Blog Political Science and Public Administration

Josep Vallès (UAB) Marta Luque (ICPS-UAB)


The phenomenon of differential abstention in the municipalities within the metropolitan area of Barcelona has often been attributed to a lack of identification with Catalan politics and its institutions of self-government by some of the electorate. The sector of the voting population referred to is those of non-Catalan origin who were part of the internal migrations within Spain during the period from 1950-1970. This explanation has been questioned by other studies which attribute the scale of differential abstention to the perception of citizens that regional elections are of “secondary importance,” as happens in other countries. This hypothesis could be supported by the fact that differential abstention occurs at a similar level in local elections as in regional ones.


Furthermore, the fact that the large municipalities in the metropolitan area of Madrid experience a similar level of differential abstention to that experienced by the large municipalities in Barcelona’s metropolitan area indicates the need to reconsider what factors could explain this behaviour.  For this reason, the zones analyzed in this report consist of the most populous towns within the metropolitan areas of Barcelona and Madrid (excluding the capitals themselves), where the greatest level of differential abstention occurs. In concrete terms, the study involved 25 Catalan municipalities making up 29.3 per cent of the population of Catalonia and 23 municipalities around Madrid, making up 36.4 per cent of the population in that region. Here are the main findings of the analysis:


  1. A descriptive approach to aggregate voting behaviour confirms that this differential abstention is basically urban, existing to a much greater extent in populous towns than in those with fewer inhabitants. Therefore, it seems that attributing “secondary importance” to local and regional elections, which reduces turnout, occurs most notably in heavily populated areas.
  2. Belonging to one metropolitan area or the other is an important factor, even though its importance is less marked if the 1991-1993 and 2001-2004 time periods are compared.  This reduction of importance is paralleled by a decrease in the disparity between the differential abstention in Madrid and in Barcelona. If we analyze data from before the 1990s, we can observe a progressive decrease in the difference as a result of the population’s increasing feeling of settlement in their place of residence. The variable “place of birth outside the region of residence” is the highest positive coefficient in relation to differential abstention in both places, although it has greater impact in Barcelona.


These findings show, therefore, the importance of the “place of birth” factor in both areas analyzed, not only in the area of Barcelona.  Nevertheless, the fact that its significance is greater in the latter metropolitan area suggests that it has relatively more influence on non-integration in the political environment there, representing one of several explanatory factors of differential abstention behaviour, which is also associated with variables such as age and type of occupation. Looking toward further development of this analysis, the study should be broadened to include data from the decade of the 1980s, when there was intense population growth due to immigration. This data could afford a better view of the impact of this rapid population growth on the urban areas studied.  The study could also be advanced with access to information regarding the number of years of residence of voters in their current cities of residence. This would be a more precise indicator of the degree of settlement than merely place of birth, and would allow further exploration of its impact on voting behaviour.


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