Mérida, Extremadura: a swing town in a swing state

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Introducing Mérida (population 59 thousand): the third-largest town of Extremadura, Spain’s most rural and lowest-income region.

Most famous for an array of impressive Roman ruins that attract busloads of tourists and an old Roman bridge that stretches across the beautiful Guadiana river, it’s a modestly bustling provincial town of otherwise unremarkable features. It’s also a swing town in a swing state at a time of stark political polarization in Spain.

Mérida election map: 2016 vs 2019

Like most cities in Extremadura and Andalusia, Mérida is both more prosperous and less left-wing than the surrounding countryside. But it’s not as well-off as the state’s larger two cities, Badajoz and Cáceres, and doesn’t lean anywhere as much to the right. Just like Extremadura as a whole, Mérida has in fact become the definition of electoral swing territory.

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Left and right-wing parties evenly matched in Mérida

For most of the past 25 years, the socialist party PSOE and the conservative Partido Popular (PP) have alternated as top choice of the city’s voters, and left and right have matched each other ever more closely.

But with a population that’s younger than that of the surrounding countryside, Mérida voters have swung further away from the long-dominant socialist and conservative parties to newcomer parties, in particular the liberal-conservative Ciudadanos (Cs).

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The rise and fall of the PP in Mérida

In last month’s elections, PSOE rebounded modestly from earlier defeats while Ciudadanos and the far-right Vox benefited handily from the collapse of the PP vote. Overall, the right-wing block of PP, Cs and Vox ever so slightly increased a narrow advantage.

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The PP lost more, and Vox and Cs won more in Mérida than elsewhere

In the 1980s the left got over 60% of the vote in Extremadura, and in Mérida too. But the province has trended towards the median since.

The 2016 elections marked the first time since 1979 that left-wing parties got a smaller share of the vote here than nationally, and that gap increased last month as the left gained ground nationwide but stayed level here. The points gained by PSOE were lost by Podemos, and Extremadura has none of the left-of-center nationalist and regionalist forces that add to the left’s score in Catalonia, the Basque Country or Galicia.

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Mérida, the happy medium?

It’s a paradox: as rural region, Extremadura is drifting gradually right compared to the country overall. But within the region it’s the cities that lean right and the villages left — and little about that seems to be changing.

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Extremadura: left-wing villages, right-wing cities

PSOE paints the town red again

Mérida was never marked by the bourgeois politics that appear to characterize Cáceres, 70 kilometres north. When Extremadura was a socialist stronghold, so was Mérida. Both gave the PSOE absolute majorities of their vote in the 1980s, but those majorities started eroding sooner and faster in Mérida.

The PSOE vote surged once more under Zapatero, who seemed particularly popular with Mérida voters. Pedro Sánchez is no Zapatero and has made more of an impact elsewhere in Spain, but they like him okay. While the Socialists don’t maintain the commanding leads here they enjoy in many of Extremadura’s villages, PSOE still does significantly better than nationally.

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Halting the decline? PSOE results in Spain, Extremadura and Mérida

Thanks to the implosion of the PP, last month’s modest gains meant that PSOE topped the vote in all but five of the city’s 41 census sections, which yields the very red map at the top of this blog post. Only in the heart of downtown Mérida does the PP still prevail, while Cs got to take first place in two newly built neighbourhoods on the edge of town.

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The electoral geography of Mérida, Extremadura

The Socialist Party’s strongholds in town are working class neighbourhoods, often well away from the city centre. Its strongest section last time round was in the neighbourhood of San Juan on the town’s periphery, where people who moved into town from the emptying countryside in the 1960s to find work in the factories built their own houses on illegally parcelled off land. Even now (at least according to the 2011 census), a quarter of its residents has had no schooling (“analfabetas” or “sin estudios”), and less than half has completed secondary education.

PSOE gains, losses, bulwarks and weak spots in Mérida (Spain)

But PSOE actually lost ground in San Juan, with Cs winning over more new voters than you might have expected in a neighbourhood where it got its worst result last time round. PSOE still received 47% of the vote in San Juan, but the party’s best result last month came over on the other end of the city, in “seccion censal” 6–3: part of the “Polígono Nueva Ciudad”.

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“Nueva Ciudad”: Fuck the police in section 6–3

Along with neighbouring Bellavista, working-class Nueva Ciudad was mostly built up in the 1970s and 80s, when government planning replaced peripheral construction like in San Juan with aspirational apartment blocks. But now they look old and worn-out and are considered a “vulnerable neighbourhood”, marked by high crime rates.

Although the unemployment rate isn’t particularly high, the rates of people in temporary or unskilled jobs are, and look more like the statistics of rural Extremadura than those of the rest of the city.

Vox and Ciudadanos gained little ground in the 6–3. Vox got its worst result of the city here; Ciudadanos its second-worst. A full two-thirds of the vote in 6–3 went to left-of-center parties, the second-highest share of the city.

