Spain’s parliamentary system features competitive multiparty elections and peaceful transfers of power between rival parties. The rule of law prevails, and civil liberties are generally respected. Although political corruption remains a concern, high-ranking politicians and other powerful figures have been successfully prosecuted. Restrictive legislation adopted or enforced in recent years poses a threat to otherwise robust freedoms of expression and assembly. A persistent separatist movement in Catalonia represents the leading challenge to the country’s constitutional system and territorial integrity.
- In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government declared a national state of alarm between March and June and again from October through the end of the year, with the parliament’s approval. The government used its emergency powers to combat the pandemic and its effects, but its decisions and awards of procurement contracts often lacked transparency.
- Health professionals suffered from especially dangerous working conditions, and in October the Supreme Court found that their labor rights had been violated by the failure of governments at all levels to provide adequate protective equipment. The country as a whole recorded nearly two million confirmed cases of the virus and more than 54,000 deaths during the year.
- Regional elections in Galicia and the Basque Country, originally scheduled for April, were postponed due to the pandemic, but they were eventually held in July amid strict health precautions.
- The politically fragmented parliament remained unsuccessful in mustering the three-fifths majority necessary to appoint new members to the General Council of the Judiciary, two years after the terms of the incumbent members had expired.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
Following legislative elections, the monarch selects a candidate for prime minister, generally the leader of the party or coalition with a majority in the lower house. The parliament then votes on the selected candidate.
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s center-left minority government, which had taken power through a no-confidence vote in the parliament in 2018, failed to win passage for a budget bill in February 2019, and snap elections were scheduled for April. The ruling Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) won a plurality of seats but could not secure the majority needed for a new government, triggering repeat elections in November of that year. The PSOE again fell short of a majority, but after reaching a coalition deal with the left-wing party Unidas Podemos and securing the abstentions of Basque and Catalan nationalist lawmakers, Sánchez narrowly won confirmation for a new government in January 2020.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The lower house of Spain’s bicameral parliament, the Congress of Deputies, is composed of 350 members elected in multimember constituencies for each of Spain’s provinces, with the exception of the North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, each of which has one single-member constituency. The Senate has 266 members, 208 of whom are elected directly, and 58 of whom are chosen by regional legislatures. Members of both chambers serve four-year terms.
Spain’s legislative elections are generally considered free and fair. In the November 2019 balloting, the PSOE secured 120 seats, followed by the conservative Popular Party (PP) with 88, the far-right nationalist party Vox with 52, Unidas Podemos with 35, and the center-right Ciudadanos with 10. Among several other parties, the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and the Republican Left of Catalonia–Sovereigntists (ERC-Sobiranistes) won 7 and 13 seats, respectively. In the Senate, the PSOE took 92 seats and the PP won 84.
The regions of Galicia and the Basque Country held elections for their autonomous legislatures in July 2020, after the voting was postponed by three months due to the coronavirus outbreak. Although strict health precautions were enforced at polling places, several hundred people with active infections were barred from leaving their homes to vote. In Galicia, the PP easily secured another absolute majority. In the Basque region, the PNV won nearly 40 percent of the vote and formed a coalition government with the PSOE.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||4.004 4.004|
Spain’s constitution and electoral laws provide the legal framework for democratic elections, and they are generally implemented fairly.
The initiation and conduct of the October 2017 independence referendum in Catalonia featured a number of fundamental flaws. The exercise was prohibited by the courts on constitutional grounds, and the actions of both regional authorities and the PP-led central government at the time contributed to a chaotic environment that did not allow for fair and transparent balloting. However, after the regional government was dissolved that month, elections were held in December, and a new separatist-led government was formed in 2018, largely restoring normal electoral and constitutional conditions in Catalonia even if the underlying dispute remained unresolved.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4.004 4.004|
Citizens are free to organize political parties, which are able to function without interference in practice. While the PP and the PSOE once dominated the political system, corruption scandals, persistent economic woes, and the dispute over Catalonia have aided the rise of new alternatives in recent years, including Unidas Podemos on the left and Ciudadanos and Vox on the right.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
There have been multiple democratic transfers of power between rival parties since Spain returned to democracy in the late 1970s. By forming a ruling coalition with the PSOE in January 2020, Unidas Podemos became the first party other than the PSOE and the PP to enter national government during the democratic era.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||4.004 4.004|
Voting and political affairs in general are largely free from undue interference by unelected or external forces. However, disinformation and other such manipulation in elections is a growing concern.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||4.004 4.004|
Women and minority groups enjoy full political rights. Women are free to advocate for their political interests, and they are relatively well represented in practice, holding 43 and 38 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, respectively.
