Extreme right and xenophobic parties in Spain, Part II

By Daria Terradez Salom, CIDH Pro Igual

This is Part II of the article analyzing Spanish extreme right and xenophobic parties. It continues the Pro Igual series of blogs exploring the connection between the extreme right movement and hate crimes in Spain. 

Party pluralism is a barometer of the political health of a state, as well as a fundamental pillar of the democracy. The very first article of the Spanish Constitution affirms “political pluralism” as one of the “superior values” of the Spanish political system. That said, it is unfortunate that under the guise of freedom of expression and that same political pluralism, the forces are surging that propagate racism, xenophobia and exaggerated protection of the “Spanishness” in face of supposed invasion of foreigners “threatening” national stability, social tradition and culture in Spain. This analysis sheds light on the apparent discord between the legal existence of hate-mongering parties and organizations, on the one hand, and the democratic system and the rule of law, on the other. We seek to explain, by analyzing the existing legal framework, how such political parties manage to legally exist, take part in elections and enjoy participation in local organs of the government.

We must stress that the present analysis by no means pretends to play down the importance freedom of expression, association or political pluralism. However, we do believe that from the point of view of active democracy there must be reasonable limits on the abuse of fundamental rights, for the sake of democracy itself.

Constitution

In addition to Article 1 of the 1978 Spanish Constitution listing political pluralism among the “supreme values,” Article 6 states: “Political parties express democratic pluralism, assist in the formulation and manifestation of the popular will, and are a basic instrument for political participation. Their creation and the exercise of their activity are free within the observance of the Constitution and the laws.” (“Emphasis added.)

The Constitution envisions a rather flexible regulatory framework for political parties. But if apparently there are minimal limits on the creation of political parties to guarantee political pluralism, the constitutional limit acquires even greater importance. Freedom to form political parties is bound to respect the supreme norms, and one of such norms is respect for fundamental rights, including nondiscrimination established in Article 14 of the Constitution, as well as human dignity outlined in Article 10, paragraph 1, as a basis for public order and social peace. Article 6 is also closely related to Article 22, which establishes the fundamental right to association, and to Article 16, which guarantees freedom of ideology and beliefs.

Political parties play an enormously important role in the democratic life of the state. They are a sign of political pluralism and of respect for the fundamental freedoms of ideology and association. They are not random formations, but are communities of like-minded individuals, who can take part in the elections and represent the wishes of their voters. That means they can end up in the state´s representative organs, which obligates them to firmly respect the Constitution and the legal norms regulating their activities.

Law 54/1978 on Political Parties

The Law 54/1978, presently superseded by a newer legislation of 2002, was the first norm regulating the creation of political parties in Spain. It was promulgated in 1978, just a few days before the Constitution. The 1978 Law established essentially an absolute freedom for establishing political parties, derived from the fundamental right to association. At that time Spain was trying to shake off forty years of the dictatorship and it was crucial to maximally facilitate the creation of political parties to ensure the uttermost political pluralism and representation which up to that point simply had not existed.

The Law 54/1978 did not establish a rigid procedure for registering parties. In practice, the only limit on the party establishment and activities was a clear intent to commit a criminal offense or to fail to respect democratic norms, nothing more. When the registration documentation was delivered to the Ministry of Interior, the latter examined the papers and if there were no indications that the entity planned to commit a criminal offense, the party was registered. If such indications were noted, the Interior forwarded the papers to the Prosecutor who re-examined them. Only if the Prosecutor also found the intent to commit illegal activities, could the party be denied registration or dissolved.

Such initially very liberal framework resulted in proliferation of political parties, including political organizations with extreme nationalist tendencies, for example, the Basque parties demanding political independence. We must also add that, thanks to the Law 21/1976 on the Right to Political Association, Falange Española de las JONS (established in 1976) – the only legal party under the Franco regime – managed to join the democratic playfield, despite having foundations clearly contrary to the Constitutional principles that would be adopted two years later.

The Spanish political panorama since 1978 till the derogation of the Law 54/1978 has been developing in giant steps, given an incredible ease with which new parties could be registered. It was necessary for the young democracy, which Spain was at the time, to catch up, by guaranteeing political pluralism and stressing the importance of fundamental political rights, such as freedom of expression, ideology and association.

