Spain Democracy and Rights

Democracy and rights

Following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, Spain quickly developed into a functioning democracy, with free elections and peaceful shifts of power. Legal security is generally good and civil rights are usually respected. In recent years, however, Spain has introduced several new laws that have been criticized for restricting freedom of expression. The country has also been shaken by several major corruption deals with ramifications into politics. Several high-ranking politicians have been convicted of corruption crimes.

The ever stronger independence movement in the Catalonia region has put strong strain on the political system (see below and Current policy).

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Freedom of speech and assembly is enshrined in the constitution, which also contains guarantees that human rights are respected and that all Spaniards are equal before the law. Anyone born Spanish cannot be deprived of his Spanish citizenship.

Political elections are conducted according to democratic rules of the game and citizens are free to form political parties. In recent years, a number of reforms have been implemented to strengthen, among other things, the rights of women, children, LGBTQ persons and minorities (see Social conditions). However, the Council of Europe has noted that Spain, alongside San Marino, is the only one of the organization’s 47 member states that does not have a special body to fight racism.

After the April 2019 parliamentary elections, 47 percent of members of Congress were women, which is the highest proportion in the EU, ahead of both Finland and Sweden. In the Spanish Socialist Party government that took office in June 2018, eleven out of 17 ministers were women (see Social conditions). When it comes to regional governments, about 40 percent of ministers are women.

Freedom of expression and media

During the Franco dictatorship (1939-1975), the state exercised strong control over the mass media. When the freedom of the press was written in the 1978 constitution, many new newspapers were started. The press is now independent, while some of the etheric media are still politically controlled. The newspapers have played an important role in revealing high-level corruption deals in society.

In Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index for 2020, Spain came in 29 out of 180 countries, which was seven positions higher than seven years earlier (for list, see here). The Freedom House organization describes the media situation as free.

The economic crisis of 2008–2014 hit the media hard, not least because of a shrinking advertising market. Several hundred mass media were forced to close and over 12,000 journalists lost their jobs. The media market was deregulated in 2009 and is today dominated by a few large companies. Many media companies survive with the help of government support and money from banks and large companies. At the same time, the problems of self-censorship have increased.

New legislation from 2015 has raised criticism that Spain limits freedom of expression. In July that year, the Civil Protection Act was passed, which is often called the Monk Breeding Act (Ley Mordaza). This means that people who are considered to interfere with the public order – through house occupations, in connection with clashes with police or protests at “socially important places (such as the Madrid Congress), can be sentenced to fines (from € 30 up to € 600,000). Even people who protest against evictions, lack respect for the Spanish flag or demonstrate without permission can be fined. It is also prohibited to photograph / film police if it could pose a danger to them or their relatives. The media also does not have the right to publish such photographs / films. PSOE, which in opposition directed harsh criticism of the law, seemed to want to retain some sensitive parts of it in the fall of 2018.

In 2015, the Criminal Code was also tightened, and according to Law 578 it was forbidden to “pay homage to terrorism” and “humiliate victims of terrorism”. Anyone who violates the law can be sentenced to fines and imprisonment and denied employment in the public sector. From 2015 to April 2017, 49 of 54 convictions were about the glorification of the Basque separatist movement ETA. One of the most notable cases concerns rapper José Miguel Arenas, best known as Valtònyc, who was sentenced to over three years in prison for defamation of the royal house, glorification of terrorism and threats posed in song lyrics. However, he had left the country before the sentence fell.

In an Information Act (“Transparency Act”) of 2014, access to information is no longer generally regarded as a fundamental right – including, for example, certain information that comes from the government. A supervisory authority was also created whose independence is not guaranteed by law. The law has drawn criticism both within Spain and from international organizations such as the OSCE and campaigns are underway to change it

El País is still the most important newspaper, despite falling editions. In recent years, a number of small and independent media, many of them web-based, have been created that reach a comparatively large audience (most important being El Confidencial and

The Congress (parliament’s lower house) appoints the board of the state radio and television company Radiotelevisión Española (RTVE). During the bourgeois government 2011–2018, control over the state television was sharpened. The head of RTVE has been elected by a simple majority in Congress since 2012, with support from two-thirds of Congress members previously required. The process of appointing a new board was in the spring of 2019, but it stopped because of the new election in April of that year. There are also a number of independent TV channels.