Spain’s system of regional autonomy grants significant powers of self-governance to the country’s traditional national minorities, including Catalans and Basques.
Nine Catalan officials were sentenced to prison on sedition charges in October 2019 for their roles in the illegal 2017 independence referendum. One of them, Oriol Junqueras, was elected to the European Parliament in May 2019 while in pretrial detention, but Spanish authorities denied him the right to go to Strasbourg and take his seat. In December of that year, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that his parliamentary immunity had been violated as a result of the continued pretrial detention. However, in January 2020 the Spanish Supreme Court found that Junqueras’s October conviction disqualified him from taking his seat. The European Parliament then terminated his mandate and declared the seat vacant.
Separately, in September 2020, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by incumbent Catalan president Quim Torra and removed him from office; he had been convicted in late 2019 of violating electoral law and disobeying orders from the National Electoral Board by failing to remove separatist symbols from public buildings. The region’s vice president became interim president, and regional elections were scheduled for February 2021.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||3.003 4.004|
Elected officials are generally free to make and implement laws and policies without undue interference. However, the political system has failed to produce a stable governing majority in the parliament since 2015, resulting in frequent and inconclusive elections, a sharp decline in the passage of legislation, and an increased use of mechanisms like executive decrees to advance the government’s agenda without the approval of lawmakers. The instability has hampered the national government’s capacity to address major challenges such as the separatist movement in Catalonia and the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, the government declared a national state of alarm between March and June and again from October through the end of the year, with approval from the parliament. The state of alarm allowed officials to restrict movement and establish curfews, among other health measures. However, the government drew criticism for centralizing the management of the crisis during the first state of alarm, and in June it began empowering the regional authorities to make autonomous decisions about lockdowns and related matters, within a common set of guidelines.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||3.003 4.004|
Concerns about official corruption often center on party financing. Though most party expenses are funded by the state, a 2007 law allowed political parties to use commercial bank loans. In 2012, Spain strengthened rules on political financing by restricting access to loans, increasing transparency, and establishing an audit framework. In 2015, new legislation prohibited banks from forgiving debt owed by political parties. Also in the past several years, lawmakers have strengthened rules on asset disclosure and conflicts of interest for high-ranking officials and enacted more severe penalties for corruption-related crimes.
Although the courts have a solid record of investigating and prosecuting corruption cases, the system is often overburdened, and cases move slowly. Among other high-profile proceedings during 2020, the Supreme Court in October confirmed the convictions of 29 defendants in a case involving bribery in exchange for public contracts. The judgment also found that the PP had profited from the scheme and had to return illicit proceeds; the scandal had helped bring down the PP government in 2018. Separately in August, former king Juan Carlos I left the country for the United Arab Emirates amid an ongoing investigation into possible tax evasion and money laundering.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||3.003 4.004|
Legal safeguards to ensure government transparency include asset-disclosure rules for public officials and laws governing conflicts of interest. The Transparency Act, which took effect in 2014, is meant to facilitate public access to government records, though freedom of information activists have reported onerous procedures and called for improvements to the law, as well as mechanisms to access more judicial and parliamentary documents. The Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) has noted that the Council of Transparency and Good Governance, the body tasked with monitoring compliance with transparency obligations, lacks adequate financial and human resources. Moreover, civil society organizations reported in 2020 that the Sánchez government frequently resisted complying with requests or orders to disclose information in practice.
During the first state of alarm triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the national government and some regional governments suspended their responses to information requests. Even after the suspensions were lifted, the national government often limited public access to information related to the pandemic, including the data and expert advice it used to make decisions. The government also used emergency procedures to award procurement contracts, reducing transparency on government spending and raising concerns about possible abuses.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 because the government suspended access-to-information mechanisms, restricted information underlying its decisions on public health matters, and awarded contracts using less transparent procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
|Are there free and independent media?||3.003 4.004|
Spain has a free press that covers a wide range of perspectives and actively investigates high-level corruption. However, consolidation of private ownership poses a threat to media independence, and ownership in the print and online media sectors is less transparent than in broadcast media. While there have been few reports of political interference at the public broadcaster in recent years, the renewal of its board of directors through a competitive process remained incomplete in 2020, having been stalled since 2019 due to a lack of political consensus.
