ANALYSIS: Why Spain’s emptying countryside is a key electoral battleground

Suddenly everyone is talking about the depopulation of rural Spain. Matthew Bennett explains why it's the hot topic of this general election.

ANALYSIS: Why Spain's emptying countryside is a key electoral battleground
A lonely resident in the emptying village of Sarnago, in the northern Spanish province of Soria. Photo: AFP

So what's all this business about “empty Spain”, then?

Well, there are bits of Spain, which is a big country, that are pretty desolate, and increasingly so, it seems.

How big is Spain?

Spain is the second largest country in the EU, after France, at just over 500,000 km2 of territory, and well ahead of Sweden, Norway and Germany, but it is in the bottom half of the list in terms of population density anyway.

And how desolate is it getting, how empty is empty Spain?

Last year, the Spanish Federation of Towns & Provinces said half of the country's municipalities were at risk of extinction. 4,995 have fewer that 1,000 inhabitants, and 2,652 have fewer than 500. 1,200—almost 20 percent of the total—have fewer than 100 people in them.

A study presented last October on scarcely populated areas in southern Europe, with a handy map, showed two giant swathes of Spain that are nearly empty: one in the north-east between Madrid and Catalonia, and the other towards the west, between Madrid and Portugal.

The study concluded Spain is the European country with the largest extensions of depopulated land: just 5 percent of the population lives in 53 percent of the territory.

A review of the latest town-level population data in El País in February reported a quarter of a million people had moved from the countryside between 2008 and 2018, either to big cities or towards the coasts. Medium-sized towns inland have a similar problem.

What happens to the people left behind?

They are increasingly unimpressed.

Last weekend, several thousand residents from dozens of provinces in “empty Spain” protested in central Madrid. Four socialist ministers, a former PP minister and the leader of Ciudadanos, Albert Rivera, turned up for the event.

READ MORE: Crowds take to the streets over 'emptying' of rural Spain

Thousands took to the street in Madrid last Sunday to protest lack of services in the countryside. Photo: AFP


“We don't have banks, shops, the baker comes twice a week”, one woman told El Mundo. “We've got problems with health services”, said another: older doctors retire and younger ones soon leave for better paid positions elsewhere.

The general feeling is that fewer inhabitants should not mean fewer rights or less basic infrastructure.

So it is a political issue, then?

It is, and more so this year.


With the rise of Vox in the polls, the parliamentary pie is being split six ways, if we include the regional nationalists in the Basque Country and Catalonia as another group.

Seats in Congress are shared out between the parties. Spain uses a form proportional representation, called the d'Hondt system, across 52 multi-MP constituencies.

Each constituency (the 52 Spanish provinces) elects a different number of MPs to Congress, so 36 for Madrid, for example, but only 10 in Murcia, four in La Rioja or two in Soria.

Broadly speaking, the fewer seats there are in a constituency, the less proportional the result is. Soria cannot share its two MPs between five or six parties, but the 36 seats in Madrid make it much more likely five or six parties will get a few each.

Traditionally, the conservative PP and the socialist PSOE have mostly split the rural vote between themselves, and it has proven very difficult for smaller or newer parties to make any headway in the countryside.

Who is winning?

This year is different, because of that split in the polls: although Pedro Sánchez and the PSOE are extending their lead slightly to 28 percent, no party is close to an overall majority, the PP is holding on just above 20 percent, and Vox, Ciudadanos and Podemos are all below that level.

Is Vox driving this?

To some degree, it seems, at least in the media, pre-election and before the official campaign kicks off in a week or so.

At the last general election in 2016, Mariano Rajoy made sure to get his picture taken out in the countryside, with cows, but this year, Vox has sniffed an opportunity to do some damage and win some votes.

At the regional election in Andalusia in December, party leader Santiago Abascal put out a video of himself on a horse, riding across the plains, in the company of a bullfighter called Morante de la Puebla.

Since then, the party has pushed hunting and the countryside in general. Mr. Abascal has not given many interviews so far, but urban media types in Madrid sniggered at him on the radio a couple of weeks ago when he gave an interview to a guns site, stating that he would like to see a change in the law to give greater legal protection to Spaniards who defend their homes against intruders.

The same week, the Popular Party announced it had its own bullfighter candidate, Miguel Abellán, who will run with the new PP leader, Pablo Casado, in the list for Madrid, almost certainly a safe seat.


But Vox seeing an opening on the right in the rural vote means, almost paradoxically, that the socialist PSOE, on the left, might end up with more rural seats, because the vote on the right is split three ways (PP, Vox and Ciudadanos).

So the PSOE smells an opportunity as well…

It does. Last week, the government announced a package of 70 rural measures, including Internet access, new technology, public transport and loans for rural entrepreneurs.

What about the King?

Yep, he's concerned too. King Felipe gave the closing address at the young farmer's conference in Jaén on Thursday, where one of the debates was about the challenges of “avoiding the rural exodus”.

His Majesty expressed a hope that “more and more young people find a profession in agriculture, farming and forestry that guarantees a dignified future”, and that young people in rural Spain should have the same “rights and enjoy the same opportunities and benefits” as young people in towns and cities.

Matthew Bennett is the creator of The Spain Report. You can read more of his writing on Patreon, and follow him on Twitter. Don't miss his podcast series with weekly in-depth analysis on Spain.

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Madrid puts off separatist talks over Catalan snap election

Spain's central government on Thursday said the announcement of snap elections in Catalonia would delay planned talks between Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and the region's separatist leadership.

Madrid puts off separatist talks over Catalan snap election
Catalan regional president Quim Torra (R) meets with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez at the Palacio de Pedralbes in Barcelona on December 20, 2018.Photo: AFP

News that the regional election would be brought forward was announced by regional president Quim Torra on Wednesday but he did not give a date, suggesting some time after mid-March.

The date was brought forward following a major dispute between Catalonia's two ruling separatist parties, Together for Catalonia (JxC) and the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC).

The announcement came ahead of a key February 6 meeting in Barcelona between Torra and Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to lay the ground for talks on resolving the separatist conflict.

In response, Sanchez's office said the meeting would go ahead but that the negotiations would not begin until a new regional government was in place.   

“The government is hoping to be able to begin the dialogue after the Catalan people have spoken… as soon as the elections are over and there is a new (regional) government, then we will begin talking,” said a statement.

“The government remains willing to start the process of dialogue with the Catalan institutions to resolve the political conflict.”

The talks had been agreed as part of a deal with ERC in exchange for its support in getting Sanchez through a key investiture vote earlier this month.   

But the delay was swiftly denounced by the ERC as a “flagrant breach of the agreement which was completely irresponsible,” its party spokesman Sergi Sabria said.

Sanchez, who himself is in a fragile position at the head of a minority coalition government, still needs ERC's support to pass Spain's own much delayed national budget.

In a radio interview Thursday, Torra said he would bring up the right to self-determination and amnesty for the nine jailed Catalan separatist leaders when he meets Sanchez — both of which have already been rejected out of hand by the Socialist leader.