Organic Law 6/2002 on Political Parties

After 25 years of the original law on political parties, there was a broad consensus that the time was ripe for a new legislation. The two main reasons, expressed in the Preamble of the new Law 6/2002 on Political Parties (hereafter, “LOPP”), were as follows. Besides being pre-constitutional, the 1978 Law was simply too brief and by then has fulfilled its objective of “establishing a simple procedure for registering political parties.” Sufficient time has passed and experience has been accumulated on functioning political parties, so as to systematize and adapt this experience to the more mature constitutional system.

The second reason for changing the law was much more critical. It was recognition that the old norm lacked “concrete constitutional limits for the establishment and functioning of parties and for their conformity with the Constitution and the laws.” Obviously, the old law could not demand conformity with the Constitution which at that moment had not yet been adopted. And that reason alone necessitated the adoption of the new norm.

Noting passing, this omission in the old law is responsible for allowing the registration of the PxC and Democracia Nacional (both established prior to the 2002 LOPP), parties known for their racist and xenophobic tenor. The new LOPP aimed to prevent that: “the goal is to guarantee the democratic system and fundamental liberties of the citizens and to prevent that parties, in a continued and aggravated manner, attack this democratic order based on liberties, justify racism and xenophobia or support violence and terrorist activities.”

However, notwithstanding some convincing reasoning in the Preamble, not all of the intended constitutional boundaries entered into the text of the new LOPP. For example:

  • In the Preamble to the new LOPP, the legislator reasoned that some other (foreign) legal systems when regulating fundamental rights have “formulated much more categorically a duty of compliance and stricter subjection to the constitutional order, and moreover a positive duty to realize the active defense and pedagogy of democracy, withfailure to fulfill this duty leading to the exclusion from the legal order and democratic system.” Such “pedagogy of democracy” is not part of the constitutional doctrine in Spain where any “project or objective is deemed compatible with the Constitution so long as it does not involve activities violating democratic principles or fundamental rights of citizens.”Thus, the pedagogical aspect of democracy has been omitted from the text of the new LOPP.
  • While putting emphasis on political pluralism, the legislator seemed to forget that Article 1 of the Constitution also listed liberty, justice and equality as “superior values” of the social and democratic rule-of-law state. If we add to this the concept of human dignity, advanced in Article 10 as the basis for a political order and social peace, and affirmed by the Spanish Constitutional Tribunal (hereafter, “CT”) as a logical and ontological prius for the existence and fulfillment of all other human rights (Sentencia del Tribunal Constitucional 53/1985), then parties infringing on human dignity should not be allowed to exist. Instead, the legislator added that this norm “is placed in equilibrium, carefully mediating between the high degree of freedom inherent in political pluralism and respect for the human rights and democracy.” This argument was trying to explain the reasons for excessive laxness of the law, but still left the door open to promoting pretty much “any project,” as stated in the Preamble, without articulating further limits.
  • The legislator expressed the intent to prevent that “a political party… attack the democratic order based on liberties, justify racism and xenophobia or support violence and terrorist activities.” However, the new law overlooked a small and seemingly insignificant detail. The cited paragraph of the Preamble mentions as separate activities, on the one hand, “justification of racism and xenophobia,” and on the other hand, “political support for terrorist activities,” separated by “or.” This “or” disappeared from Article 9 of the LOPP being substituted by “and.” The result of this substitution is that in order to be deemed illegal, parties or political organizations need to do both, otherwise, by default, they could continue their activities.

While the new LOPP stipulated that “political parties could operate freely,” it did set out the boundaries on their activities: “They must respect constitutional values expressed in democratic principles and human rights.” The LOPP further outlined the motives for outlawing and potentially dissolving a political party:

A political party shall be deemed illegal when its activities violate democratic principles, especially when it attempts to undermine or destroy the order of liberties or make impossible or eliminate the democratic system by one of the following acts, committed repeatedly and maliciously:

a) Violate systematically fundamental rights and freedoms, by promoting, justifying or glorifying attempts on life or on integrity of persons based on ideology, religion or beliefs, nationality, race, gender or sexual orientation.

