Spain | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2012

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The conservative Popular Party won a resounding victory in national elections held in November 2011 after the introduction of unpopular austerity measures undermined the government of the ruling Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party. Spain’s borrowing rate rose rapidly in November, and concerns persisted that the country would not be able to meet its deficit-cutting targets.

Peninsular Spain’s current borders were largely established by the 16th century, and after a period of great colonial expansion and wealth, the country declined in relation to its European rivals. The Spanish Civil War of 1936–39 ended in victory for General Francisco Franco’s right-wing Nationalists, who executed, jailed, and exiled the leftist Republicans. During Franco’s long rule, many countries cut off diplomatic ties, and his regime was ostracized by the United Nations from 1946 to 1955. The militant Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), or Basque Fatherland and Freedom, was formed in 1959 with the aim of creating an independent Basque homeland, and went on to carry out a campaign of terrorist bombings and other illegal activities. After a transitional period following Franco’s death in 1975, Spain emerged as a parliamentary democracy, joining the European Economic Community, the precursor to the European Union (EU), in 1986.

In the 2004 parliamentary elections, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) defeated the conservative Popular Party (PP), which had been in power for 11 years. However, lacking an outright majority, the PSOE relied on regionalist parties to support its legislation. The elections came only days after multiple terrorist bombings of commuter trains in Madrid that killed almost 200 people. The PP government initially blamed ETA, sparking anger from voters after it was discovered that the attacks had been carried out by Islamic fundamentalists in response to the government’s support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. After becoming prime minister, the PSOE’s José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero pulled Spain’s troops out of Iraq. In 2007, a Spanish court handed down long prison sentences to 21 of the 28 defendants charged in connection with the bombings; seven were acquitted. In 2008, another key suspect in the bombings was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

ETA announced a cease-fire in 2006, but peace talks with the government broke down in January 2007 after the group claimed responsibility for a December 2006 bombing in a parking garage at Madrid’s Barajas Airport. The Supreme Court banned hundreds of candidates with alleged links to ETA from participating in 2007 local elections in the Basque region. In March 2009, the Basque Nationalist Party lost its absolute majority in the Basque parliament elections for the first time in 30 years. The coalition of the PSOE and the PP pledged to focus on security and the economy in the Basque region, and not press for regional autonomy. In October 2011, ETA declared a “definitive cessation of armed activities,” which was just shy of a full surrender and disarmament. The announcement came after a campaign by the police over the previous few years—including the arrests of the group’s top operatives and foot soldiers and the seizure of weapons and bomb-making materials—had weakened the group considerably.

In May 2011, the PSOE suffered several losses in local elections. In July, Zapatero called for early general elections in November. Zapatero had been suffering from low approval ratings that were attributed to the country’s economic difficulties, which included a 20 percent unemployment rate and 45 percent youth unemployment rate. Additionally, the debt crisis in Europe had led to the implementation of unpopular austerity measures, such as increasing the retirement age from 65 to 67. The conservative PP trounced the PSOE in the November elections. The PP won 186 out of 350 seats in the lower house, while the PSOE took only 111 seats, its worst showing in 30 years. PP leader Mariano Rajoy replaced Zapatero as prime minister.

In May, the “Indignant” movement began as protesters, led by unemployed youth, occupied a central square in Madrid. By October, the movement had inspired similar international movements, such as Occupy Wall Street, that also focused on the disproportionate political power of the wealthy.

In November, Spain’s debt crisis worsened as interest rates on the country’s debt rose drastically. In December, the new government announced a package of €8.9 billion ($11.2 billion) in spending cuts and €6.2 billion in tax increases to address the country’s economic woes. The measures were imposed after the new government discovered that the deficit was 8 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), rather than the 6 percent calculated by the previous government; Spain had pledged to the EU that it would cut its deficit to 4.4 percent in 2012.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Spain is an electoral democracy. The Congress of Deputies, the lower house of the bicameral Parliament, has 350 members elected in multimember constituencies, except for the North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, which are each assigned one single-member constituency. The Senate has 264 members, with 208 elected directly and 56 chosen by regional legislatures. Members of both the Senate and Congress serve four-year terms. Following legislative elections, the prime minister is selected by the monarch and is usually the leader of the majority party or coalition. The candidate must also be elected by Parliament. The country’s 50 provinces are divided into 17 autonomous regions with varying degrees of power.

People generally have the right to organize in political parties and other competitive groups of their choice. The Basque separatist Batasuna party, which had previously garnered between 5 and 10 percent of the regional vote, was permanently banned in 2003 for its alleged ties to the armed group ETA. In September 2011, Arnaldo Otegi, the former leader of Batasuna, was sentenced to 10 years in jail for trying to revive the party.

In September 2010, the largest corruption trial in the country’s history began in the summer resort town of Marbella. The 95 defendants—including two former mayors and 15 town counselors—were accused of participating in a widespread system of graft, with local businesspeople bribing town officials for favorable decisions, primarily in city planning. Spain was ranked 31 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Spain has a free and lively press, with more than 100 newspapers covering a wide range of perspectives and actively investigating high-level corruption. Daily newspaper ownership, however, is concentrated within large media groups like Prisa and Zeta. Journalists who oppose the political views of ETA have in the past been targeted by the group. Newspapers objected to a proposed government regulation announced in July 2010 that would prohibit advertising prostitution in the classified section. The explicit advertisements bring in over €40 million (approximately $57 million) annually for the newspaper industry, which is struggling economically. The law was passed in December 2011.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed through constitutional and legal protections. Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion and enjoys privileges that other religions do not, such as financing through the tax system. Jews, Muslims, and Protestants have official status through bilateral agreements with the state, while other groups (including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons) have no such agreements. The government does not restrict academic freedom.

The constitution provides for freedom of assembly, and the government respects this right in practice. Domestic and international nongovernmental organizations operate without government restrictions. With the exception of members of the military, workers are free to strike and organize and join unions of their choice. About 15 percent of the workforce is unionized. Antiausterity protests took place across the country throughout 2011.

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary. However, there have been recent concerns over the functioning of the judicial system, including the impact of media pressure on sensitive issues such as immigration and Basque terrorism. Spain’s universal jurisdiction law allows for the trial of suspects for crimes committed abroad if they are not facing prosecution in their home country. However, in June 2009, Spain’s lower house voted in favor of limiting the universal jurisdiction law to cases involving either victims with Spanish citizenship or some other link to Spain, as well as cases where the alleged perpetrators are in Spain. In August 2011, a Spanish judge indicted nine Salvadoran soldiers under the country’s universal jurisdiction law for the murder of six priests in El Salvador in 1989 during that country’s civil war.

Police abuse of prisoners, especially immigrants, has been reported. Those suspected of certain terrorism-related crimes can be held by police for up to five days with access only to a public lawyer. Prison conditions generally meet international standards.

Women enjoy legal protections against rape, domestic abuse, and sexual harassment in the workplace. However, violence against women, particularly within the home, remains a serious problem. Women currently hold 36 percent of the seats in the lower house. In February 2010, the Senate approved a measure liberalizing abortion laws to allow for the termination of a pregnancy on demand during the first 14 weeks. Legislation enacted in 2005 legalized same-sex marriages and allowed gay couples to adopt children. Trafficking in men, women, and children for the purpose of sexual exploitation and forced labor remains a problem.