Multi-level party systems in Spain

Alex Wilson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


This article compares party systems in Spain from a multi-level perspective, evaluating structures of party competition and processes of party system change at central and regional levels, with a view to understanding their broader impact on territorial dynamics in Spanish politics. Since the 1990s, the central party system has become characterized by intense bipolarization between state-wide parties and wholesale alternation in government. Although a similar process of bipolarization has occurred in most (but not all) regional party systems, the effects in terms of coalition formation and government alternation are very different. Spanish regions are characterized by innovative coalitions between state-wide and non-state-wide parties, with patterns of government alternation that diverge from the central level. A majority of regions are characterized by predominant party systems with no alternation in government, while others see partial alternation where small regionalist parties form promiscuous coalitions with state-wide parties to stay perpetually in office. Meanwhile, the large bilingual regions (Catalonia, Basque Country, Galicia) have all shifted from predominant party systems to more competitive ones characterized by wholesale alternation, but with underlying structures of competition and party coalitions that differ significantly from the central level.

Curiously, incongruence in multi-level party systems has so far proven to be a largely stabilizing factor in the territorial politics of Spain. It has contributed to ending the monopoly of regional government by powerful nationalist parties in Catalonia and the Basque Country, while not undermining the core features of party competition at central level. It has drawn state-wide and nationalist/regionalist parties into closer collaboration, so helping to blunt the edge of territorial conflicts. Yet enduring incongruence in multi-level party systems could ultimately induce more centrifugal pressures on the Spanish state. Through their electoral competition and coalitional relations with nationalist parties, regional branches of state-wide parties are more likely to develop positions that conflict with the central leadership, whether on policy issues, coalitional options or regional autonomy and influence. Such developments are already occurring in the most autonomous regional branches of state-wide parties, where regional leaders have built on existing asymmetrical arrangements to pursue distinct policies and coalitions, while advancing more autonomist positions on state design. If these developments became more widespread they could undermine the organizational coherence of state-wide parties, perhaps shifting the balance of power in territorial politics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)123-139
Number of pages17
JournalRegional and Federal Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - May 2012


  • multi-level politics
  • Spain
  • party systems
  • regions


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