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New town, old walls: streetscape in census section 6–3 in Nueva Ciudad

The other top PSOE results came in very similar places: 47% in Bellavista and section 6–1, also in Nueva Ciudad, and 44% in section 6–7 in Nueva Ciudad. But its gains and losses map shows a fairly different picture. Most of the stagnation and (modest) loss came in places where PSOE was strong. Many of the gains came closer to downtown, where PSOE is traditionally weak.

That would seem, at first blush, to fit with broader observations about European politics. Social-democrats have suffered losses with their working class base in many West-European countries, while any gains for the left now tend to come from culturally progressive, economically more comfortable communities.

The pattern in Mérida is far from consistent, however. Some of PSOE’s greatest gains came amidst the shops and monuments of downtown sections with high shares of college-educated voters like 1–1 (+8%) and 3–3 (+10%), it’s true. Or from the younger, highly-educated voters who live in the newly-built suburbia of section 4–9 (+7%). But the party also made sizable gains in old-town neighbourhoods with an older, lower-educated population like section 3–5 (+9%) in San Albín/La Argentina and 1–5 in El Barrio (+5%). And it gained 7% each in grittier places like Bellavista and San Lázaro, which was built to rehouse the residents of La Paz after their neighbourhood was razed but promptly yielded “a history of delinquency and marginality,” and even made a list of the 60 most dangerous neighbourhoods of Spain.

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In San Albín, PSOE dominated with 41% of the vote while no other party got over 17%

Ciudadanos, champions of the suburbs

Barcelona famously has a “red belt” where PSOE traditionally dominates. Mérida now has an “orange belt”. Whether in the east, west, north or south — wherever new developments have cropped up on the edge of town, Cs can count on a quarter of the vote at least.

It’s a new phenomenon, also seen in Madrid, and ably explained in El Diario. Answering the question whether urban planning can “create a new social class” affirmatively, Pablo Ruiz explains that recent PP governments oversaw the implementation of a glut of new urban development programs, so-called PAUs. “These are isolated neighbourhoods.. they have few connections and, since they are located in areas with high land values, attract an upper-middle income, higher-education, urban population, including many young married couples.”

PAUs are “extraordinarily homogeneous”, highly car-dependent districts, “with walls in the form of motorways”. Binning initial plans for expansive public housing, the authorities brought in private management, and the spirit of their planning is reflected in an aspirational, individualist population that relishes the idea of ownership even if they can sometimes barely afford it. Thatcher’s ownership society embodied, then.

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El Prado, one of two neighbourhoods where Ciudadanos topped the vote

In Mérida, Cs already made impressive headway with this electorate in the last two elections, receiving 24% of the vote in 2016 in section 3–9 on the southeastern edge of town as well as 6–8, on the opposite end of the city. That’s El Prado, a settlement of tower blocks and family houses squeezed between the railway tracks and a highway.

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Barriada El Prado in Mérida, where they really don’t like Badajoz

El Prado is separated from the rest of the city by empty tracts of land behind the hulking Palacio de Congresos, where long grass fills the space between a grid of neatly laid-out streets meant to service as of yet unrealized developments. El Prado itself feels quiet, yet crowded, and it matches the demographic profile: few elderly residents, many with medium or higher educational degrees.

It also includes the “traffic school” of the Guardia Civil, which comes with a seriously fenced off housing complex, which might or might not weigh in on the electoral balance here. Elsewhere in Spain, precincts with an army or Guardia Civil presence saw a high Vox vote, but the far-right party got a pretty average result here.

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“grandes rotondas y avenidas, manzanas cerradas y alta dependencia del coche”

These are not, however, the neighbourhoods where Cs made their greatest gains. If anything, they seem to be maxing out here, adding a below-average 5–6 points to their score. Instead, their appeal seems to be branching out. They gained the most additional votes in a couple of inner-city neighbourhoods as well as outlying sections elsewhere, where educational levels suggest a distinctly more lower-middle class population.

Vox: far-right politics for the elite?

Elsewhere in Europe, far-right parties that used to rely on a core electorate of petit bourgeois shopkeepers and entrepreneurs have discovered the working class vote as a much richer vein to exploit, and shifted their socio-economic rhetoric accordingly. Vox is different.

The upstart far-right party did do especially well in a string of small low-income, high-immigration agricultural towns where it rode nativist discontent to victory, most prominently in places like El Ejido and Níjar in the “plastic sea” on Almería’s coast in Andalusia. There’s one of those in Extremadura as well, Talayuela, though even there Vox gains seem to have mostly just cannibalized the right-wing PP vote without affecting PSOE’s electorate much.

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A gift from Rome: a statue of Romus and Remulus welcomes you to Mérida’s city center, where 20% voted Vox.

