SPAIN could be downgraded to a “flawed” democracy over its handling of the Catalan crisis, according to a think tank.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest democracy index lowered its score from 8.30 to 8.08 because of “its attempt to stop by force Catalonia’s illegal referendum on independence on October 1 and its repressive treatment of pro-independence politicians”.

King Felipe last week used the 2016 ranking to defend Spain’s democratic credentials.

The new score is just above the 8.01 threshold for full democracies, but Joan Hoey, editor of the index, warned it could drop further, depending on what happens this year. She said using “heavy-handed legalism” to deny a democratic vote was not the sign of a government that cherished democracy.

The development came as exiled Catalan President Carles Puigdemont denied he was giving up his fight for re-election, following publication by a Spanish TV station of images showing private phone messages he allegedly sent to his fellow sacked MP Toni Comin – also in exile in Brussels – saying the battle was over and he had been “sacrificed” by his allies.

Puigdemont fled to Belgium in October following the Catalan declaration of independence and will be arrested should he return to Spain, where he is facing charges of rebellion and sedition.

The Catalan parliament on Tuesday postponed a session in which he was due to be re-elected president, leaving the pro-independence camp in disarray.

Telecinco published the messages yesterday, saying they were obtained when Comin checked his phone at the filming of an event.

Puigdemont did not mention the messages, but tweeted: “I am a journalist and I have always understood that there are limits, such as privacy, which should never be violated.”

Comin warned on Twitter that he may take legal action over the publication of the messages, adding: “Any message devoid of its context always loses its meaning.”