Journalists have sometimes faced physical aggression from protesters and the police while covering demonstrations in recent years, and far-right groups like Vox have been accused of harassing reporters both physically and on social media. Media freedom organizations have also noted a growing tendency by the authorities to override the protection of journalists’ sources and to obstruct investigative journalism.
A controversial public safety law that took effect in 2015, nicknamed the “gag law” by its critics, established large fines for offenses including spreading images that could endanger police officers or protected facilities. Journalists have faced penalties in practice for alleged violations of the law while reporting on police actions. In separate 2020 rulings that threatened media freedom, the Supreme Court in June upheld a civil judgment against a news aggregator for insults that a user had posted on the website, and in December confirmed a defamation ruling against a satirical magazine that had published a mocking image of a former bullfighter.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
Religious freedom is guaranteed in the constitution and respected in practice. As the country’s dominant religion, Roman Catholicism enjoys benefits not afforded to others, such as financing through the tax system. However, the religious organizations of Jews, Muslims, and Protestants also have certain privileges through agreements with the state, including tax exemptions and permission to station chaplains in hospitals and other institutions. Other groups that choose to register can obtain a legal identity and the right to own or rent property. The penal code contains a provision to punish blasphemy, but prosecutions are rare in practice. In November 2020, a women’s rights activist was ordered to pay a fine for offending religious feelings by coordinating a satirical religious procession on International Women’s Day in 2013.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
The government does not restrict academic freedom in law or in practice. In October 2020, a court ruled that the public University of Barcelona had violated its obligation to maintain political neutrality by endorsing a 2019 manifesto that condemned the convictions of Catalan officials for their role in the 2017 independence referendum. The university was ordered to pay court costs.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||3.003 4.004|
Private discussion remains open and vibrant, but more aggressive enforcement of laws banning the glorification of terrorism has begun to threaten free speech, with dozens of people—including social media users and several performers—found guilty in recent years for what often amounts to satire, artistic expression, or political commentary. In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that a person could violate the law even if there was no intention to “glorify” a terrorist group or “humiliate” its victims. Individuals have also been prosecuted for insulting the monarchy and other state institutions.
In February 2020, the Constitutional Court overruled the Supreme Court’s 2017 conviction of musician César Strawberry for glorification of terrorism in connection with social media posts in 2013 and 2014. In separate cases in June 2020, the Supreme Court sentenced rapper Pablo Hasél and members of a music group to nine and six months in jail, respectively, for insults to the crown and glorification of terrorism. In December, the Constitutional Court ruled that encouraging the burning of the national flag is not protected by freedom of expression.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||3.003 4.004|
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly, and the authorities typically respect this right. However, the public safety act that took effect in 2015 imposed a number of restrictions, including fines of up to €600,000 ($670,000) for participating in unauthorized protests near key buildings or infrastructure. Participants in protests on a variety of local concerns have faced smaller but still substantial fines under the law in practice.
Two of the Catalan independence leaders convicted of sedition in 2019, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez, were prosecuted for leading protests aimed at preventing police from halting the banned 2017 referendum. Human rights groups have argued that the 2019 prison sentences were excessive and set a harmful example regarding freedom of assembly.
