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"First in a village or second at Rome?" Spanish presidents versus regional barons

 Benoît Pellistrandi
Historian, member of the Real Academia de la Historia, Madrid

Spanish democracy hinges on the perennial arm wrestling between regional and national powers. Against la Moncloa, regional governments hold their ground both physically and metaphorically. In the latest edition of Seeing Double, historian Benoît Pellistrandi retraces how David really started overtaking Goliath. 

The democratization of Spain has revolved around two parallel processes: the "parliamentarization" of power and decentralization. This dual approach was intended as a political response to Spain's dramatic history: its failed liberalization efforts, the 1923 coup d'état that ended the attempts at constitutional reform, and the 1936 coup d'état, which unleashed a civil war that culminated in Francisco Franco's long dictatorship. This transformation was also borne from a desire to articulate its political sphere around regional differences, as best reflected in the Catalan and Basque nationalist movements. The 1978 Constitution succeeded in resolving these two issues by establishing a parliamentary monarchy and creating the foundations for a state composed of "autonomous communities". The autonomous communities were intended as political entities from their inception, long before they became regions. 

The actual regional divisions were not written into the Constitution.

In fact, the use of the subjunctive in the first description of the autonomous communities in the Spanish Constitution (from article 137 onward), translated in English as "Autonomous Communities that may be constituted", clearly indicates that the process of defining the communities was yet to be undertaken. 

The actual regional divisions were not written into the Constitution; instead, territorial and political construction was an integral part of establishing a new constitutional and democratic political order.

Concretely, this consisted in creating the autonomous communities and writing their respective statutes, which serve as internal management rules. This work was done between 1979 and 1983. The Basque Country, Catalonia, Galicia and Andalusia became full-fledged communities between 1980 and 1981. By 1982, with the addition of thirteen other communities, the map was finally stabilized and in 1983, elections were held to formally establish regional institutions.

From then on, Spain's political landscape was divided into a national stage and seventeen regional stages. The weight and importance of the regions initially depended on their historical and political identity. For economic, cultural and political reasons, the Basque Country (representing 5.7% of the population and 7.5% of GDP in 1980) and Catalonia (15.8% and 19.1% respectively) weighed infinitely heavier in the national political theater than the single-province communities such as Murcia, Cantabria and La Rioja. The electoral dynamics and the solidification of political forces at the regional level also gave rise to a new political figure: the great territorial barons. At the same time, at the national parliamentary level, an evolution of the president’s role was underway under the long leadership of Felipe González (1982 to 1996). And as his successors adopted his approach, it became firmly rooted in Spain's political life, under socialist (Rodríguez Zapatero between 2004 and 2011, Sánchez since 2018) or conservative rule (Aznar from 1996 to 2004 and Rajoy from 2011 to 2018).

Any good analysis of Spain's political system today must take both the national and regional levels into account. Power is increasingly shared, sometimes harmoniously, other times contentiously, in a competition that can endanger the stability of the country’s institutional construction, as we saw in the Catalan crisis of October 2017.

The evolution of leadership

In 1977 came the moment for Spain to refound a democratic practice of political power.. The first free elections since 1936 gave Adolfo Suárez' centrists and Felipe González' socialists electoral dominance over the right and left respectively. Both used their political and media skills to establish themselves as autonomous leaders, whose political capital placed them above their own party.

Although Spain had a parliamentary system, the president's authority over the government had been strengthened by the dual effects of increased media coverage and the need for the head of state to keep his party under control. As a charismatic man who booked incredible victories in the 1982 and 1986 elections, Felipe González gradually came to dominate the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE). Moreover, armed with the power to appoint key cabinet positions, Spanish presidents have the tools to reward or ostracize members of their own party. The trajectory of the conservative party (Alianza Popular or AP until 1989; Partido Popular or PP thereafter) further confirms our analysis.

The president's authority over the government had been strengthened by the dual effects of increased media coverage and the need for the head of state to keep his party under control. 

