Populism and the danger to Democracy: The Spanish example, Freedom of the Press and a Warning

Populism offers the promise of democratic renewal, bringing new actors and policies into the political system. Populist governments generally stand by three fundamental claims: (1) elites and “outsiders”work against the interests of the “true people,” (2) populist represent the “true people,” and (2) since populists are the voice of the “true people,” nothing should stand in their way. But while populist parties in power can make politics more representative, they can also undermine accountability when their lack of ability or interest in legislating shifts policymaking to other actors outside the ruling party. Populists in government can also erode the institutional checks on executive power inherent in a democracy that are necessary for a durable democracy, even in previously resilient advanced democracies. Historically, populist mobilization has precipitated democratic breakdown in the wealthiest democracies and have often reverted to autocracy: with examples such as Turkey, Venezuela, and Thailand.

When Hugo Chávez was first inaugurated as President of Venezuela in February 1999, he modified the oath of office to announce: “I swear in front of my people that over this moribund constitution I will push forward the democratic transformations that are necessary so that the new republic will have an adequate Magna Carta for the times.” He added: “the Constitution, and with it the ill-fated political system to which it gave birth 40 years ago, has to die.” Within hours of taking office, he would issue a decree calling for a new constituent assembly. Revising the Constitution was a key part of Chávez’s election campaign against the “corrupt” traditional parties, and would make good on his pledge to re-found the republic

Populists like Chávez offer the promise of renewing democracy and advancing social progress, bringing new actors and policies into the political system. But they also claim that their constituency represents all of “the people” rather than a portion of a diverse electorate, and—seeking to institutionally lock in their temporary political advantage—they frequently abuse the power of government to suppress their opponents.

The Danger of Populist Governments

Some scholars have warned that populists tend to be phenomenally corrupt, perpetuate their hold on power by delegitimizing the opposition, and inflict lasting damage on their countries’ democratic institutions. Others, including the historian Niall Ferguson, have suggested that populist governments are usually so incompetent that they prove short-lived. Yet others, including the political theorist Chantal Mouffe, have emphasized the positive potential of populism, and characterizes critics of these movements are simply defenders of the failed status quo.

However, history has shown that populist governments do not fulfill the promise of advancing democratic principles. In many countries, populists rewrote the rules of the game to permanently tilt the electoral playing field in their favor, often rewriting or amending their country’s constitution – such as is the case of Venezuela –when they gained power, frequently with the aim of eliminating presidential term limits and reducing checks and balances on executive power.

Some scholars draw a sharp distinction between left-wing and right-wing populists. While right-wing populists victimize unpopular minorities and weaponize public anger for illicit goals, left-wing populists are supposedly far more likely to correct elite failures on behalf of the poor and downtrodden. The best response to right-wing populists, according to this camp, is not a preference for parties and candidates that respect long-standing democratic rules and norms—but rather the election of left-wing populists.

The data do not bear out this argument. An empirical report by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change published in 2018 concluded that populist rule, whether left- or right-wing, leads to a significant risk of democratic backsliding (https://institute.global/policy/populist-harm-democracy-empirical-assessment) The authors examine the effect of populism on three major aspects of democracy: the quality of democracy in general, the checks and balances on executive power, and citizens’ right to politically participate in a meaningful way. They conclude that populist governments are four times more likely to cause harm to democratic institutions than non-populist governments. Also, more than half of populist leaders have amended or rewritten the countries’ constitution, frequently in a way that eroded checks and balances on executive power. Lastly, populists attack individual rights such as freedom of the press, civil liberties, and political rights. This suggests that left-wing populists are not likely to be a cure for right-wing populism; they are, on the contrary, likely to accelerate the speed with which democracy erodes at all levels.

The shift in the Spanish Government

Spain has become one of the latest examples of populism in governance. The 2008 Great Recession altered party allegiances in many countries, including Spain. In Spain, those changes brought a fully newly created radical-left populist party, Podemos, headed by a charismatic leader, Pablo Iglesias, that started as a grassroots movement and attracted sizeable support.

At the 2015 election for the national parliament, Podemos reached 20.65% of the vote and became the third largest party in the parliament after the conservative People’s Party (PP) with 28.71% and the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE) with 22.02%. Pedro Sanchez (PSOE) won a snap election in April of 2019 but struggled to form a government led by his party. As a result, another snap vote took place in November 2019, culminating with the first coalition government that Spain has seen in modern times.“A progressive coalition” – is how Pedro Sanchez described his deal with Podemos.

Podemos’, (now Unidas Podemos) success is partly due to its capacity to attract many former supporters of the established radical left, Izquierda Unida. Unidas Podemos’ supporters present a combination of elements – protest, anti-mainstream sentiment and unfulfilled expectations. Unidas Podemos highlights the need to regain popular and national sovereignty, as they interpret that both have been taken away by the caste and by unelected actors (the Troika, the German government, the European Central Bank, the elite, etc.) and emphasizes ‘the people vs the elite’ divide as their ideological defining element.