In Catalonia, tensions between those who want the region to become an independent state and those who want it to continue to be part of Spain have affected media reporting. RTVE was criticized in 2017 for being biased in its monitoring of the referendum in Catalonia. The criticism also came from the own journalists and the company’s news council. Journalists from both sides were subjected to harassment and threats of violence, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Press freedom organizations have also criticized the authorities for not respecting the source protection, including when the police seized two journalists’ computers and mobile phones in the fall of 2018 to detect a leak used in reporting a corruption case.


In 2018, Spain placed 41st in the organization Transparency International’s ranking on corruption in 180 countries. The following year, the country had climbed eleven places to place 30 (for list see here).

Representatives of the major Spanish parties the People’s Party (PP) and the Socialist Party (PSOE) – but also the Catalan CiU (which has changed its name several times and is now included in Junts per Catalunya) – have been involved in extensive corruption deals. It’s about everything from bribery and money laundering to tax breaks and illegal party financing. Several of the scandals have resulted in convictions, but the legal processes often drag on over time.

In 2013, around 50 local politicians and officials in the Andalusian municipality of Marbella were convicted of embezzling municipal funds and receiving bribes to grant building permits in, among other protected areas, award public contracts and more (see Calendar). An even bigger corruption trial was initiated in the fall of 2016. Now, the businessmen who bribed lucrative business contracts from politicians, especially from the PP. About 30 people, including Luis Bárcenas, PP’s treasurer for 33 years, were sentenced in May 2018 to long prison terms and high fines for this (see Calendar). This had political consequences, as the convicting judges led to the PP government losing a vote of no confidence in Congress and being forced to resign (see Modern History). The judgment emphasized that the testimony given by the then Prime Minister and PP leader Mariano Rajoy in court was not credible. In Andalucia, leading PSOE politicians are facing trial for having lost € 855 million, which was an important reason why the Socialist Party lost the regional elections there in 2018.

Another notable case concerns King Felipe VI’s brother-in-law Iñaki Urdangarín who in 2017 was sentenced to prison for tax evasion and embezzlement. The king’s sister, Princess Cristina, was also prosecuted but released from all criminal offenses.

Legal certainty

According to the Constitution, the judicial system must be independent, and in practice it can act independently. However, the Council of Europe has criticized the fact that the majority of judges in the Judicial Council (Consejo General del Poder Judicial, CGPJ) who oversee the judiciary and guarantee its independence are elected by Parliament (six members are appointed by Congress, six by the Senate and eight by lawyers); which increases the risk of politicians interfering in its work. Similar criticisms have also been directed at the judges sitting in the Constitutional Court being appointed by the Spanish Parliament.

Spain abolished the death penalty in 1978.

The fall of Catalonia

The Spanish regions have considerable autonomy, but the extent of their powers varies, which is a source of conflict. The Constitutional Court’s 2010 decision to annul a bill that would give greater power to the regional government of Catalonia created tensions between Barcelona and the rulers of Madrid and contributed to increased demands for independence for the region (see Catalonia and Current Policy).

The contradictions increased when the regional government held a referendum on independence for Catalonia in October 2017. It was enforced even though the vote had been banned by the Madrid government and the Constitutional Court had rejected it, citing that the process of independence violated the Constitution. However, it brought to light that Madrid resorted to such harsh methods to stop the referendum, not least the national police’s attempt to prevent people from voting (see Catalonia). The authorities also blocked a number of websites that were there to help people vote. At the same time, the then regional government was criticized for changing the voting rights rules before the referendum, so that, for example, it was possible to vote in any polling station. On October 27, 2017, the Barcelona regional parliament adopted a unilateral declaration of independence (see Calendar).

This has had legal ramifications. A well-publicized trial was launched in February 2019 against twelve Catalans from the Independence Camp who have been charged with riots, embezzlement of public funds and disobedience and where the prosecutor demanded lengthy prison sentences (Current policy). Among the defendants are the former Vice President of Catalonia, Oriol Junqueras, the former President of the Regional Parliament, Carme Forcadell, seven former Ministers of the Regional Government and Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart, leader of the grassroots organizations Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and ochmnium. What has aroused a great deal of attention is that nine of the twelve have been prosecuted for “rebellion, when, according to the prosecutors, they tried to break the constitutional order to achieve independence by force. This despite the fact that no weapons were involved and no fatalities were required. The defense’s final pleadings admitted that the defendants had shown disobedience, but all other charges were rejected (see Calendar). In the fall of 2019, nine of them were sentenced to lengthy prison sentences for rioting and misuse of public funds (see Calendar).

