Freedom in the World
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Freedom in the World Scores
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 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.
Key Developments in 2017:
- Defying orders from the Constitutional Court, a separatist-led regional government in Catalonia held a referendum on independence in October and subsequently attempted to declare an independent Catalan republic. However, the central government suspended the region’s autonomy and ordered regional elections for December. Separatist parties again won control of the Catalan legislature and were working to form a new regional government at year’s end.
- Ousted Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont and several of his allies fled the country to avoid charges of rebellion and other offenses linked to the illegal referendum. Some separatist politicians and activists were detained pending trial.
- Cristina de Borbón, sister of King Felipe VI, was acquitted of tax fraud in a high-profile corruption case in February, but her husband was sentenced to more than six years in prison for his role in a scheme to obtain lucrative no-bid contracts from regional government bodies.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 38 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 11 / 12 (−1)
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
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.
Incumbent prime minister Mariano Rajoy of the conservative Popular Party (PP) formed a new minority government in November 2016 after members of the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) agreed to abstain from a vote to confirm him in office. The move ended an impasse that began almost a year earlier. Either the PP or the PSOE have typically held a parliamentary majority in recent decades, but the success of two newer parties—the left-wing Podemos and center-right Ciudadanos—in the December 2015 elections triggered months of fruitless coalition talks, followed by fresh elections in June 2016 that similarly failed to produce a governing majority.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
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 elections are generally considered free and fair. In the June 2016 parliamentary elections, the PP emerged with 137 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, followed by the PSOE with 85, Podemos with 45, Ciudadanos with 32, and several smaller parties with the remainder. The PP and its allies also took 130 directly elected seats in the Senate, giving them an overall majority of 151 in the upper chamber; the PSOE placed second with a total of 63 seats.
Regional elections in Catalonia were held in December 2017 after Prime Minister Rajoy dissolved Puigdemont’s government in the wake of the illegal referendum on independence. Ciudadanos, which strongly opposes Catalan independence, led the voting with 36 seats, but the three separatist parties won a combined 70 seats in the 135-seat legislature, and they were in the process of forming another government at year’s end. The PP took just 4 seats, the regional branch of the PSOE won 17, and the left-wing Catalonia in Common took 8.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4 (−1)
Spain’s constitution and electoral laws provide the legal framework for democratic elections, and they are generally implemented fairly. However, the initiation and conduct of the October 2017 independence referendum in Catalonia featured a number of fundamental flaws.
The Catalan parliament’s separatist majority voted in September to approve the referendum plan and procedures for declaring independence in the event of a “yes” vote, despite the fact that such moves had previously been banned by the courts on constitutional grounds. Opposition parties also cited violations of parliamentary procedure and walked out of the session. The Constitutional Court almost immediately suspended the legislation pending a review of its constitutionality, but the Catalan government ignored the court’s order and held the vote on October 1. The court then confirmed that it violated the constitution in several ways and had no legal force.
For its part, the central government used aggressive methods to disrupt the referendum, adding to a chaotic environment that did not allow for fair and transparent balloting. Police deployed by the central authorities were ordered to halt the vote, in part by seizing ballot materials, and in some cases they used baton charges against peaceful demonstrators outside polling locations, leading human rights groups to allege excessive force. Some protesters also assaulted police. Separatist officials changed the voting rules just before balloting began, allowing citizens to cast ballots at any polling location; unofficial ballots were permitted, without the usual envelopes and other safeguards. Meanwhile, Spanish authorities blocked a number of websites related to the referendum.
The Catalan government reported that about 90 percent of referendum participants had voted for independence, with turnout at some 42 percent. Puigdemont then declared the independence of Catalonia but said its “effects” would be suspended pending a dialogue with Madrid. The central authorities responded by charging the Catalan leader and several other regional officials and independence activists with offenses such as rebellion, sedition, and misuse of public funds. Some were placed in pretrial detention, while others, including Puigdemont, fled abroad and remained there at year’s end.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to the flawed Catalan independence referendum, which was held in defiance of court orders under conditions that did not guarantee a free and fair vote.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 16 / 16
B1. 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 / 4
Citizens are free to organize political parties, which are able to function without interference in practice. While the PP and the PSOE dominated what had traditionally been a two-party system, corruption scandals and persistent economic woes in recent years have weakened their grip on power, permitting the rise of Podemos and Ciudadanos.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
There have been multiple democratic transfers of power between rival parties since Spain returned to democracy in the late 1970s. The most recent change in government occurred in 2011, when Rajoy and the PP replaced a PSOE leadership that had been in power for nearly eight years.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 4 / 4
Voting and political affairs in general are largely free from undue interference by unelected or external forces.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 4 / 4
Women and minority groups enjoy full political rights. Women are relatively well represented in politics, with more than 39 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Spain’s system of regional autonomy grants significant powers of self-government to the country’s traditional national minorities, including Catalans and Basques.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 11 / 12 (+1)
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4 (+1)
Elected officials are generally free to make and implement laws and policies without undue interference. However, the partisan stalemate that followed the December 2015 elections left Spain without a full-fledged government until late 2016, when the PSOE acquiesced to a PP minority government rather than risk further instability. Prime Minister Rajoy struggled to pass legislation during 2017, as doing so required multiparty negotiations, but his government remained in place throughout the year.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 due to the end of a political impasse that had left the country without a national government for most of the previous year.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3 / 4
Concerns about official corruption often center on party financing. Though most party expenses are funded by the state, a 2007 law confirmed the right of political parties to use commercial bank loans as well. 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.
