The Erosion of Democracy: Spain's Perilous Path

Estimated Reading Time: 8 Minutes


The cost of distorting the system for the sake of power is steep. Seven votes, in exchange for a nation's democratic integrity.

The ongoing political mayhem in Spain did not emerge without warning; it has been brewing for over a decade, marked by a series of questionable decisions that have eroded the reformist spirit of the 15-M (Spain’s anti-austerity movement). 

The call for accountability, transparency, and honesty in the political elite has faded, leaving behind a flawed democracy and exacerbating inequality among Spaniards.


A Decade of Political Turmoil

Since general elections on July 23rd, Spain's political landscape has plunged into unprecedented turmoil. 

Investiture pacts enabling Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to remain head of government, with support from far-left populists and various nationalists, have resulted in a flurry of controversial decisions and eyebrow-raising announcements.

In an attempt to ease longstanding tension between peripheral factions and the central government, Sánchez has unveiled a short-term agreement with murky long-term effects. At its heart lies a proposed amnesty for Catalan separatist leaders, enacted despite an absence of majority support. Over 60% of Spanish citizens reject the law, according to a poll overseen by El País. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in protest across Spain and outside Spanish Embassies abroad, with banners such as "Sánchez traitor," "No amnesty for terrorism - Europe, save us," and "Democracy in Spain is at risk" becoming a common sight. Moreover, more than 800 Spanish judges demonstrated before various provincial Spanish courts. This is because, on the back of the deal with separatists, the national government cast down all the judicial work carried out by the Constitutional and the Supreme Court since before the illegal referendum of 2017. 

Sánchez’s decisions lack substantive ideological foundation, debate, or social concern, arising solely from parliamentary arithmetic. His moves have also been unequivocally criticised by prominent former socialist (PSOE) leaders, such as former Prime Minister Felipe González, former Vice President Alfonso Guerra, and former Secretary General of the Socialist Party of the Basque Country Nicolás Redondo. 


The Alleged Russian Connection

The proposed amnesty law compels judges to close and archive numerous cases, erasing a litany of crimes committed during the 2017 drive for Catalan independence. 

From disobedience in the Supreme Court, aggravated embezzlement, prevarication, falsification of documents, disclosure of secrets, and terrorism, to damages or disorder in the protests against the sentence of the procès: all will be erased. 

The amnesty could also extend to cover up to 12 members of the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR) - a civil disobedience collective - who are awaiting trial on charges of alleged involvement in a terrorist organization, possession, storage, and manufacture of explosive substances. 

The European Parliament, along with Spain's Civil Guard and Judicial Courts, have also uncovered connections between some Catalan leaders and Vladimir Putin. These connections include meetings with dubious characters seen to operate on behalf of the Kremlin, contacting Russian secret services in exchange for Putin's support, and building trust with Evgeni Primakov (Head of the Kremlin's International Relations Office). As part of their plan to destabilize Europe, Russia carried out interference and misinformation campaigns in media outlets and provided extended financial support. 

The proposed amnesty law would see these actions, too, forgiven and unpunished.


Spain Joins Poland and Hungary under the EU’s Microscope

The international community holds varying opinions on the amnesty deal. 

Despite the abundance of investigative reports on the issue and the EP Plenary debate "Threats to the rule of law as a consequence of the government agreement in Spain" (November 2022), the clashing opinions are concerning. 

The debate, supported by EPP, Renew Europe, ECR and the ID groups, provided a significant platform: since both the Council and Commission were present.  Notably, only Poland and Hungary have ever previously faced scrutiny on Rule of Law matters at the Parliament, for backsliding from EU values. Moreover, the EU Justice Commissioner has promised to study the draft law to verify that it is not contrary to the fundamental values of the EU. 