In the fall of 2018, Amnesty International criticized Spain for the ANC and nmnium Cultural leaders, Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart, still in custody a year after they were arrested. The organization claimed that this was not in proportion to the crimes they had been accused of: that on September 20 and 21, 2017, they should have called on protesters to gather outside the government buildings in Barcelona to prevent the police from searching for election material and to have encouraged revival by participating in the referendum on Catalan independence on October 1 of that year, despite the Spanish Constitutional Court. The men were prosecuted in March 2018 for, among other things, “rebellion” and run the risk of being sentenced to 17 years in prison.

Human rights organizations have also criticized Spanish authorities for immediately sending back migrants and refugees who have entered the Spanish exclaves Ceuta and Melilla to Morocco, thereby depriving them of the opportunity to seek political asylum.

Conflicts around Spain’s history

The country’s conflict-ridden past divides the Spaniards into two camps – those who want to focus on injustice during the civil war and dictatorship and those who want to put the past behind them. Voluntary organizations have demanded that mass graves be excavated and that victims’ relatives be financially compensated. In 2007, Parliament passed the disputed Law on historical memory. It says, among other things, that mass graves must be mapped. PP voted against the law.

In the spring of 2010, demonstrations were held in Spanish cities and at Spanish embassies against the freedom of prosecution introduced in 1977 for crimes committed during the civil war. The protests also claimed that one of the Supreme Court’s judges, Baltasar Garzón (who became famous when he tried to bring Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet to trial), had been charged with abuse of legal power. Garzón had tried to investigate crimes committed by the Franco regime even though they were covered by the amnesty of 1977. After an attention-grabbing trial in February 2012, the Supreme Court freed Garzón from suspicions of abuse of power, but instead he was sentenced to illegal interception in a corruption case and was deprived of his power.

The legislation allows Spanish courts to prosecute crimes against humanity committed in other countries. Most notable are the attempts to bring Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet to trial. In 2014, this possibility was limited, and prosecution can now only be brought if there is a Spanish connection to the case.

The PSOE-led government that came to power in 2018 has decided to move former dictator Franco’s remnants from a mausoleum in El Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen) to El Pardo Cemetery in Mingorrubio, north of Madrid. However, the process has stalled because of protests from Franco’s relatives.


For many years, the Basque separatist movement carried out ETA terrorist acts as part of the struggle for an independent Basque country. From 1960 until 2011, when ETA announced a ceasefire, more than 800 people, politicians, police and ordinary citizens were killed. In May 2018, ETA completely dissolved. Operations to prevent terror were built up during the time that the Basque separatist movement ETA posed a threat (see Basque Country).

In August 2017, Spain was hit by two Islamist terrorist attacks in Catalonia that claimed a total of 15 lives (see Calendar). It was the first terrorist act in the country since 2004, when 191 people were killed in a series of attacks against public transport in Madrid (see Modern History). Spanish Security and Intelligence Service said in August 2017 that they have managed to prevent 15 planned assaults since 2011. According to government sources, 180 suspected jihadists have been arrested between 2012 and 2016.

About 130 jihadists who are Spanish nationals or people who have previously lived in Spain were in conflict areas in Syria in the spring of 2019. The Islamic State (IS) is said to have carried out the attacks in Catalonia (see also Foreign Policy and Defense). The fact that the Moors (Arabs and Berbers) took control of the Iberian peninsula in the 710s (by 1492 the Moors had lost control of Muslim Spain, al-Andalus, and were forced to leave the country) have been exploited by the Islamist extremist movements in their propaganda.

A group of twelve men, all with Moroccan roots, are suspected of the 2017 attacks. Six of them were shot dead by police, while four were arrested by police. Two men are also believed to have been killed in Alcanar in connection with the handling of explosives which it is suspected would be used in planned assaults.

Abbreviated as ESP by Abbreviationfinder, Spain and Morocco work closely on security issues.

Spain Crime Rate & Statistics