But those are the exceptions when it comes to the overall Vox vote. Many of its best results come in high-income districts and municipalities, in bourgeois downtown neighbourhoods or prosperous suburbs, appealing to a staunchly conservative and traditionalist electorate. Madrid is a striking example, with Vox doing systematically better the wealthier a precinct is. Nationally speaking, too, Vox appears to do better where educational levels and incomes are higher, at least once you disregard Catalonia and the Basque country.

Vox’s results in Mérida seem to match this description. Vox did well here, its 13% of the vote surpassing its overall Extremadura result. It did even better in Badajoz (15%), the only city in Badajoz province that has higher average incomes and a larger population.

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Within Mérida, Vox received a stunning 19–20% of the vote in the city’s three most downtown sections. These are the same three sections where the PP does best, and where the right as a whole does best. It’s where the shops are, the bars, and the tourists if they linger after visiting the Teatro Romano.

Vox also received at least 15% of the vote in four other old town sections and two outlying ones. With one exception, all its nine highest scores came in places where a high share of residents completed tertiary education.

The Partido Popular, a loss beyond mapping

The PP suffered a truly devastating and historic loss, shedding well over half its share of the vote in Mérida. It did worse than either the PP or its predecessors have done at any time since 1979.

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There’s little point in mapping its losses — they were so comprehensive, taking the party from 36% down to 16%, that their distribution would look too much like its 2016 results. Roughly speaking, where it had most to lose, it loss most.

The party’s remaining strongholds are the same where Vox did best. The three downtown precincts, stretching from the Puente Romano to the Parque López de Ayala, still gave the PP 30–33% of the vote. But back in 2016 it still dominated the field here with a 59–62% share.

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A difference with the Vox electorate, however, is that PP voters are even more concentrated in the city centre. Nowhere outside the old town did the PP get over 19% of the vote. In 13 of the 15 sections inside the old town, it got at least 20%.

The party’s losses made that concentration even starker than it already was. Proportionately speaking, its worst losses came in some of the city’s working or middle-class suburbs where Cs does well; in sections 4–10, 4–12 and 6–8 the PP lost a full two-thirds of its vote.

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Calle Beatriz de Silva, in downtown’s section 1–7, where the PP vote remains strong

Disuniting Podemos: a paler shade of red

PSOE’s gains were Podemos’s losses (though they ran only parallel to each other): Unidas Podemos lost 5 points where PSOE gained 4. Its losses also came across the board, leaving only one census section (village-like San Andrés on the outskirts of town) untouched.

The 16.4% of the vote Unidas Podemos received in Mérida in 2016 had fallen well short of the national Podemos result, but by Extremadura standards it wasn’t bad. It outstripped the party’s results in the region as a whole as well as in the other main towns and cities of Badajoz province by at least a couple of percentage points. Even its losses now still leave Mérida the list’s second best city in Extremadura, after Plasencia.

But when other newcomer parties are riding high, the losses still smart — perhaps especially here, because Mérida used to be a stronghold for the United Left (IU), back in its heyday. In 1996, IU broke 15% of the vote here, some one and a half times as much as it got nationally.

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Going back even further, Mérida intriguingly was a stronghold for the obscure maoist parties AET and ORT in the late 1970s, when the Spanish went to the polls freely for the first time after forty years dictatorship. Those parties got negligible tenths of percentage points nationally, but netted 7–8% of the vote here.

The Podemos brand never fared as well though, at least in relative terms, its results falling short of national levels in both 2015 and 2016 as well as now.

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Merida’s sector 6–4 (Bellavista), where Podemos got its highest share of the vote

If you associate new leftist movements with hipster socialists, Mérida’s Podemos map will give you pause. Its top two results were the same as last time: sectors 6–4 (Bellavista) and 4–8 (San Lázaro, Santa Isabel), where it got 24-27% then, and 16–18% now. I mentioned both already when discussing PSOE’s top results. In contrast to an old-school working class PSOE stronghold like San Juan, which is poor but almost village-like in character, these neighbourhoods mostly consist of large apartment blocks, and come closest to what squeamish locals might call ghettoes.

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Podemos stronghold Bellavista

Unlike the kind of places Podemos does well in generally, both areas have very few residents with higher education degrees. Precarity and crime levels are relatively high. San Lázaro, commonly known as “El Peri”, qualifies as “la zona más conflictiva” of the city. Although local authorities have invested significantly in efforts to fight drugs trafficking in San Lázaro, public services in the area remain flawed. A random Google search for example turns up a story about how Santa Isabel was left without street lighting for a week.

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“Barrio sin ley”? Bellavista, Mérida

Walking around Bellavista, the superficial difference between that Podemos stronghold and neighbouring parts of Nueva Ciudad where it does less well is the graffiti. It is even more ubiquitous and more colourful, and far more often political. “Fight and Resist”. “Organize and Fight”. “Take to the streets and fight”. But also: “Drugs, Money and Whores,” and “Death to the Snitches”.