When led by Manuel Faga, the AP did not manage to garner more than 25% of the vote and lost in the 1982, 1986 and 1989 elections. However, when José María Aznar took over and reformed the PP in 1990, positioning it as a credible PSOE challenger, the party won the presidency in 1996 and again, with an absolute majority, in 2000. Aznar exercised his authority ruthlessly. And though he gave the PP the image of a united and effective party, he made foreign policy choices - for instance, support for the United States during the 2003 Iraq War - that diverged from parliamentary consensus and Spain’s diplomatic track record. His style further signified the shift toward a concentration of power in the hands of the president.

His socialist successor, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, carried this tradition on between 2004 and 2011. On his impulse alone, Zapatero reversed previous foreign policy to launch a "dialogue of civilizations" which Spain was to spearhead… though the global conversation only found interlocutors within Spain itself. Under Pedro Sánchez - ousted from the PSOE general secretariat in October 2016, and victorious in the May 2017 primaries - presidential primacy trends had reached its peak. The party and government were tightly controlled by the president himself. The Moncloa, the official residence of the president and vice-presidents, has become more than a control center for government work: rather, it is both its start and end point.

A detailed study of Spanish governments from 1977 to the present day would show just how potential political rivals have routinely been replaced by seasoned advocates who owe their careers only to the president's goodwill, by technocrats who started their careers in administration and whose political weight is entirely up to the president, and, worse still, by a few people from civil society with a narrowly media-oriented objective. This is undoubtedly an indication of a loss in both quality and quantity when it comes to the people that make up the government, forcing, or allowing, the president to assume all political responsibility. We might even say that there has been a shift from primus inter pares to lider maximo.

Between 1980 and the end of the century, these communities went from poorly-defined political entities to essential instruments of government and administration.

The fascinating reality is that this process has also taken place in the governments of autonomous communities. Between 1980 and the end of the century, these communities went from poorly-defined political entities to essential instruments of government and administration, through successive transfers of power and prerogative out from central government. And so did presiding over an autonomous community become a new pathway to strong leadership, of which Jordi Pujol, unassailable president of Catalonia from 1980 to 2003, became the first example of many.

It was he who built the Catalan administration from the bottom up, endowing it with all the instruments of a "small state" with the exception of a tax agency and an army! He was widely known to appoint people close to his political movement, Convergencia i Unió, in all positions of power. In Andalusia, the long socialist rule (1981-2018) allowed for the establishment of what the Spanish half-jokingly called the "institutional revolutionary party", in a clearly ironic nod to Mexico. The socialist presidents of the Andalusian Junta - Manuel Chaves (1990-2009), José Antonio Griñán (2009-2013) and Susana Diaz (2013-2018) - were true regional viceroys: bulwarks of authority when the PSOE was in power, spearheads of the opposition whenever the PP governed. The list goes on: José Bono in Castilla-La Mancha (1983-2004) and Juan Carlos Rodríguez Ibarra in Extremadura (1983-2007) are particularly good examples of socialist territorial barons.


Regional elections have become essential to the distribution of power in Spain. The relative failure of the socialists in 1991 heralded a change in the political cycle. In 1995, the PP’s victories in Madrid and Valencia paved the way for the 1996 national elections. With Alberto Ruiz Gallardón and Esperanza Aguirre in Madrid, and Eduardo Zaplana and Francisco Camps in Valencia, the PP had presidents who identified with their regions so strongly that it made them near-invincible strongholds. As a result, the party has ruled Madrid without interruption since 1995, enjoying the support of an absolute majority from 1995 to 2015. Esperanza Aguirre, who was president of the region from 2003 to 2012, and Isabel Díaz Ayuso, in power since 2019, have built their political capital and electoral strength on the affirmation of Madrid’s identity. While this identity is certainly based on regional traditions (folklore), it also relies on the desire to provide a counterexample to independence claims elsewhere. The region of Madrid presents itself as a reflection of an "inclusive Spain" in the face of exclusionary nationalist constructions of identity. So much so that the Madrid PP partly transcends the left-right divide! But the two aforementioned presidents have also turned their control of the PP and the regional governments into drivers of their own political careers. When Esperanza Aguirre failed to challenge Mariano Rajoy for PP leadership in 2008, she positioned herself as a "free electron" within the party to make it more difficult for her fellow party members to govern. As for Isabel Diaz Ayuso, she was Pedro Sánchez' number one opponent, especially during the Covid-19 crisis. Using her administrative skills, she was able to offer an alternative approach to managing the pandemic and reaped her rewards in the elections of May 2021. Her position seemed so solid that it led to an internal war within the PP: in February 2022, members of the party launched accusations of corruptions against her. Not only did she survive, but she also managed to get the PP's national leader Pablo Casado pushed out by the big territorial barons. The president of Galicia, Alberto Nuñez Feijóo, is the party's new national leader, and with a track record of four absolute majorities (2009, 2013, 2016, 2020), his election seems to be a guarantee for success.

