Spain | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2013

2013 Scores



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Civil Liberties
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Austerity measures introduced by the government to address Spain’s economic crisis led to widespread strikes and protests throughout the country in 2012. In October, unemployment hit a new high at about 25 percent of the working-age population, with youth unemployment at more than 50 percent. Meanwhile, a controversial judge who had investigated human rights abuses committed during the Francisco Franco dictatorship was found guilty of illegal wiretapping and suspended from the bench for 11 years.

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 with Spain, 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 to create an independent Basque homeland, and carried 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 Madrid commuter trains that killed almost 200 people. The PP government initially blamed ETA, but it was later 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. In May 2012, the Spanish government rebuffed ETA’s request for talks, calling for the former separatist group to disband.

Spain’s economic woes, which began with the global recession in 2008, continued in 2011, as official unemployment topped 20 percent. The European debt crisis led to the implementation of unpopular austerity measures in Spain, such as increasing the retirement age from 65 to 67. Zapatero, who had been suffering from low approval ratings due to the country’s economic crisis and the government’s response, called for early general elections in November. The conservative PP trounced the PSOE, capturing 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.

The government continued to introduce austerity measures— with more than €150 billion ($196 billion) of spending cuts planned for between 2012 and 2014—in order to prevent a full-scale bailout by the European Union. In response, thousands participated in general strikes in March and November 2012, with police firing on protesters during the March strike. In May, tens of thousands of people marched to mark the anniversary of the “Indignant” protest movement which had begun the previous year as protesters, led by unemployed youth, occupied a central square in Madrid. The movement had inspired similar international movements, such as Occupy Wall Street in the United States. With the unemployment rate at about 25 percent and youth unemployment at more than 50 percent, anti-austerity protests spread to more than 50 cities throughout Spain in October.

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 the 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 Bidu party in the Basque region, which was formed after the political wing of the ETA was permanently banned in 2002, won 21 seats in regional elections in October 2012. The party is expected to form a coalition with the Basque Nationalist Party and push for a referendum on independence. The government rebuffed the region of Catalonia, which produces a fifth of the country’s economic output, in September 2012 when Catalonia asked for the power to raise and spend its own taxes. At the end of December, the president of Catalonia called for a referendum for the region on independence.

In recent years, incidents of political corruption have increased along with the downturn in the economy. In August 2012, the largest corruption trial in the country’s history ended after 22 months. The trial involved 95 defendants—including two former mayors and 15 town counselors—who were accused of participating in a widespread system of graft, with local businesspeople bribing town officials for favorable decisions, primarily in city planning in the town of Marbella. Sentencing will take place in 2013. In March 2012, Juame Matas, the former regional head of Spain’s Balearic Islands and former environment minister, was found guilty of paying a journalist with public funds to write articles praising him. Spain was ranked 30 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 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, such as Prisa and Zeta. Journalists who oppose ETA’s political views have in the past been targeted by the group. In June 2012, the economic downturn led the government to lift a ban on advertising sexual services in print ads. The explicit advertisements bring in more than €40 million (approximately $57 million) annually for the economically struggling newspaper industry. In August 2012, the state-owned broadcaster, RTVE, removed several journalists who strongly criticized the ruling Popular Party.

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. Large anti-austerity protests and strikes took place across the country throughout 2012. Domestic and international nongovernmental organizations operate without government restrictions. With the exception of members of the military, workers are free to strike, organize, and join unions of their choice. About 15 percent of the workforce is unionized.

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary. However, media pressure has been suspected of impacting sensitive rulings, such as immigration and Basque terrorism. Spain’s universal jurisdiction law permits trying suspects for crimes committed abroad if they are not facing prosecution in their home country. In August 2011, a Spanish judge indicted nine Salvadoran soldiers under that law for the murder of six priests in El Salvador in 1989 during that country’s civil war. In February 2012, the controversial judge Baltasar Garzón—who had investigated abuses committed by former dictator Francisco Franco and had ordered the arrest of Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet—was found guilty of illegally wiretapping conversations between detainees accused of bribing politicians and their lawyers; he was suspended from the bench for 11 years. Critics charged that his conviction was at least partly politically motivated. 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.

Roma continue to face discrimination in the labor market and judicial system. In March 2012, the government approved the National Roma Integration Strategy, intended to help that community in health, education, employment, and housing.

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 and 34 percent in the upper house. Same-sex marriages are legal, and same-sex couples may adopt children. Trafficking in men, women, and children for the purposes of sexual exploitation and forced labor remains a problem.