The quality of Spanish democracy is at risk

Underlying structural problems occur regardless of who is actually in government

The Spanish Parliament. / EFE
Jordi Muñoz Professor of Political Science at the University of Barcelona

The case of the money stashed away in Switzerland by former Spanish king Juan Carlos is a good opportunity to assess the health of Spanish democracy. Having a head of state (or the president of the Catalan government) hiding a fortune abroad is not exactly what one would call the sign of a highly evolved democracy. Even more so if it concerns a hereditary position rather than someone who has been elected to office. But this is not the worst of it. The most significant indicator of institutional quality, aside from the existence of corruption itself, is the way in which a country’s institutions react. In this instance, the fact that the former king’s case only came to light thanks to foreign media and it has been covered up by the vast majority of their Spanish counterparts, plus the fact that the Spanish parliament has refused to investigate the events due to the King Emeritus’ supposed inviolability are two very clear indicators of low democratic standards.

Some might say that the problem only concerns Spain’s monarchy. They would argue that it is an institution which is highly symbolic in nature and that it has been justified historically thanks to the need to ensure a peaceful transition from Francoism to democracy. But this is far from the truth. In a short period of time we have seen scandals which have affected other key institutions of the state.

One of the most significant, is the Central Electoral Board. The existence of an independent, neutral electoral authority is fundamental to any democratic system. In Spain, however, this body has been colonized in the worst possible way by the political parties, who have secured a position on the board for paid advisers and sympathisers who purport to be neutral, while using it to do their bidding and hurt their political rivals. By way of proof is the fact that the leader of the PP, Pablo Casado, announced that Oriol Junqueras had been banned from holding public office when the Board’s meeting in which the decision was taken was still in progress.

We also learned not so long ago that the Spanish Constitutional Court had strategically cherry-picked the cases it agreed to see and had deliberately delayed its ruling on appeals to prevent the internationalization of the 1 October trial by means of appeals to the European Court of Human Rights. This is not the first time the Constitutional Court has been known to abuse its position in relation to the Catalan independence process. This was especially apparent in the eagerness with which it tried to impede debates on independence in the parliament of Catalonia, thereby imposing an overly rigid interpretation of parliamentary democracy and autonomy.

The monarchy, the Electoral Board and the Constitutional Court are key organs of Spanish democracy. But the problems of low institutional quality in Spain go much deeper. For example, with the use of the police for political ends which we have witnessed in recent years. Something which is not just a one-off, but instead systematic. Sometimes events occur which reveal deeper evils. Such as the threats and insults hurled by police at the pro-independence politician Laura Borràs while off-duty officers were staging a demonstration in the immediate vicinity of the Congress of Deputies in Madrid, combined with the fact that the officers stationed outside Congress refused to protect her during what was a potentially dangerous situation involving a democratically elected representative of the people. It may have been a one-off, but it highlights the dangerous politicization of the Spanish police force, who have been involved in recent instances of political espionage on rivals, for example.

The list of abuses is a long one. The Court of Auditors, another opaque institution controlled by the PSOE and the PP and other powerful names in the deep state, is yet another example. It has imposed utterly abusive, disproportionate economic penalties in connection with 9-N [the non-binding 2014 Catalan self-determination referendum] and 1-O [the 2017 Catalan independence referendum] with absolute impunity. Or the Supreme Court, which both during the pre-trial and the trial phase did its utmost to prevent the defendants from exercising their political rights and as a result of which it has already been over-ruled on several occasions by European courts.

All these factors suggest underlying structural problems which occur regardless of who is actually in government. However, we need to keep in mind that many of these events have happened in a relatively favourable political context: with no party holding an absolute majority, with more parties than ever represented in the Spanish parliament, and with a pluralist left-wing government in which Podemos plays a key role. In the past we witnessed at first-hand what happens when the Spanish right has enjoyed an absolute majority. And now that there is a significant possibility that in the near future the right and the far right will hold a majority in Spain, these threats to the quality of democracy are far more serious. Such a majority would find little institutional resistance, if it attempted to drag Spanish democracy down to a new low.

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