Spain case study (part of the ‘Inequality and Governance in Unstable Democracies’ programme)

The case of Spain offers an interesting context to test the relationship between inequality, trust, and governance in a democracy. After almost four decades of authoritarian rule, preceded by a bloody civil conflict in the late 1930s, democracy was restored in Spain in 1975. Ever since, the country has followed a stable path of democratisation and it is now considered an established democracy in Western Europe. However, there are a series of challenges that motivate research in this country.

First, Spain suffers one of the highest rates of income inequality and one of the highest unemployment rate within the Euro area, as well as one of the lowest levels of trust in government institutions in the OECD. All these indicators have characterised Spanish economy and society for a long time, but the 2008 financial crisis has made them much worse. The combination of economic hardship and low political trust, currently amplified by the COVID-19 crisis, has had important consequences for domestic politics.

Second, politics in Spain are defined by strong divisions and political identities, particularly along the nationalist divide. The past violent conflict in the Basque Country and the current secessionist conflict in Catalonia testify to these divisions and to low levels of trust on Spanish political institutions. Similarly, they help to explain the recent emergence of a far-right political party, VOX, and the increase in Spanish ultra-nationalism and political polarisation.

Finally, the memories of the civil war and the dictatorship are still firmly present in Spanish politics. As if these memories worked as a backstory for current events, they are usually present in political debates and serve to mobilise support. For instance, memories of repression have been used to mobilize the secessionist movement in Catalonia, just as they did in the Basque Country, and a backlash against transitional justice policies have fueled support for the far-right and the Spanish nationalism it puts forward.

In this case study, we examine the historical roots of social and political trust and how they interact with identities and economic inequality to explain political behaviour and support for anti-systemic forms of politics in Spain. In particular, we focus on the current secessionist movement in Catalonia and on the far-right movement gaining ground in the rest of Spain.

Key contacts

Laia Balcells

Professor at Georgetown University

Project details

start date
1 March 2019
end date
28 February 2023


Supported by

About this project



Francisco Villamil

Researcher at Georgetown University

Juan Fernando Tellez

Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina

Laia Balcells

Professor at Georgetown University

Image of Patricia Justino
Patricia Justino

Professorial Fellow

Recent work

Working Paper

Secession and Social Polarization: Evidence from Catalonia

WIDER Working Paper;2021/2

Does secessionism lead to social polarisation? Despite much research on independence movements, their relationship to polarisation, a key mechanism theorised as increasing the chances of violent conflict, remains less understood. We argue that secessionist conflicts can polarise along both...

Laia Balcells & 2 others

22 January 2021