An autonomous community (Spanish: Comunidad Autónoma) is the first-level political division of the Kingdom of Spain, established in accordance with the Spanish Constitution. The second article of the constitution recognizes the rights of “regions and nationalities” to self-government and declares the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”.
Political power in Spain is channeled by a central government and 17 autonomous communities. These regional governments are responsible for schools, universities, health, social services, culture, urban and rural development and, in some places, policing. There are also two autonomous cities. In all, under the autonomías system, Spain has been quoted to be “remarkable for the extent of the powers peacefully devolved over the past 30 years” and “an extraordinarily decentralised country”, with the central government accounting for just 18% of public spending; the regional governments 38%, the local councils 13% and the social-security system the rest.
Upon the passing of the Constitution of 1978, Spain created a unique system of regional autonomy, known as the “state of the autonomies”.The second article of the constitution grants the right of self-government to the regions and nationalities that compose the Spanish nation. In the exercise of the right to self-government recognized in that article, autonomy was to be granted to:
two or more adjacent provinces with common historical, cultural and economical characteristics,
insular territories, and
a single province with historical identity or status.
As such, the province, which is also a territorial local entity recognized by the constitution,serves as the framework from which the autonomous communities were to be created. However, the constitution allows exceptions to the above, namely that the Spanish Parliament reserves the right to:
authorize, in the nation’s interest, the constitution of an autonomous community even if it is a single province without a historical regional identity; and
authorize or grant autonomy to those entities or territories that are not constituted as provinces.
Once an autonomous community had been constituted, the 145th article of the constitution prohibits the federation or union of two or more autonomous communities. Between 1979 and 1983, all the regions in Spain had been constituted as autonomous communities; in 1996 the process was closed when the autonomous status of Ceuta and Melilla was passed:
Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia—as “historical nationalities”— were granted autonomy through a fast and simplified process;
Andalusia was not a historical nationality (one that a had a statute of autonomy before the civil war). However, Andalusia was able to acomplish the requirements established by Congress to develop their autonomy through the fast process.
Aragon, Castilla y León, Castile-La Mancha, Extremadura and the Valencian Community 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, the former comprising two provinces;
Cantabria, Asturias, La Rioja, and the Region of Murcia were granted autonomy as single provinces with historical regional identity, as well as Navarra, even though the latter was granted autonomy through the “update and improvement” of the medieval charters (in Spanish fueros);
the Community of 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, in exercise of the rights reserved by the Spanish Parliament.
As a general rule, the autonomies who were granted its autonomy through the fast process have more competences and higher levels of autonomy. These competences and autonomy rights are not defined in a closed list, they can change over time.
The basic institutional law of the autonomous community is the Statute of Autonomy. The Statutes of Autonomy establish the denomination of the community according to its historical identity, the limits of their territories, the name and organization of the institutions of government and the rights they enjoy according the constitution.
The government of all autonomous communities must be based on a division of powers comprising:
– a Legislative Assembly whose members must be elected by universal suffrage according to the system of proportional representation and in which all areas that integrate the territory are fairly represented;
– a Government Council, with executive and administrative functions headed by a president, elected by the Legislative Assembly and nominated by the King of Spain;
– a Supreme Court of Justice, under the Supreme Court of the State, which head the judicial organization within the autonomous community.
Besides Andalusia, Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia, which identified themselves as nationalities, other communities have also taken that denomination in accordance to their historical regional identity, such as the Valencian Community, the Canary Islands, the Balearic Islands, and Aragon.
The autonomous communities have wide legislative and executive autonomy, with their own parliaments and regional governments. The distribution of powers may be different for every community, as laid out in their Statutes of Autonomy. There used to be a clear de facto distinction between so called “historic” communities (Basque Country, Catalonia, Galicia, Andalusia) and the rest. The “historic” ones initially received more functions, including the ability of the regional presidents to choose the timing of the regional elections (as long as they happen no more than four years apart). As another example, the Basque Country, Navarre and Catalonia have full-range police forces of their own: Ertzaintza in the Basque Country, Policía Foral in Navarre and Mossos d’Esquadra in Catalonia. Other communities have a more limited force or none at all (like the Policía Autónoma Andaluza in Andalusia or the BESCAM in Madrid). However, the recent amendments made to their respective Statute of Autonomy by a series of “ordinary” Autonomous Communities such as the Valencian Community or Aragon have quite dilluted this original de facto distinction.