The geography and politics of Spain

LAST UPDATED: 3 Sep, 2011 @ 08:36
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The geography and politics of Spain

Whilst the history of Spain is long and complicated, the geography and political set-up are fairly straightforward. Paul Whitelock takes a look.

IN geographical terms Spain comprises the Iberian peninsula (except Portugal, Andorra and Gibraltar); two island groups, the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea and the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean, off the west coast of Africa; and two enclaves in North Africa, Ceuta and Melilla.

For political purposes, since 1978 when the new Spanish Constitution was established just three years after the death of Franco and the end of his nearly 40-year dictatorship, the Kingdom of Spain has comprised 17 autonomous communities and 2 autonomous cities (Ceuta and Melilla), each of which enjoys significant devolved powers, probably more than in any other Western European country.

Beyond this arrangement the country is divided into fifty provinces. Since the adoption of the current system of autonomous communities, the importance of the provinces has declined. They nevertheless remain electoral districts for national elections and as geographical referents: for instance in postal addresses and telephone codes. A small town would normally be identified as being in, say, Málaga province, rather than the autonomous community of Andalucía. The provinces were the “building-blocks” from which the autonomous communities were created; consequently no province is divided between two or more of these communities.

Most of the provinces – with the exception of Álava, Asturias, Vizcaya, Cantabria, Guipúzcoa, Islas Baleares, La Rioja, and Navarra – are named after their principal town. Only two capitals of autonomous communities — Mérida in Extremadura and Santiago de Compostela in Galicia — are not also the capitals of provinces. Seven of the autonomous communities comprise no more than one province each: Asturias, Islas Baleares, Cantabria, La Rioja, Madrid, Murcia, and Navarra.

An autonomous community is the first-level political division of the Kingdom of Spain, established in accordance with the current Spanish Constitution (1978). The second article of the constitution recognizes the rights of “nationalities and regions” to self-government and declares the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”.

Political power in Spain is organised as a central government with devolved power for 17 autonomous communities and two autonomous cities. These regional governments are responsible for the administration of schools, universities, health, social services, culture, urban and rural development and, in some cases, policing.

Spain has been described as remarkable for the extent of the powers peacefully devolved over the past 30+ years and is an extraordinarily decentralised country, with the central government accounting for just 18% of public spending. The regional governments use up 38%, the local councils 13% and the social security system the rest.

In terms of personnel, by 2010 almost 1,350,000 people or 50.3% of the total civil servants in Spain were employed by the autonomous communities; city councils and provincial diputaciones accounted for 23.6% and those employees working for the central administration (police and military included) represented 22.2% of the total.

For the record, the autonomous communities are as follows:

  • Cataluña, País Vasco (Basque Country) and Galicia are “historical nationalities;
  • Andalucía was not a historical nationality (one that had had a statute of autonomy before the Spanish Civil War). However, Andalucía was able to meet the requirements established by Congress to develop its autonomy;
  • Aragón, Castilla-León, Castilla-La Mancha, Extremadura, and the Comunidad Valenciana were granted autonomy as communities integrated by two or more provinces with common historical characteristics;
  • the Canary Islands and the Balearic Islands were granted autonomy as insular territories, with the former composed of two provinces;
  • Cantabria, Asturias, La Rioja, Murcia and Navarra were granted autonomy as single provinces with historical regional identity;
  • the Comunidad de Madrid was constituted for the nation’s interest;
  • Ceuta and Melilla, both cities, were granted autonomy—albeit limited—in spite of not being provinces themselves.

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