Spain is a relatively recent recruit to the ranks of Western democracies. Until the 1930s the country remained under the control of a small and mainly conservative upper class. The Second Republic, installed in 1931, was genuinely democratic, but fell victim to the excesses of its own supporters, the unfavorable international situation before World War II (1939-1945), and the reactionary forces within Spain. In 1936 these right-wing forces backed a military uprising that triggered a three-year civil war. The conflict ended in 1939 with a victory for the right-wing Nationalists (Nacionales) led by General Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain as dictator up to his death in 1975.
After Franco’s death, political change came surprisingly fast and smoothly. Spain held a general election in June 1977 and adopted a new, unambiguously democratic constitution in December 1978. On February 23, 1981, the threat of a return to military rule was finally dispelled by the resounding failure of an attempted coup. In October 1982 the Socialist Workers Party won a landslide election victory. The peaceful acceptance of the Socialist victory by all significant sectors of opinion confirmed that Spain’s transition to democracy was a political reality. Today, Spain is a limited monarchy with an influential parliament.
Spain’s head of state is a hereditary monarch whose powers are purely symbolic. Real executive power lies with the head of government, or prime minister (presidente del gobierno). Under the constitution the prime minister is chosen by majority vote of the Congress of Deputies (the lower house of parliament), and Congress’s decision is then formally approved by the monarch. Once in office the prime minister appoints the ministers who make up the cabinet.
The prime minister can also dismiss the cabinet ministers. Although the parliament can remove the prime minister only if it agrees on a successor, the prime minister has the power to dissolve parliament at any time during its four-year term.
The Spanish parliament (Cortes) consists of two houses: the Senate (upper house) and the Congress of Deputies (lower house). The Congress of Deputies is the more powerful body and the scene of almost all high-profile debates. There are 256 senators and 350 Congress deputies, all of whom serve a four-year term, subject to the prime minister’s power to dismiss them and call an early election. Forty-eight of the senators are chosen by Spain’s regional parliaments, in rough proportion to regional size. The remaining members of both houses are elected by direct vote. All Spaniards aged 18 and over are eligible to vote. The main tasks of Spain’s parliament are to scrutinize and approve legislation, and to control the executive, that is, call it to account for its actions. However, most control mechanisms at its disposal (for example, establishing committees of investigation) require a vote of the parliamentary house concerned.
Thus, if the party in power has a majority, it can block an investigation. Parliament’s legislative role similarly has been largely reduced to rubber-stamping executive proposals. As a result parliament has suffered something of an identity crisis, especially severe in the case of the Senate. The Senate can delay legislation but not block it.
Spain’s judicial system is organized as a hierarchy (in order of rank). The country’s Supreme Court stands at the top of the hierarchy and acts as the final court of appeal. These appeals come in particular from the high court (Audiencia Nacional), which was established in 1977. It, too, is also essentially an appeals court, although it also hears certain types of high-profile criminal cases—for example, cases involving drug-trafficking. The next level down consists of the 17 regional high courts. Lower courts are at the provincial and district level.
At all levels the judicial system is divided into six different types of court. Two types concerned with civil cases (non-criminal cases between individuals) and criminal cases, respectively. The others are responsible for labor issues, disputes involving the administration of government agencies, cases involving juveniles, and prison supervision. The ministry of justice administers the court system.
A constitutional court stands apart from the judiciary as a whole. Its task is to interpret the constitution. It does this in three main ways: by resolving disputes between the central government and the regions over the extent of their respective power; by checking new legislation for compatibility with the constitution; and by responding to complaints of unconstitutional treatment from individual citizens. "Spain" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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