increase their
efficiency and cost-effectiveness. The “New Public
Management” instruments for government such as outsourcing,
privatization, budgeting techniques and public-private
partnerships have been introduced in many countries to modernize
bureaucratic administrative machinery. They have been
much less intensely adopted in Spanish municipalities than in
other European countries or in the town halls of the United
States. Local governments have to reinforce their levels of good
organization and their capacity to provide quick and effective
responses to real problems.
After almost 30 years of democratic local government,
Spain’s achievements are many but so are the tasks that lie
ahead. The country is witnessing the longest period of peace
and political stability in its history yet the edifice of strong local
democracy is still a work in progress.
FEBRU ARY | MARCH 2008 Federations
How democracy returned to Spain
Free and competitive elections took place in Spain for the
first time in 1979 and democratic local governments started
to introduce policies and reforms that dramatically transformed
the underdeveloped cities and towns of the 1970s. At
that time, mayors had clear agendas for building infrastructure
and introducing basic public services. Today, while the
basic needs are fulfilled, the remaining challenges are not so
straightforward. On the one hand, local governments must
strengthen their position in relation to other levels of government,
and find their rightful place in the Spanish political
system. On the other hand, local authorities are confronted
with the difficulty of improving performance in a world in
which problems are complex, resources scarce and solutions
can come only from the joint effort of public and private
Modern Spain emerged out of the late dictator Francisco
Franco’s highly centralized political regime. In the 1979 constitution,
autonomous communities were not labelled as
“states” and the system was not defined as “federal” for several
reasons. First, the word “federalism” was carefully
avoided throughout the transition due to that term’s association
with separatism, political instability and past
pro-independence movements. Second, the system is not a
traditional federal one because the Spanish model is not an
agreement among political representatives of its constituent
units, and Spain is far from assigning a standard set of governmental
functions to all the federal units. In practice, there
are similarities to Belgium, Mexico and South Africa – three
centralized countries that have devolved to the point where
many political scientists describe them as federal.
Until recently, there was an important distinction in practice
between autonomous communities that are simply
“regions” and those that are “nationalities,” such as the
Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia, which have a background
of autonomy and self-government as well as a
distinct language and culture. Strong political entities, these
communities have their own legislatures, executives and
judiciaries. They enact laws that have the same force as those
of the Spanish state and their administrations are not subordinate
to central control. Their jurisdiction over critical policy
areas such as education or health, makes them at least as
powerful, if not more so, than any other subnational government
in Europe. Since 1996, however, recent political and
constitutional developments have given all the regions in
Spain the status of autonomous communities with similar
levels of autonomy and powers. Despite this change,
attempts to describe all regions of Spain as equal in status is
always criticized by those regions that consider themselves
“nations” and believe that they should be treated differently.
SPECIAL SECTION : Cities an d thei r agen das