One is left to wonder how a party like España 2000 could have passed through the filter of this norm and was legally registered, given its racist and xenophobic attitude it does not even try to conceal either in the founding documents or in public declarations of its official representatives.

There are two more grounds for dissolution. However, this is where the legislator substituted “or” with “and” (please see above), thus requiring both clauses to be satisfied in order to ban or dissolve a party. So the apparent intention of the legislator here was not so much to ensure the existence of parties that respect the Constitution and fundamental human rights, as to outlaw political formations that supported ETA (a Basque terrorist organization).

We do not mean to criticize this legislative intent, but wish to warn of the danger of political organizations which even though do not officially resort to violence still attack fundamental rights and the very Constitution by their discourse and attitudes. The law, in principle, should have prevented that. It is not healthy for our democracy that parties, openly propagating the inferiority of other races and calling for denying to specific groups of people some of the most fundamental human rights, enjoy the constitutional freedom to act in this manner.

Constitutional jurisprudence

In one of the earlier cases before the CT, the case of Violeta Friedman, concerning the revisionism and denial of the Holocaust by Leon Degrelle, a Nazi fugitive resident in Spain, the Court de facto recognized limits of the freedom of expression in the face of human dignity. It reasoned that in regards of human dignity (Article 10), there is an obligation to respect it, and “in so far as public bodies and citizens are subject to the Constitution and the rest of the legal order, this has to be demanded also of political parties.”

However, in the case of Pedro Varela Geiss – Librería Europa (Sentencia del Tribunal Constitucional 235/2007), the CT issued a confusing decision. On the one hand, Varela´ conviction for denying the Holocaust was confirmed. On the other hand, the CT ruled unconstitutional the provisions of the Penal Code that restricted activities of political parties. The CT rejected the argument of the prosecution that the Spanish system does not follow the model of “militant democracy” and thus fundamental rights cannot be restricted even if used for unconstitutional purposes. This, by the way, was the same reasoning found in the Preamble to the 2002 LOPP. The CT did affirm that there are limits to Article 20.1 of the Constitution regarding freedom of expression when expression is “vilifying, racist or humiliating” to human dignity. The reason for declaring the provision of the Penal Code unconstitutional was its interference with the exercise of the right to freedom of expression itself.

In the more recent case, which concerned the dissolution of a political party (Fundamento jurídico 16, Sentence 5/2004, of 16 January 2004: dissolution and banning of the Herri batasuna), it was re-affirmed in respect of political parties that those are “a medium designed for expressing pluralism and to which they serve as expression; consequently, they find in freedom of ideology the basis necessary for defining their political identity, a genuine reference for those whom they offer to represent in the process of forming the popular will.” The CT added that “restricting the liberty to create political parties amounts to trampling the rights for whose exercise … this liberty has been conceived in the first place.”

The party in question was dissolved and banned. Yet the case served to reiterate the tremendous importance attached in the Spanish juridical system to providing protection to political parties and organizations, given their role of the guarantor of other fundamental rights and freedoms.

Conclusions

Analysis of Spanish legal norms and constitutional jurisprudence on the matters of political parties and freedom of speech leads to various conclusions.

One of the conclusions is that the Spanish constitutional system seems to waver when it comes to condemning racist and xenophobic expressions and attitudes of political parties, which do no more than contaminate the quality of our rule-of-law state. Even though such parties are in minority, they still enjoy representation in the state organs of power, with all the consequences this entails.

Another conclusion is that we cannot ignore the latent danger posed for democracy by political parties and organizations propagating racism and xenophobia. With the ongoing economic crisis, their scape-goating of immigration becomes much more extensive and socially acceptable than would be appropriate and desirable in our democratic system.

The final conclusion is that freedom of expression should not be a catchall where every ideology could be lumped together. Human dignity is a natural and necessary limit on free speech. The Spanish state ought to adopt a more pro-active approach of “militant democracy” and constitutional pedagogy to prevent that political pluralism and freedom of expression are swayed by anti-democratic discourse.