The uniqueness of Spain's circumstances might explain the lack of unanimity in the matter, as the erosion of democracy is not as apparent as in Hungary or Venezuela. Spain is a Western nation and a member of the EU, and its coalition government is composed of a traditional socialist party that played a significant role in Spain's democratic transition 45 years ago. Although Sánchez is not the typical authoritarian leader, he is also not anti-establishment like Orbán. He presents himself as part of the establishment, amidst party-liner rhetoric. 

However, the other partner in the coalition is a far-left party (Sumar) whose leaders have long supported Nicolás Maduro's Presidency of Venezuela and kept silent before the imprisonment of the political opposition leaders in Venezuela. Recently, all Sumar MEPs, including Sira Rego, Idoia Villanueva and María Eugenia Rodríguez Palop, voted against the EP resolution that condemned Maduro's regime for its anti-democratic actions and called for the release of political prisoners - thereby challenging the Spanish political parties' consensus on Venezuela, and offering a potential illiberal interpretation of democracy. 

Nevertheless, this vote is a testament to the current government's instability and lack of political coordination, which makes them bow down to the demands of their external partners to secure votes. 


Democracy at Risk?

All else said, what is currently happening in Spain can only be interpreted as a gradual weakening of democracy. 

The PSOE’s promotion of unconstitutional laws to align with the demands of figures accused of severe crimes sets a dangerous precedent. By doing so, they encourage their opponents to follow suit when they come to power. The potential consequences of this are concerning, and one can only imagine what Vox would be capable of if given the opportunity. While the PSOE won the vote of no-confidence due to the Popular Party's corruption (I.e: Gürtel case, Púnica case, etc.) it is disappointing to see them supporting corruption related to pro-independence movements while in power.

The PSOE has also taken to denying the legitimacy of its political rivals - labelling them 'enemies' of the nation and of the people, and belittling them by calling them 'far-right'. Neutralising institutional counterweights, a lack of judicial independence, and obliteration of the separation of powers - these are classic symptoms of an illiberal democracy. 

According to Levitsky and Ziblatt’s "How Democracies Die", rather than being overthrown by military leaders, democracies may perish due to the actions of elected presidents and prime ministers who undermine the very process that brought them to power. Spain's Socialist party, with the support of Catalan and Basque separatists and far-left populists, is setting itself as representative of the people and of the majority - proclaiming the right to govern without respecting the rights or interests of the majority of Spanish citizens, and going beyond what the constitution allows and warning judges that they cannot become a brake on the executive power legitimized by the ballot.

Whenever illiberalism emerges, it takes on a familiar shape that includes corruption, limits on free speech and assembly, media constraints, political retaliation, and oppression of minority groups. While all these are negative, they are not necessarily undemocratic (Zakaria, 1997). 

The current Spanish government is not violating the law - but rewriting it to its advantage.


Into the Darkness 

The transaction whereby one comes to power and exonerates allies of their crimes is an indescribably dangerous play. 

To offer a privilege before the law is to open the door to all kinds of abuse of power and political oversight. It is to weaken the seams of the social system. A historical disaster, accomplice to a repeated, unacknowledged and unamended train wreck of failures.

The separatist movement will not renounce unilateralism or constitutional rupture, nor will it accept the illegitimacy of its actions in 2017. To offer amnesty to those responsible for illegal acts would prove a grave disregard for - and ignorance towards - Spain's democracy and citizens, and a blatant attack on the EU’s fundamental values. Extending amnesty to such individuals would muddy the legacy of the Spanish nation, which fought for a social and democratic rule of law only forty years ago. It would be a catastrophic error to normalize political signaling as a basic resting pulse. 

We must remember that the government should always serve the common good instead of prioritizing individual interests. 

Personal gain must not be allowed to harm the health of Spain. 


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The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) alone. These views do not necessarily reflect those of LYMEC.


Silvia Fernandez
Silvia Fernandez

Silvia Fernandez is a dedicated and active member of the ALDE Party and LYMEC for many years; and part of the Alliance of Her Alumni. With a background in Political Sciences and Law, she specializes in International Relations.

posted on

January 17 2024

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