During 2020, many citizens protested against COVID-19 movement restrictions by demonstrating from their balconies or in the streets, and police generally did not intervene. However, Madrid authorities in September prohibited a planned gathering by pandemic deniers, citing the risk of contagion, and broader protests that accompanied the declaration of a second state of alarm in October featured clashes with police, leading to a number of arrests and injuries.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
Domestic and international nongovernmental organizations operate without significant government restrictions.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||4.004 4.004|
With the exception of members of the military and national police, workers are free to organize in unions of their choice, engage in collective bargaining, and mount legal strikes. Health workers organized strikes in 2020 to protest dangerous working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as problems with pay and staffing linked to budget cuts in previous years.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||3.003 4.004|
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the courts operate autonomously in practice. However, the Council of Europe has criticized the fact that under current law, the 12 judges who sit on the 20-member General Council of the Judiciary—which oversees the courts and is responsible for appointing, transferring, and promoting judges—are not directly elected by their peers, but appointed through a three-fifths vote in the parliament, as with the other eight members who are not judges. This arrangement has exposed the body to political disruptions. The council’s membership was due to be renewed in late 2018, but the opposition PP denied the governing parties the necessary supermajority; the incumbent council continued to operate on an interim basis at the end of 2020, raising concerns about the legitimacy of its judicial appointments and other decisions.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 because the parliament failed to elect new members to the judiciary’s oversight body for a second consecutive year.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||3.003 4.004|
The authorities generally observe legal safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention, though judges can authorize special restrictions on communication and delayed arraignment for detainees held in connection with acts of terrorism. Defendants typically enjoy full due process rights during trial. However, high-profile cases related to Basque and Catalan nationalism in recent years have featured flaws—including disproportionate charges and penalties as well as unjustified pretrial detention—that drew criticism from international organizations.
In December 2020, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Arnaldo Otegi—leader of the Basque separatist party Euskal Herria Bildu, which holds several seats in the parliament—would have to stand trial again on charges for which he had already served a prison sentence. Otegi was originally sentenced in 2011 for attempting to reestablish an outlawed Basque party, Batasuna. He was released in 2016, the trial was deemed unfair by the European Court of Human Rights in 2018, and in July 2020 the Spanish Supreme Court itself agreed to overturn the conviction.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||4.004 4.004|
The population faces no major threats to physical security. The potential for terrorist attacks by radical Islamist groups remains a concern, though Basque Fatherland and Freedom (ETA), a separatist group that carried out terrorist attacks for decades, announced in 2018 that it had formally dissolved, having ended its armed activity several years earlier.
Prison conditions generally meet international standards, but reception centers for irregular migrants suffer from overcrowding and other problems, which were compounded by health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||3.003 4.004|
Women, racial minorities, and LGBT+ people enjoy legal protections against discrimination and other mistreatment, though a degree of societal bias persists. Some minority groups—including Roma—remain economically marginalized and are allegedly subject to police profiling.
Spain is a major point of entry to Europe for irregular migrants and refugees, with most making the crossing by sea. Some 37,000 people arrived during 2020, a sharp increase from the previous year. Some of the more than 21,000 who came ashore in the Canary Islands were placed in hotels, while others were housed in improvised camps that allegedly violated human rights standards. Separately, thousands of migrants and refugees regularly congregate at the land border between Morocco and the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. In February 2020, the grand chamber of the European Court of Human Rights upheld the legality of a practice in which Spanish authorities summarily return people who cross the enclaves’ borders unlawfully, for example by scaling fences. An earlier ruling by the court in 2017 had rejected the practice, but Spain appealed to the grand chamber. Civil society organizations criticized the new ruling.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4.004 4.004|
There are few significant restrictions on individuals’ freedom to travel within the country or abroad, or to change their place of residence, employment, or education. However, the authorities have been criticized for failing to grant documented asylum seekers free movement within Spanish territory, despite multiple court rulings on the matter.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, civil society groups registered some cases of discriminatory enforcement of lockdown rules that disproportionately affected racial minority groups or migrant workers. The country’s ombudsman launched an investigation into excessive or arbitrary use of fines to punish alleged violations of movement restrictions.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||4.004 4.004|
The legal framework supports property rights, and there are no major restrictions on private business activity.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||4.004 4.004|
Personal social freedoms are generally respected. Same-sex marriage has been legal in Spain since 2005, and same-sex couples may adopt children.
There are legal protections against domestic abuse and rape, including spousal rape; while both remain problems in practice, the government and civil society groups work actively to combat them.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||3.003 4.004|
Residents generally have access to economic opportunity and protection from exploitative working conditions. Despite strong antitrafficking efforts by law enforcement agencies, however, migrant workers remain vulnerable to debt bondage, forced labor, and sexual exploitation.
The level of income inequality in Spain is among the worst in the European Union. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated an already high unemployment rate for the region and drew attention to the poor working and living conditions of seasonal farm laborers, among other disadvantaged groups. In March, the government approved emergency unemployment benefits for domestic workers, who had previously been ineligible for such aid. In October, the Supreme Court found that the national and subnational governments had violated the rights of health workers by failing to ensure that they had adequate access to safety equipment during the pandemic.
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