Signs of shifting sands?

Some trends only emerge in the aggregate. One which the PSOE map already hinted at comes out more clearly when looking at the results of the right-wing parties added up together — the “tres derechas” as their opponents like to say— at least in its most incipient form.

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At first glance, the map of the right looks very similar in 2016 and 2019. Roughly speaking, the equation holds: the more prosperous a place is, the higher the vote for the right. The more socio-economically vulnerable a place, the lower the vote for the right.

In that sense the map, as is true for Extremadura as a whole, feels a bit like a throwback to a simpler era, where the left by and large represented the working class, and the right primarily represented the upper-middle class and upward. The map suggests this is still the case in Mérida.

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The Arco de Trajana in downtown Mérida. Here, in section 1–7, the right-wing parties pooled 73% of the vote, their highest share in the city.

One thing that strikes the eye, however, is that San Juan is no longer among the redder neighbourhoods, and parts of the Nueva Ciudad got less red as well. The gains/losses map of the right bears this out:

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What happened in section 1–8, directly adjoining downtown, I have no idea. It’s an outlier on all counts. Podemos easily suffered its harshest loss of votes here; PSOE lost significant ground as well; the PP barely lost votes; Ciudadanos got one of their biggest gains. Turnout was also strikingly low at 58%, 13–18 points lower than in neighbouring sections. Either there’s some statistical error or mismatch at work (though if it were boundary changes you’d expect another sector to be affected equally), or some hyperlocal factor.

Otherwise, it’s striking that the right achieved their greatest gains in some of the neighbourhoods where PSOE is traditionally strongest, notably San Juan and parts of the Nueva Ciudad. The three sectors that rank as second- through fourth-highest gains for the right were also three of the top five PSOE neighbourhoods in 2016. In fact, they still are three of PSOE’s top five now, which illustrates how far right-wing inroads here would have to go still to actually make a dent — but nevertheless, they might not immediately have been the places where you’d have expected the right to make gains.

Meanwhile, the right lost the most ground in two neighbourhoods in the heart of downtown with high education levels, 1–1 and 3–3. All of which suggests that even here, out in Extremadura, the wider trends in European politics that have been exhaustively covered by pundits and academics are having some impact: with the cultural political axis of progressives versus conservatives taking primacy over the socio-economic left-right axis, higher-educated (upper-)middle class voters are shifting left while working class electorates shift right.

How urgently relevant these shifts are for the realities of Mérida politics, however, depends on two things: how much you focus solely on the change map rather than the maps that show the actual balance of forces as it exists now, and how willing you are to overlook the inconsistencies. Because far from all neighbourhoods neatly fit the thesis.

In impoverished Bellavista and San Lázaro, the right gained no ground. In Nueva Ciudad’s sector 6–3, it lost points. In old town areas 1–3 and 3–5 where many (older) residents at most completed primary education, the right lost significant ground. In downtown areas with a higher-educated population like sectors 1–7, 2–2 and 3–7, where the PP vote held up relatively well and/or Vox scored big, the right lost no ground. In Mérida, it’s very early days still for sweeping conclusions.

The details: table of results

Nothing more annoying than long narratives about election results that don’t present even the basic results in a handy table anywhere, so here’s a screenshot from the government’s elections website of the results for Mérida as a whole.

If you’re wondering, PACMA is an animal rights party; C.ex-C.R.ex-P.R.Ex is a small, left-of-center regionalist alliance; all the other small parties are somewhere to the left of PSOE.

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The details: methodology

I’ve copied the results by census section over from the wonderful, nationwide election maps El Pais published of both the 2016 results and the 2019 results. It’s those that inspired this blog post. There was no outdoing them, of course, but they only show the winning party by section, and I wanted more detail!

Drawing the maps I looked to the CartoCiudad map viewer to find the exact location of the current borders of the “secciones censales”. They’ve changed: previous borders can still be found on the 2011 census map viewer of the National Statistics Institute. Demographic detail about age and education by census section can be found on their site too, though the education data doesn’t seem to be complete for each section (if it had been I’d made a map!), and the boundary changes sometimes got in the way of direct references. Info about average income levels by municipality are from this El Diario feature.

I’m sure every local knows where San Juan or Bellavista is, but I didn’t and it’s surprisingly hard to find a map of neighbourhoods, but Wikimapia offers some respite. 2019 results for Mérida as a whole are from the government’s election website. I already aggregated historical results by municipality earlier from Publico’s election results archive, which goes back to 1977. A wonderful map of which municipalities moved left or right in these elections can be found at El Diario, and I collected many more maps and resources about this year’s national elections in this thread.

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Holland — Hungary — Spain

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