Since the Unidas Podemos became part of the coalition government, there are worrying signs that show signs of populists tendencies that curtail on democratic principles. In what some describe as an attack against freedom of the press, the ministerial order called “Procedure for Intervention against Disinformation,” approved last month by Spain’s National Security Council makes provisions for the possibility of carrying out communication campaigns to counter fake news stories, stopping short of censoring them. However, it leaves it up to the government to decide what exactly constitutes misinformation, with no representatives from the media or journalist associations involved in the process

Populist governments often seek to vilify the media and attempt to control the freedom of the press. To participate in politics in a meaningful way, a country must have freedom of the press, so that citizens can make informed choices; protect civil liberties, so that citizens are free to voice their preferences and organize around their interests; and maintain political rights, so that most adults have the right to participate in free and fair elections. On all of these counts, populist governments fall short.

Citizens of countries that are governed by populists may be concerned that similar governments have eroded checks and balances in a large number of cases. That should be a reason to be vigilant of populist measures proposed by the government and to fight for a more democratic system of governance.


Gibraltar has been a British Overseas Territory since 1713, when Spain, under the Treaty of Utrecht, ceded it to Britain in perpetuity. The territory is just 2.6 square miles in size, and its population is estimated to be around 30,000. Gibraltar applied for full UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) membership and was accepted by the UEFA Congress in May 2013. Therefore, the Gibraltar “national” team will be able to compete in the UEFA European Championship beginning with the 2016 edition of the tournament.

The political situation of Gibraltar has been in dispute for decades. Spain argues that presently Gibraltar is much bigger than it was in 1713, and that in fact, part of its airport as well as housing on the west side of the island are built on reclaimed land. Spain asserts that the cession in the Treaty of Utrecht 1713 does not include the isthmus with the airport on it and the territorial waters, as the Treaty makes no mention about reclaimed land or territorial waters.

Gibraltar demands its right of self-determination pursuant to the universally recognized principle of international law, but Spain cites the UN principle of territorial integrity, through UN Resolution 1514 (XV), which says “any attempt at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Under the UN Principles of Decolonization, territorial integrity takes precedence over Gibraltar’s right to self-determination. So, Spain argues that Spanish integrity takes precedence over Gibraltar’s right to be independent.

The UK notes that Gibraltar was ceded by Spain in the Treaty of Utrecht 1713, giving “the full and entire propriety of the town and castle of Gibraltar, together with the port, fortifications, and forts there unto belonging… forever, without any exception or impediment whatsoever.” It cites longevity of occupation, and argues that the UN principle of territorial integrity, as per UN Resolution 1514 (XV) does not override the principle of self-determination. The same resolution says: “All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status.”

There was a referendum in Gibraltar in 1967, which called on both Spain and the UK to take into account the “interests” of the people of Gibraltar. In the referendum, 12,138 of the 12,237 voters chose “voluntarily to retain their links with the UK.” The referendum was condemned by the UN General Assembly, and not recognized by any international body or state. In 2002 after diplomatic talks between the UK and Spain, a sovereignty referendum was held. Voters overwhelmingly rejected a plan to share sovereignty over Gibraltar between the UK and Spain. People from Gibraltar believe the right of self-determination was given to it by the UK in 1960, and that the UN Charter enshrines the right to self-determination of all colonial peoples.

The UN does not recognize Gibraltar as an independent state or its right to self-determination because, among other things, the population of Gibraltar is a community artificially created from heterogeneous origins since 1713 by “colonial processes” rather than indigenous, and therefore thought it might not fulfill the criteria for any form of nationhood that could be interpreted as giving a right to UN “national” self-determination principles.

A large part of the reason for the conflict between Gibraltar and Spain is about money. Spain has accused Gibraltar of being a corporate tax haven, allowing companies and wealthy individuals to avoid paying millions. Spain also believes the border is being abused and draining Spanish resources. Smuggling – cigarette smuggling in particular – and also alleged circumventing of Spanish residency taxes are claimed to be two of the major trans-border issues. Fishing rights are another point of contention, with both sides complaining about incursions by the other into their territorial waters.

The most recent confrontation between the Spanish and the British authorities in Gibraltar happened in 2013, when the police and naval vessels created a maritime cordon around the Gibraltar tug Eliott and the barge MHB Dole as dozens of purpose-built concrete blocks were dumped into the sea. The Gibraltar Government said the reef would encourage marine life and help regenerate the seabed. However, in marking the boundary of British Gibraltar territorial waters in that area, the line of cement blocks also prevents Spanish fishermen from raking the seabed for conch in breach of Gibraltar laws.

Gibraltar is another example of a population demanding its right to self-determination, and although the UN has clear rules based on international law as to what elements must be met for a people to become independent, conflicts around the world based on the right to self-determination are still prevalent (e.g. Catalonia, Northern Cyprus, Kurdistan, the Basque Country, etc.). When considering the competing claims of Gibraltar and Spain both governments have good arguments for their position, and it does not look that the conflict between Spain and Gibraltar will be resolved any time soon.

But at least the Gibraltar national team will be eligible to play in the Euro 2016 football championships. Gibraltar will play against Germany, Scotland, Poland, the Republic of Ireland and Georgia in Group D of the qualifying rounds. The blind draw had originally put Gibraltar in Group C alongside Spain but the UEFA Executive Committee had decided earlier that Gibraltar could not meet Spain, too much political tension I suppose….