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 2018:
- In June, for the first time in Spanish history, a vote of no confidence was approved by the parliament, leading Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the conservative Popular Party (PP) to resign and Pedro Sánchez of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) to replace him at the head of a new minority government. The move came after several PP members were convicted on corruption charges in May.
- Tensions stemming from the separatist movement in Catalonia remained during the year, though the new national government began discussions on the issue with newly elected regional leaders. Meanwhile, a number of separatist figures were awaiting trial on charges of rebellion and other offenses related to an independence referendum that was held in defiance of court orders in late 2017.
- In December, the new party Vox won seats in Andalusia’s regional elections, marking the first time since Spain’s transition to democracy that a far-right party had gained representation in a regional legislature.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 39 / 40 (+1)
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.
Inconclusive elections in December 2015 and June 2016 led to months of fruitless coalition talks, wither neither the PP nor the PSOE able to assemble a majority. The impasse finally ended when the PSOE agreed to allow incumbent prime minister Rajoy to establish a minority government in late 2016.
In June 2018, after several PP members were convicted on corruption charges and the PP itself was ordered to pay a large fine, the PSOE won a motion of no confidence against the government, forcing Rajoy to resign and allowing Sánchez, the PSOE leader, to form his own minority government. The leftist party Unidos Podemos and the Catalan and Basque nationalist parties voted in support of the motion, while the center-right Ciudadanos and the PP voted against.
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 2016 parliamentary elections, the PP emerged with 137 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, followed by the PSOE with 85, Unidos 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 Rajoy dissolved the regional government in October 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. In May 2018, the legislature chose Quim Torra, a separatist independent, to lead a new regional government, ending a seven-month period of direct rule from Madrid.
Andalusia held regional assembly elections in December 2018. The PSOE led with 33 of the 109 seats, but right-leaning parties—the PP , Ciudadanos, and the far-right Spanish nationalist party Vox—collectively won a majority and were expected to form a new regional government in 2019. The 12 seats secured by Vox marked the first time since Spain’s transition to democracy following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 that a far-right party was represented in a regional legislature.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 / 4 (+1)
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 central government contributed to a chaotic environment that did not allow for fair and transparent balloting. The situation stabilized significantly during 2018 with the formation of new regional and national governments, even if the underlying dispute and numerous criminal cases against Catalan officials remained unresolved.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because there was no repetition of a 2017 constitutional crisis surrounding a flawed referendum on Catalan independence.
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 once dominated the political system, corruption scandals and persistent economic woes in recent years have aided the rise of new alternatives including Unidos 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 new PSOE government that took office in 2018 ended more than six years of PP rule.
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, holding approximately 39 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. In the PSOE government formed in 2018, women held 61 percent of the ministerial positions.
Spain’s system of regional autonomy grants significant powers of self-governance to the country’s traditional national minorities, including Catalans and Basques. The autonomy of Catalonia, suspended following the illegal referendum in 2017, was restored after the region held elections and installed new leadership in May 2018.
Some of the Catalan officials and activists who were charged with offenses such as rebellion, sedition, and misuse of public funds as a result of the referendum remained in pretrial detention during 2018, while others, including former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, remained outside the country. Meanwhile, the new PSOE government in Madrid sought to ease tensions, in part by moving the incarcerated politicians to Catalan prisons and meeting for talks with the regional government. In December, however, Sánchez threatened to send security forces to Catalonia, accusing regional authorities of mismanaging large proindependence protests.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 11 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4
Elected officials are generally free to make and implement laws and policies without undue interference.
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 move slowly. Among other high-profile proceedings during the year, in May 2018, after 10 years of investigation, the courts handed down convictions for 29 of the 37 people indicted over their alleged involvement in the illegal financing of the PP from 1999 to 2005. The party itself was found to have benefited from the schemes and was ordered to pay a €240,000 ($280,000) fine.
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: 55 / 60 (−1)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 14 / 16 (−1)
D1. Are there free and independent media? 3 / 4
Spain has a free 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 June 2018, the new PSOE government issued a decree that temporarily replaced the board of directors of the Spanish Radio and Television Corporation (RTVE) until a stalled law to select the board through a public contest could be implemented. The law was finalized in July, and in December a group of board candidates was presented for consideration by the parliament. Separately, at year’s end the leaders of the regional public broadcasters in Catalonia were under investigation for allegedly using the outlets as a platform to promote the illegal 2017 independence 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 2018. For example, in November photojournalist Juan Carlos Mohr was fined €2,000 ($2,300) for allegedly disobeying police orders while covering a 2017 protest.
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, 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.
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? 3 / 4 (−1)
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. At least 119 people were convicted of speech-related “terrorism” offenses between 2011 and 2017, almost four times more than during the period from 2004 to 2011, when Basque Fatherland and Freedom (ETA), a separatist terrorist group, was still active. 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 March 2018, the European Court of Human Rights found that Spain had violated the free expression rights of two Catalan men who were convicted and fined for publicly burning a photograph of the king in 2007.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to a pattern in which a broadly worded antiterrorism law and other legal provisions have been used to prosecute individuals for their political expression.
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 near key buildings or infrastructure. Participants in protests on a variety of local concerns have faced smaller but still substantial fines under the law.
Separately, two prominent Catalan independence activists, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez, were charged with sedition in 2017 for leading protests aimed at preventing police from halting the banned referendum. They were also charged with rebellion in March 2018, and at year’s end they remained in pretrial detention.
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.
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
The population faces no major threats to physical security. The potential for terrorist attacks by radical Islamist groups remains a concern, though ETA announced in April 2018 that it had formally dissolved, having ended its armed activity several years earlier.
Prison conditions generally meet international standards, but short-term internment centers for irregular migrants suffer from overcrowding and other problems. The country’s ombudsman and Human Rights Watch have argued that the facilities violate human rights protections.
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 point of entry to Europe for irregular migrants and refugees. More than 57,000 people crossed the Mediterranean to reach Spain during 2018, setting a new record for sea arrivals and outpacing other European countries like Italy and Greece. Thousands of migrants and refugees also congregate at the land border between Morocco and the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. In 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, and they continued to occur during 2018.
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
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. In April 2018, five men were acquitted of rape and convicted on a lesser charge of sexual abuse in a high-profile 2016 case in Pamplona, leading to protests and calls for the law to be amended so that specific evidence of physical violence or intimidation accompanying a sexual assault would not be needed to secure a rape conviction.
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. 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 unemployment rate is still high for the region, though it dropped to 14.45 percent—a 10-year low—by the end of 2018.