In English Voices From Spain

A Compared Perspective on Spanish Democracy

Originally published in Spanish: “La democracia española en perspectiva comparada”. Pau Marí-Klose. Agenda Pública.

5 Nov 2017

For sometime now, the Spanish state has been sharply criticized for government and court actions related to the Catalonian question. One of the most widely held views, spouted to all and sundry by secessionists, Podemos and the “Comunes” [members of a Podemos affiliate coalition in Catalonia -TN] is that we are dealing with a state that, to put it mildly, could doubtfully be considered democratic. According to that point of view, there are remnants from the past that have impeded the complete transition to a fully-fledged democratic regime. In the more audacious versions of this accusation, the Spanish state is labeled as “Francoist” or even “failed”, and equated to countries that have been held in international contempt due to the functioning of their supposedly democratic political regimes, such as Poland, Hungary or Turkey. In this framework, Puigdemont can afford to “exile” himself in Belgium and claim he doesn’t show up in court because the Spanish judicial system does not offer enough guarantees.

In the heat of political and media discussions there are plenty of categorical accusations that Spain is not a democracy. Others are somewhat more cautious: they don’t go as far as qualifying Spain as a “non democratic” country, but they deny it the status of being a “true democracy”. Remember “they call it democracy but it isn’t” [a common chant at left demonstrations and protests -TN]. These accusations often have the (legitimate) political aim of discrediting the opponent. In that case, those positing the accusation will bring forward certain skewed “evidence”, what in the academia is termed “selecting on the dependent variable” and is more commonly known as “cherry picking”. Cherry picking supports blunt, straightforward accounts of realities that usually contain nuances and creases, which are removed from consideration of those exposed to those biased versions.

Discerning whether a country is a democracy is not always an easy task. That’s why the academic world has opted for assessing it as a matter of degree. Posing to which extent political regimes are democracies is an endeavor that consumes huge efforts from different projects and academic platforms, in addition to international agencies like the World Bank. Freedom House, the Democracy Index compiled by The Economist Intelligence Unit or the World Governance Indicators from the World Bank are some of the best known initiatives. Using different data sources and methodologies that combine and synthesize remarkable amounts of information, all of them afford Spain not only the consideration of a democratic state, but they give it scores that remove any remaining doubt. But let’s review them one by one.

Freedom House publishes yearly the Freedom in the World reports. Spain is one of the countries ranked as Free, out of three possible categories (Free, Partially Free, Not Free). This classification is the result of using two indexes with seven tranches about political rights and civil liberties. In both of them, Spain is included in the most democratic tranche (1). In the aggregated score for 2016 Spain got 94 points out of 100. This sets Spain one point below the United Kingdom, Belgium or Germany, two points below Switzerland or Ireland, three points below Portugal or Denmark, four points below Australia, five points below the Netherlands and six points below Finland, Norway or Sweden, which are ranked as the most democratic countries. But Spain scores two points over Slovenia, three points over Lithuania, four points over France, five points over Poland, six points over the USA or Italy and ten points more than Greece. And 18 points more than Hungary and 56 more than Turkey, countries with which it’s being compared in the accusing frenzy of these last days.

The Democracy Index from The Economist magazine also ranks Spain among the countries with a full democracy with 8.3 points in 2016. Above Spain are the Scandinavian countries, that almost reach 10; Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, Switzerland and Australia, above 9. The Netherlands score 8.80. Germany and Austria score slightly better than Spain, at 8.63 and 8.41 respectively, and the UK basically ties (8.36). Below we find the USA (7.98), France (7.92), Portugal (7.86), Belgium (7.77, the country where Puigdemont has escaped looking for protection), Greece (7.23). Poland with 6.83 and Hungary with 6.52 are labeled as flawed democracies, Turkey, with 5.04 as a hybrid regime.

The third ranking system worth examining is the set of World Governance Indicators from the World Bank. The World Bank presents six measures of governance quality that give an idea of the profiles and features of the democratic system in each country (Voice and Accountability, Political Stability and Absence of Violence, Government Effectiveness, Regulatory Quality, Rule of Law, Control of Corruption). In comparative terms, Spain comes out favorably in almost all of the indicators (it’s in the highest quintile in all except “Political Stability and Absence of Violence” and “Control of Corruption” where it’s in the fourth quintile).

Due to its relevancy to the current situation, when the impartial use of law is in question, we show a map with the score of each country in the “Rule of Law” indicator.

In this indicator Spain shows up in the 81 percentile. That is to say, 18% of countries have a better score. It’s not a result that invites complacency, but it puts us close to the average for rich OECD countries (87 percentile), above Italy and Greece, and clearly above Poland, Hungary or Turkey.

It can be argued that all these indicators are from 2016 and that the Catalonian crisis is a stress test that might be revealing the true face of the Spanish democratic system and unleashing a democratic regression. This is indeed possible, and we’ll have to be on the look for the evolution of the figures for 2017 and later years when they become available.


But caution is advised with broad-stroked accusations. The Spanish democratic system has structural features that soften the effects of a momentary crisis and self-correct for errors and deviations that may happen. Countries like Hungary and Turkey, that have suffered a regression in their systems in the last few years, never reached in the past the democratic thresholds that the different indicators assign to Spain.

Besides, it’s doubtful that Spain will undergo falls similar to those of the aforementioned countries due to recent police actions in Catalonia, and much less so due to public prosecutors’ penal requests or cautionary court measures adopted last week. Controversial and arguable as they may seem, they can be appealed, amended and voided in later phases of the process, since criminal code guarantees haven’t been exhausted yet.

Spanish democracy shows that, like in any country worthy of such designation, there’s freedom of expression as is proved by the lively debate an criticism that decisions by the executive and judicial branches are getting from experts, media or social networks. The parties that favor independence are exercising their freedom to run for elections (and will likely win them), defend their ideas in the streets and the press or claim for the freedom of the imprisoned. So far, what has been painted as threats to fundamental freedoms hasn’t amounted to more than scattered (albeit disturbing) episodes of violence and untimely remarks by rather peripheral actors in the Spanish political system.

I would dare say that the obsession with tarnishing the democratic character of the ‘78 regime is shifting the focus away from true political and social problems that Spain faces, more related to the configuration and development of certain public policies (many of them also under responsibility of the autonomous regions) and in particular the gaps in the social protection system and its meager capacity to correct inequality and poverty phenomena. As is shown by other rankings and indicators that are as easily available as the ones discussed in this article, Spain compares quite unfavorably in indicators of inequality, poverty, job insecurity or social justice, which we seem quite less inclined to pay attention to than to our democratic institutions.

In the ruckus of current events, social concerns (or those about corruption) are being buried by a slimy stream of news, comment and analysis, frequently shallow and redundant, over the Procés [The Catalan word for “process”, referring to the process of striving for independence -TN]. In this context, the tolerance of a certain left for letting the national question and concerns over democratic quality eclipse the necessary attention deserved by our social deficits is disconcerting. Parlem? [“Shall we talk?”, a Catalan expression currently used to call for a negotiated path to independence -TN]

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