The transition from the presidency of a large region to national leadership, and perhaps to the national government, is a recent phenomenon. Until now, careers were built around a national-regional division. Felipe González, José María Aznar, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and Pedro Sánchez had never held a ministerial position before becoming head of state (Aznar had presided over the Castilla y León Junta for two years, but at a time when the autonomous community did not yet have all its powers).

 Her position seemed so solid that it led to an internal war within the PP.

Their strength lay in the effective control of their parties; they learned to govern as presidents. Only Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo and Mariano Rajo held ministerial posts before becoming head of government. Moreover, in both cases, there was a striking primacy of administration over politics. If Nuñez Feijóo were to become president, it would be a first. Could this be a sign of a new political movement, a new way of preparing for national leadership?


The autonomous communities are essentially "small countries". They have a president, a government, a parliament, an anthem and a flag. The Conference of Presidents brings together the regional and national presidents. On major national occasions, the regional presidents are among the state’s official guests. Protocol dictates that they come just after the national president in the political hierarchy (and before former heads of state). However, owing to historical differences, some presidents are more presidential than others. The Catalan and Basque presidents have always considered themselves superior to their counterparts. They have been boycotting the October 12 national holiday for over 20 years, and the Conference of Presidents for more than 15 years.

These tensions reached a fever-pitch in Catalonia. Between 2012 and 2017, Artur Mas, and later Carles Puigdemont, wanted to demonstrate that Catalonia was not an autonomous community like any other. They embraced pro-independence thought that felt ancestral and brand-new at the same time, a complex issue I explore in Le labyrinthe catalan (2019). To do so, they used the symbolic and historical power ofCatalonia’s office of the president. They also drew on historical references, perhaps excessively so. After fleeing Spain at the end of October 2017, Carles Puigdemont compared himself to Lluís Companys, the exiled Catalan president who took refuge in France after the Republican defeat, was handed over to Franco by the Vichy police and subsequently executed at the Montjuïc Castle on October 15, 1940. Historical resonance, even if biased and instrumentalized, can be a powerful buttress for a strong collective identity.

 Vox, borne of a split within the PP, holds a discourse that is hostile to autonomous communities.

The Catalan crisis has had a definite impact on political debate. Vox, borne of a split within the PP, holds a discourse that is hostile to autonomous communities. Through its advocacy for recentralization, Vox has created a new and deep division within the Spanish right. In this respect, the recent victory of the PP in Andalusia confirms the "Feijóo" turn of the Partido Popular; reclaiming the decentralized nature of Spanish democracy.

No one can govern Spain with hostility toward the regions! Juanma Moreno, the outgoing president (PP) of Andalusia, won an absolute majority in the regional parliament on June 19, 2022, relegating Vox to parliamentary insignificance and dealing the worst electoral blow to the PSOE since 1981.

It is clear that the Spanish Constitution and the country's history have generated new and unique political dynamics in a mere half-century. Between the almost mechanical emergence of "the charismatic figure" as instilled by the media (especially with the arrival of social media) and the perennial weight of history that complicates the question of the incarnation of power in Spain, the country is a good reminder of the range of political models that exist. We know the French centralized system, the English parliamentary model and the German transactional model; Spain adds a polycentric model to this list. The system's origins are fascinating, rooted as they are in both history - think of the viceroys of the old monarchy - and democracy - there is no leadership without electoral support. One might ask whether it is not more advantageous to be first in one’s own village rather than second at Madrid. Better still, is it not preferable to hold the reins in a regional stronghold than to try and govern a country that has seventeen other governments?

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