Spain’s Democratic Transition is Backsliding

Biel Schreuder Obiols discusses the scandals that have exacerbated a crumbling sense of democracy in Spain.

Over recent months in Spain, the behaviour of the state has become increasingly outlandish, absurd and sinister. Despite the current government being one comprised of the centre-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and the far-left Unidas Podemos (UP), their actions run contrary to usual democratic norms.

In late June, the tabloid newspaper Razon, discovered newly declassified CIA documents revealing that former PSOE Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, knew about the extrajudicial operation of the Anti-Terrorist Liberation Groups (GAL). Between 1983 to 1987, this armed gang was tasked with killing terrorists associated with Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), a Basque separatist paramilitary group operating between 1959 and 2010, hiding in France. According to the BBC, members of GAL were responsible for 28 murders between 1983 and 1987. What made the situation more scandalous is that one-third of the people murdered had no connection to ETA – they were ordinary civilians. At the time, Gonzalez faced a hearing from the Supreme Court and denied all knowledge of the group’s operation and faced no charges. Two members of González’s government, José Barrionuevo (the ex-minister for interior) and Rafael Vera (the former Secretary of State for Security) did go to prison. 

An important feature of democracy is that the people are able to hold those in charge to account. In the 1984 report, the CIA expressed concerns about how the Spanish transition to democracy may be faltering. Democracies are not always perfect, but they should show remorse and repentance when a disreputable event is brought to light. Nonetheless, nothing happened in light of this new information. There will be no new investigation and Gonzalez will not face any justice. PSOE, the conservative People’s Party (PP), and the far-right VOX all voted to block the proposal, supported by Basque and Catalan pro-independence parties, to open an investigation commission. Whereas pro-independence Catalan politicians receive one-hundred years of combined jail time and many have to flee into exile for holding a vote for independence, a former Spanish Prime Minister can set up a death squad to murder people without due process and go unpunished. With this fact in mind, it becomes impossible for supporters of Basque or Catalan independence to take the main arguments of unionists seriously. They wrap themselves in the constitution when trying to stop independence referendums, and then disregard it completely when it implicates them in serious violations of the law and democratic principle. 

The democratic principles of accountable governance and equality under the law have been undermined by, both the event and the reaction of the current parliament.

Another event highlighting the disassembling of Spanish democracy was the revelation of political spying. An investigation by The Guardian and El Pais discovered that Roger Torrent, the speaker of the Catalan regional parliament, and at least two other pro-independence supporters were targeted using spyware. The makers of the spyware say it is only sold to governments to track criminals and terrorists. The so-called ‘most progressive government in the history of Spain’ is using ‘Pegasus’ software, known only to be used by the Saudi Arabian and Mexican governments, to surveil political opposition. How can PSOE and UP, parties that would condemn Nixon for Watergate, criticise American McCarthyism and CIA involvement in other countries, take part in such behaviour? 

In an interview with the Guardian, Torrent expressed his misgivings about these revelations signal for Spanish democracy. He warned that,“It’s a pretty serious matter for everyone; any democrat should feel very uncomfortable over news like this,” adding “It seems wrong and unacceptable from a democratic point of view and as regards the rule of law. It also seems to me to be immoral for a huge amount of public money to be spent on buying software that can be used as a tool for the persecution of political dissidence”.

The third event signifying the decaying of Spanish democracy was that the former King of Spain (he abdicated in 2014 in order to give the royal family a better image after a number of scandals involving corruption), Juan Carlos, renowned for his role in Spain’s transition to democracy, went missing. He was supposed to have a hearing in front of the Supreme Court for his involvement in a rail-line construction deal between Spain and Saudi Arabia, the court wanted to see whether his €100 million gift from the King of Saudi Arabia had any connection with the awarding of a €6.7 billion contract for a Spanish consortium to build a high-speed railway from Medina to Mecca three years later. 

Knowledge of the scandal came from José Villarejo, a former police investigator currently in jail. When speaking with powerful people he had a habit of recording conversations. When in conversation with a mistress of the former king, Mrs Sayn-Wittgenstein, she states her shock at being told that she has been gifted a €3 million  house, which is then meant to pass on to Juan Carlos. Mrs Sayn-Wittengenstein later claimed that she did not want to be part of a money-laundering scheme but felt intimidated by members of the Spanish intelligence service who were pressuring her into cooperating. She said, “The king has no concept of what is legal and what isn’t”.

However, just before the hearing, he disappeared. For ten days there was speculation as to where he had gone. To begin with, it was believed he was in the Dominican Republic, however it was later revealed he had been staying in a luxury hotel in the United Arab Emirates; a country without extradition law.

It was later discovered PSOE, the largest party of the coalition, knew about Carlos’ exile but did not do anything to prevent it. Furthermore, so-called ‘the most progressive government in the history of Spain’ – a government that includes the supposedly anti-establishment, anti-monarchy Podemos party – will not attempt to get Juan Carlos back to Spain in order to face his corruption hearing because they claim, it is not a priority with the present health crisis. When it is a pro-independence Catalan in exile for organising a referendum, it is ‘A por ellos’ (go get them), but when it is their own monarch, their head of state, they do nothing. So much for upholding the rule of law!

Finally, a Belgian court rejected Spain’s third attempt to extradite the former Catalan minister, Lluis Puig, who is in exile for his role in organising the referendum in 2017. Their reasoning is that the Supreme Court did not have the authority to try Puig and could not extradite someone who would face a mistrial. They reasoned that, because the Spanish government dissolved the Catalan parliament after they had a referendum, none of the pro-independence politicians were sitting members in parliament. The Supreme Court only has the authority to try sitting members of parliament. Consequently, the Belgian authorities could not extradite Puig because they could not guarantee that he would face a fair trial. If Lluis Puig were to have a legal trial it would have to be adjudicated by a regional court. However, this ruling has revealed that all 13 of the independence leaders were tried in the wrong court, hence their rulings are illegal and they should not have been sentenced.  
Whilst I was with my family in Catalunya, I really got the sense that people were disgusted. Not only are the leaders of Spain corrupt but it seems they do not feel ashamed or embarrassed of their corruption. It is almost as if they are openly mocking them. When UP got elected, it was supposedly a “game changer”, but the State still acts like a sea monster, operating according to its own interests regardless of who is in power.

Biel Schreuder Obiols

Photo credits European Parliament, under CC BY 2.0.

By biel Schreuder Obiols

Politics and International relations student at the University of Nottingham.
Follow be on twitter @bielschruder

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