Polity: Parliamentary democracy
Population: 41,300,000
GNI/Capita: $19,472
Life Expectancy: 79
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic (94 percent), other (6 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Mediterranean and Nordic
Capital: Madrid

Political Rights Score: 1
Civil Liberties Score: 1
Status: Free

Ratings Change
Spain's civil liberties rating improved from 2 to 1 due to changes in the survey methodology.


The most significant event to affect political rights in 2002 was the passage in June of a law that aims to regulate political parties. The law was directed specifically at Batasuna, the political wing of the Basque paramilitary organization, the Basque Fatherland and Liberty Party (ETA). The new law has triggered further deterioration in the political climate in the Basque Country by uniting moderate and radical Basque nationalists, and has arguably given legitimacy to claims of "political repression" in the region.

The Basque issue has taken center stage in the domestic political drama, but the government of the Partido Popular (PP) is acting with a renewed sense of purpose following a major cabinet reshuffle in June. However, it is unclear whether the shake-up can stem the slow but steady decline in the government's support and the corresponding rise in that of the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE). The PP of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar still enjoys a narrow lead over the PSOE in most opinion polls, but this could evaporate if the economic outlook fails to improve. The PP's prospects of winning a third term will also be affected by the race to succeed the prime minister, who has committed himself to withdrawing from domestic politics ahead of the next general election, which is due by March 2004.

Economic growth stagnated in 2001 and only a marginal pickup is predicted for 2002 and 2003. Growth in the 2000-01 period was the lowest since 1993. Spain's labor market, which has been made more efficient and responsive to movements in the economy under a number of recent laws, is again experiencing a rise in the unemployment rate, after having fallen to historic lows in the late 1990s.

Spain's Basques were the first group known to have occupied the Iberian Peninsula. However, Spain's current language and laws are based on those of the Romans, who arrived in the second century B.C. In the year 711, the Moors invaded from North Africa, ruling for 700 years. The unification of present-day Spain dates from 1512. After a period of colonial influence and wealth, the country declined as a European power and was occupied by France in the early 1800s. Subsequent wars and revolts led to Spain's loss of its colonies in the Americas by that century's end. Francisco Franco began a long period of nationalist rule after the victory of his forces in the 1936-1939 civil war. In spite of the country's official neutrality, Franco followed Axis policies during World War II. Even with its closed economy, the country was transformed into a modern industrial nation in the postwar years. After a transitional period upon Franco's death in 1975, the country emerged as a parliamentary democracy. It joined the European Union (EU) in 1986.

The Spanish government began negotiations with the ETA in 1998, establishing a cease-fire and aiming to end a conflict that has claimed approximately 800 lives since 1970. The two sides were emboldened to negotiate after witnessing the positive results of the signing of the Northern Ireland peace accords. By December 1999, however, the ETA had announced an end to the ceasefire, angered by what it perceived as slow progress in the talks. It subsequently stepped up its attacks in both frequency and deadliness. During the violence, marked by car bombings and assassinations, moderate Basque nationalists won regional elections in early 2001.

A bill passed in June that outlawed the ETA's political wing, Batasuna, was approved with the support of the PP, the PSOE, and the moderate Catalan nationalists. The bill also received legal recognition. The law envisages the establishment of a judicial process that would gather evidence relating to any political party accused of supporting or promoting violence. The moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which controls the regional government, has led street demonstrations alongside Batasuna in protest against the law. Some Basque leaders have been increasingly outspoken for independence as a result. At the same time, the ETA has intensified its campaign of intimidation and violence against local PP and PSOE party members in many Basque municipalities. The Supreme Court had declared in August a temporary three-year suspension of Batasuna under existing legislation, after an investigation concluded that Batasuna is, in fact, an integral part of the ETA. Despite these events, the Basque Country pushed for more independence during 2002 in political moves that call for its eventual and complete independence.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Spanish citizens can change their government democratically. Spain has been governed democratically since 1977, after nearly 40 years of dictatorship under Franco and a brief transitional government under Adolfo Suarez. The country is divided into 17 autonomous regions with limited powers, including control over such areas as health, tourism, local police agencies, and instruction in regional languages. The bicameral federal legislature includes the territorially elected Senate and the Congress of Deputies elected on the basis of proportional representation and universal suffrage. Although a law stipulates that women must occupy 25 percent of senior party posts and a feminist party has been officially registered since 1981, female participation in government remains minimal.

The Supreme Tribunal heads the judiciary, which includes territorial, provincial, regional, and municipal courts. The post-Franco constitution and 1996 parliamentary legislation established the right to trial by jury.

Freedom of speech and a free press are guaranteed. The press has been particularly influential in setting the political agenda in recent years, with national daily newspapers such as El Mundo, ABC, and El Pais covering corruption and other issues. A new conservative daily, La Razon, was launched in 1998. In addition to the state-controlled television station, which has been accused of pro-government bias, there are three independent commercial television stations. Members of the press sometimes figure among ETA targets for assassination. There is general agreement that legislation is needed to govern the operation of Web sites since there currently are no laws applicable to e-commerce. A bill pending in the parliament at the end of 2002 is being criticized in some quarters as contrary to free expression on the Internet, and is viewed as favoring large companies given the bill's tax implications. However, the bill is viewed by a number of analysts as applicable to commercial Internet sites, not personal Web sites.

Spain lacks antidiscrimination laws, and ethnic minorities, particularly immigrants, continue to report bias and mistreatment. In particular, North African immigrants report physical abuse and discrimination by authorities and are frequently the subjects of attack by Spanish civilians. After receiving large numbers of illegal immigrants in 2000, which led to severe outbreaks of racial and anti-immigrant violence, Spain faced a continuing influx of illegal immigrants in 2002. Scores of illegal immigrants, mostly North African, arrived by boat throughout the year, many not surviving the short, yet often treacherous, journey. Some estimates are that 3,000 people have drowned over the last five years while trying to reach Spain. The Spanish Interior Ministry estimates that 50,000 legal and illegal workers arrive each year, mainly from North Africa.

In February 2001 the government passed an immigration law allowing for the imposition of heavy fines against those employing illegal immigrants. The law also seeks to stem the flow of immigrants entering Spain illegally, and to crack down on smugglers of immigrants. The Spanish government released figures at the end of 2001, which showed a 16 percent increase in the number of illegal immigrants found on Spanish territory in the first 10 months of 2001, from 15,195 persons in 2000 to 17,692 in 2001. The trend continued but slowed in 2002.

The rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining are constitutionally guaranteed. The country has one of the lowest levels of trade union membership in the EU, and unions have failed to prevent passage of labor laws facilitating dismissals and encouraging short-term contracting.

In 1978, the constitution disestablished Roman Catholicism as the state religion, but directed Spanish authorities to "keep in mind the religious beliefs of Spanish society." Freedom of worship and the separation of church and state are respected in practice. Spain is home to many cultural and linguistic groups, some – such as the Basques – with strong regional identities.

With economic liberalization proceeding apace under the PP government, Spanish citizens are increasingly finding more opportunities for employment as the state recedes from economic life. Citizens have the right to own property and to establish their own businesses.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.