Spain: 4,772 political parties and counting

In the last decade, the number of democratic organizations in Spain has doubled to reach record levels

The Spanish Congress during an address by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
The Spanish Congress during an address by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

In 2016, Helen Mukoro packed her bags and moved to Teruel in northeast Spain to start a new left-leaning political party whose goal was “to defend decency, democracy, and human rights.”

For 15 days, this 47-year-old Nigerian-born woman traipsed the length of Aragón with pamphlets emblazoned with UDT (Unión de Todos – Union for All), introducing herself as the head of this new party that would only exist in the region. That was as far as the campaign went.

One of the reasons there are so many parties in Spain is that it is extremely easy to register

“We focused on Teruel because it’s depopulated and we thought we would get noticed,” she says, recalling the 48 votes she garnered at the general elections. It was the party that picked up the least number of votes in the entire country.

“I couldn’t even vote for myself because I wasn’t registered there,” says Mukoro, who actually lives in Denia, Alicante, where local elections in 2015 brought her an equally dismal result. “But you know… At least we’ve provided an example for other immigrants and have shown that we can participate in political life and help the country,” she adds. Hers was just one of the 4,772 legally active parties in the country, according to the Ministry of the Interior.

Since the transition to democracy in 1976, the country has never had so many political movements actually registered with the authorities. During the last 10 years the number has skyrocketed by 50%, a trend linked to the municipal elections – 2011 and 2015 were the two years when most entities signed themselves up with the ministry.

Only 20% of the 51 parties registered in 2017 have ambitions at the national level

“The sheer volume of local political parties is one of the hallmarks of Spanish politics,” says Gaspar Llamazares, the former federal coordinator of the United Left (IU) and founder of Actúa, the second to most recent party to register. The most recent was Ola Cantabria, set up by former leaders of Ciudadanos in the northern region.

One of the reasons there are so many parties in Spain is that it is extremely easy to register. Curiously, there’s little red tape involved. Moreover, once they are signed up, parties are considered “permanent” and actually need to inform the authorities should they wish to be dissolved. Consequently, many fail to take the last step. Of the five parties that have been registered the longest – Spanish Falange of the JONS, New National Left, Regional Social Party, Rural Spanish Party and Labor – four disappeared from the electoral map years ago. During the last general elections in Spain, for example, only 51 parties actually took part.

According to a study by the University of Barcelona, a new factor has come into play over the last 10 years, namely the economic crisis which put an end to the two-party system. “New political parties such as Podemos and Ciudadanos were able to take advantage of the situation,” said a university spokesman.

Helen Mukoro’s Union for All party garnered just 48 votes at the 2016 general election in Spain

Even the former superjudge Baltasar Garzón – currently the head of the legal team for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange – got involved, joining Llamazares in Actúa. “The traditional parties didn’t perform well and that created an opportunity,” he added. “But you can’t think of all the parties on the same terms. Many are simply the product of circumstance and are local.”

Only 20% of the 51 parties registered in 2017, for example, had ambitions at the national level. Among them was Unidos para la Independencia de la Justicia – United for Independent Justice – set up on April 11 by a group outraged by a corruption case in which Spanish firm Afinsa allegedly operated a pyramid selling scheme. “We have spent 12 years waiting for justice to be done, meeting politicians that seem to listen to us but then do nothing. So we decided to set up our own party,” says Eduardo Berbis, the president who is getting into shape to fight the 2019 European elections.

“We aim to appeal to all those collectives suffering injustice,” he says.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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