Although the courts have a solid record of investigating and prosecuting corruption cases, the system is often overburdened, and cases proceed slowly. A number of high-profile corruption cases continued during 2017. In July, Rajoy testified as a witness in a trial focused on alleged illegal financing of the PP and a related system of kickbacks for public contracts. The trial was ongoing at year’s end. Separately, Cristina de Borbón, sister of Spain’s current king, was acquitted of tax fraud in February, but her husband was sentenced to six years and three months in prison for offenses including tax evasion, fraud, and embezzlement, having used his influence to obtain inflated no-bid contracts from regional governments. A former regional premier from the Balearic Islands was among the other defendants in the case, receiving three years and eight months in prison.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 4 / 4
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.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 56 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 15 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 3 / 4
Spain has a free and active press that covers a wide range of perspectives and actively investigates high-level corruption. However, consolidation of private ownership and political interference at public outlets pose threats to media independence. In 2017, the national public broadcaster RTVE was criticized by its own journalists and its news council—tasked with monitoring its impartiality—for biased coverage of the Catalonia crisis. The crisis also featured pressure on journalists from both sides, including intimidation on social media, threats of prosecution, and assaults during clashes between police and protesters. Spanish authorities sought to block websites that shared information about the referendum.
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 continued to face penalties for alleged violations of the law while reporting on police actions during 2017.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
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, 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.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4
The government does not restrict academic freedom in law or in practice.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4
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.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 11 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 3 / 4
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly, and the authorities typically respect this right in practice. However, the public safety act that took effect in 2015 imposed a number of restrictions, including fines of up to €600,000 ($680,000) for participating in unauthorized protests outside key buildings or infrastructure. In 2017, separate protests by drought-stricken farmers and opponents of a new rail line in the Murcia region led to smaller fines for blocking roads and other infractions.
Police actions during referendum-related demonstrations in Catalonia prompted allegations of excessive force against protesters. Two prominent independence activists, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez, were charged with sedition for leading protests aimed at preventing police from halting the referendum; they remained in detention at year’s end.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4
Domestic and international nongovernmental organizations operate without significant government restrictions.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 4 / 4
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.
F. RULE OF LAW: 15 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 4 / 4
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 ensures their independence—are not directly elected by their peers, but appointed through a three-fifths vote in the parliament, as with the other eight members. Experts have argued that this arrangement increases the risk of political influence. In response to the Council of Europe’s recommendations, the parliament as of late 2017 was reportedly drafting legislation that would institute direct elections by judges for the 12 seats in question.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 4 / 4
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 enjoy full due process rights during trial.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 4 / 4
Prison conditions generally meet international standards, though short-term internment centers for irregular migrants have sometimes suffered from overcrowding and other problems.
Terrorism by radical Islamist groups remains a threat. In August 2017, a group of terrorists carried out two vehicular attacks on crowds in Catalonia, killing 16 people before being arrested or shot dead by police.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4
Women, racial minorities, and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people enjoy legal protections against discrimination and other mistreatment, though a degree of societal bias persists. Women continue to face inequities in employment and compensation, while some minority groups—including Roma—remain economically marginalized and are allegedly subject to police profiling.
Spain is a major entry point for irregular migrants and refugees, many of whom congregate at the border between Morocco and the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. In October 2017, the European Court of Human Rights found that Spain’s practice of summarily expelling those who manage to cross the border fence is unlawful under the European Convention on Human Rights. Such expulsions were authorized by the public safety act that took effect in 2015.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 15 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4
There are no significant restrictions on individuals’ freedom to travel within the country or abroad, or to change their place of residence, employment, or education.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 4 / 4
The legal framework supports property rights, and there are no major restrictions on private business activity.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 4 / 4
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.
Same-sex marriage has been legal in Spain since 2005, and same-sex couples may adopt children.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4
Residents generally have access to economic opportunity and protection from exploitative working conditions, but despite strong antitrafficking efforts by law enforcement agencies, migrant workers remain vulnerable to debt bondage, forced labor, and sexual exploitation.