Enrique Lara has been walking through the streets of Sant Roc, a neighborhood of about 14,000 inhabitants in the city of Badalona, for more than 35 years. He is vice president of the Sant Roc Neighborhood Association, helps out with a local soccer team, and continues to work in construction at 63 years of age. As a citizen who knows his neighborhood well, he is not surprised to see that most of his neighbors did not go to vote on 23-J. “There is total disappointment regarding the effectiveness of municipal governments. We have had four mayors in four years”, he comments. Sant Roc registered one of the highest abstentions in Spain in the recent general elections, reaching 71% in some of its census sections. And although Spain is not a highly abstentionist country, it has some electoral black holes scattered throughout its geography, areas in which political participation is very low. In 621 census sections, which is the smallest statistical unit, less than half of the population went to vote. There are 83 more sections than those registered in the general elections of April 2019, and accumulate more than half a million citizens.
To Carles Sagués, secretary of the Sant Roc-Som Badalona platformNor is he surprised by this negligence regarding the vote in his neighborhood. “Sant Roc has always been very abstentionist, but it also leads the school absenteeism and the level of unemployment,” he says. The sociologist Luis Miller points out that the level of income is not so much the key to understanding electoral participation as it is exclusion and social marginality, and they are two things that must be differentiated. “It is not that there is a relationship between income and the vote, in such a way that the more the income goes up, the more the vote rises. If not, below certain income thresholds, participation falls drastically”, points out Miller, who also adds: “These are neighborhoods in which people do not participate in public life in general. Nor do they make use of public health, quite contrary to the general feeling. It’s just that they don’t feel questioned directly.”
Voting is one of the mechanisms for political participation that citizens have at their disposal in democratic systems, but it is not the only one that exists. Beyond the act of placing a ballot paper in front of a ballot box, citizens participate in other ways in the organization and management of public life. And it is very difficult for people who do not do it every day to dare to do it once every four years. Both Enrique Lara and Carles Sagués know how important it is for citizens to be involved in the community on a day-to-day basis. The Sagués platform has been promoting participation for years, in collaboration with other Sant Roc entities. “Many neighbors don’t even know where to go or how to do the process to vote,” he says. “At no time have they felt close to the political proposals, they often feel on the margins of official society. They do not consider that one government or another goes with them and their complicated lives. They notice a very big void”.
The pattern of these black holes is repeated throughout the Spanish geography, from Melilla to Girona, passing through Madrid. Andalusia is the autonomous community that accumulates a large part of these wells of abstention. Of the 38 sections with the highest abstention rate and lowest income, 22 are in Andalusia. The highest abstention in these generals was registered in the Cañada Real, with 89%. Only one in 10 voters went to vote.
In general, the trend is that in areas with lower income, people are more abstentionists and vote more for the block on the left, while in areas with higher income, they vote more and bet on the block on the right. “It is a fairly widespread pattern that people with lower income, certain more working social classes, who are more related to the left, abstain more than people with higher income,” says Pedro Riera, professor of Political Science at the University Charles III of Madrid. “This does not mean – he continues – that if there is a greater participation it can be automatically concluded that it will benefit the left”.
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Riera points to the 2021 regional elections in Madrid as an example, in which participation was 76% and the PP swept practically every corner of the community. In those elections, electoral participation increased by 12 points compared to the 2019 elections that the PSOE won. “It is not true that left-wing voters tend to abstain more than right-wing voters in general. In some contexts, in Spain, it has been seen that the left, or a part of the left, has abstained from voting if the victory of the right was certain. But they are contextual cases”, adds Miller.
Marginality, poverty and social exclusion are the words associated with high abstention rates. However, there are also other conjunctural political factors, such as disenchantment or the lack of incentives to go to the polls because the result is predictable. The northern area of Melilla may be an example of how the mixture of these circumstances has triggered abstention. In these elections, in Melilla it was 50%, but in the north it reached rates of 81%. In addition to the socioeconomic variables —the autonomous city’s GDP per capita was 19,266 euros in 2021 (last recorded data), which places it as the fourth poorest Spanish autonomy; the gross income of households is 12,793 per inhabitant, the second lowest—, other more conjunctural cases may have had an influence. “Mobilization does not occur spontaneously. There are still territories where the parties themselves do it. In Melilla, there have probably been fewer actors mobilizing the vote because of everything that happened in the municipal elections (the Police dismantled a plot to buy votes by mail). And I’m thinking of the Coalition for Melilla (a party dotted with scandal)”, says Miller.
The importance of political elites as a factor that drags the voter to the ballot box was observed this 23-J in Catalonia. “One of the keys for me in these elections has been the clear demobilization of the Catalan independence movement. There were sectors that openly promoted not going to vote,” says political scientist Pedro Riera. The electoral depression of the nationalist voter was already observed in the recent municipal elections of 28 M, when abstention reached 44% in Catalonia. And although in general it fell by 10 points, to 34%, it was still above the national average, at 29.6%. “For me, this abstention has benefited the PSC in the general elections,” says Riera. The Socialists added seven more seats on 23-J compared to four years ago (they went from 12 to 19), the same ones that ERC (from 13 to 7) and Junts (from 8 to 7) lost together.
Abstention data by ideology and income
However, the data resulting from 23-J also show that in some sections abstention has dropped drastically compared to the last four years, as is the case of the neighborhoods of 3,000 homes, in Seville; of the 400 homes, in Alicante, or Palmeras, in Córdoba, which have registered less than 10 points of abstention in several of their census sections.
For Miller, it is possible to put an end to the high abstention rates that are registered in these “holes of democracy”, but to do so, a combined method must be followed in the short and long term. “In the long term, social and spatial segregation has to be improved,” she argues. “In the short term, the parties have tried some things, but in a very timid way. In Spain, for example, the presence of the Roma population in these neighborhoods is very high. In the last decade, practically all the parties have incorporated members of the Roma community. But it is not enough and specific proposals must be made”.
These areas are usually geographically located on the outskirts of medium-sized and medium-large cities. Miller points out that traditional campaign forms such as word of mouth are more effective in these territories, instead of the sophisticated methods of electoral marketing focused on social networks and personalized messages. “You have to go campaign there,” she says. “In the general elections, you never usually campaign on those sites because there are fewer events and the parties focus more on social networks. As has been shown in other countries, to increase participation in these communities in the short term, street-to-street activation is necessary”.
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