South Korea’s Fertility Collapse

Recent reports indicate that South Korea’s Total Fertility (TFR) rate has dropped to 0.7 children per woman, a staggeringly low figure. Although below-replacement fertility is now found in all high-income countries except Israel, all others have significantly higher birth rates than South Korea. According to the United Nations Population Fund (2023), no other sovereign state has a TFR below 1.0. Other sizable countries with very low rates, such as Italy, Spain, Ukraine, China, and Japan, report TFR numbers of 1.2 and 1.3.

The fertility collapse in South Korea is generating a lot of attention, with many observers warning of a pending disaster. Ross Douthat, writing in the New York Times, claims that:

There will be a choice between accepting steep economic decline as the age pyramid rapidly inverts and trying to welcome immigrants on a scale far beyond the numbers that are already destabilizing Western Europe. There will be inevitable abandonment of the elderly, vast ghost towns and ruined high rises and emigration by young people who see no future as custodians of a retirement community. And at some point there will quite possibly be an invasion from North Korea (current fertility rate: 1.8), if its southern neighbor struggles to keep a capable army in the field.

Such warnings may be overblown. The possibility of a demographic-led invasion, moreover, is  complicated by North Korea’s own low and declining fertility, which reportedly brought Kim Jong Un to tears earlier this week. It must also be mentioned that not everyone regards demographic collapse as a negative phenomenon. Many environmentalists welcome it, viewing the Earth as grotesquely overpopulated as it is.

The South Korean government, however, is deeply very concerned about its birth dearth. It now offers significant subsidies for childbearing, including $10,500 in cash. At least one city has set up its own match-making services. According to a recent NPR story, “South Korea has moved aggressively to stem the decline in births, and its actions provide a model for steps other governments can take to address the issue.” Such framing, however, is little short of bizarre; as South Korea’s demographic initiatives are clearly failing, they can hardly be regarded as a “model.” Other countries, most notably Czechia, have significantly increased their fertility rates and thus provide much better models. But it remains doubtful that South Korea could successfully follow their lead.

The next GeoCurrents post will examine some of the explanations offered for South Korea’s fertility collapse. For today, we will simply look at birth-rate variation across the country, looking for geographical patterns that might help illuminate the issue.

We begin with a simple map of South Korean TFR by province and other first-order administrative divisions. As can be seen, fertility rates are extremely low across the country. The only area with a TFR above 1.0 is Sejong (officially, Sejong Special Self-Governing City). Sejong was established in 2007 as a planned and spacious city that will eventually replace Seoul as South Korea’s capital. Most governmental ministries have already relocated there. As the Wikipedia article on the city notes, “Sejong uses its new development to market itself as an alternative to Seoul, offering luxury living at a fraction of the cost.” It is not surprising that uncrowded and relatively inexpensive Sejong would have a much higher fertility rate than Seoul – 1.12 as opposed to 0.59 –  as the density and costliness of Seoul are often offered as explanations for its extraordinarily low birthrate.

Otherwise, it is difficult to find any specific factors that might contribute to South Korea’s fertility variation from province to province, which are not, in any event, particularly pronounced. Per capita GDP, for example, does not appear to be significant, as can be seen in the paired map posted below.

Province-level mapping, however, offers a crude and cloudy window into population dynamics. Unfortunately, the only detailed fertility map of South Korea that I have been able to find dates to 2010, when its TFR was a 1.2. As can be seen, several parts of the country at the time had fertility rates over 1.8. Comparting this map to one of population density reveals some interesting but not unexpected patterns. To clarify one of them, I have outlined the areas with relatively high fertility (over 1.8) at the time on a dot-map of population density. As can be seen, all these higher-fertility zones were characterized by low or moderately low population density, at least by South Korean standards. Some areas of very low population density, however, also reported extremely low birth rates. Also unsurprisingly, major cities in 2010 were also characterized by extremely low fertility. An interesting partial exception, however, was the extraordinarily economically productive city of Ulsan in the southeast. From 2010 to 2015, Ulsan’s TFR rose from 1.37 to 1.49; since then, however, it has plummeted to 0.85 (2022).

Although off-topic, the source of Ulsan’s economic productivity is heavy industry. As noted in the Wikipedia article on the city:

Ulsan is the industrial powerhouse of South Korea, forming the heart of the Ulsan Industrial District. It has the world’s largest automobile assembly plant, operated by the Hyundai Motor company the world’s largest shipyard, operated by Hyundai Heavy Industries and the world’s  third largest oil refinery, owned by SK energy. In 2020, Ulsan had a GDP per capita  of $65,352, the highest of any region in South Korea.

South Korea’s Fertility Collapse Read More »

Two Additional Maps on Urban Population Change in the United States

In October 2023, GeoCurrents ran several posts on the historical and recent population growth of major American cities. These posts were envisioned at the time as the beginning of a large project on mapping the expansion of urbanism in the United States. That project, however, has been put on hold, perhaps indefinitely. But there are two remaining maps from this endeavor that are worth sharing.

The first is a schematic map that takes the sixteen largest cities in the U.S. in 1950 and shows their relative population in that year 2020 and in 2020. As can be seen, 12 of these cities experienced population loss in this period, several to a significant degree. Detroit, Cleveland, Saint Louis, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo have greatly diminished. Other declining cities, especially Boston, Milwaukee, and Washington, saw much smaller losses.

Only four of 1950’s largest cities gained population over the next 70 years. Two made marginal gains (New York and San Francisco), one expanded significantly (Los Angeles), and one boomed (Houston). Significantly, all four lost population from 2020 to 2022, although in Houston the decline was insignificant (0.07 percent).

The second schematic map turns from city population to metropolitan area population, which in many ways gives a better sense of U.S. urban dynamics, given the country’s extensive suburbanization. Here we see relative population size, again depicted by the area of each polygon, and population growth from 2010 to 2020, coded by color. As can been seen, all the top 60 metropolitan areas in the U.S. gained residents during this period, but they did so at very different rates. As would be expected, sunbelt metro areas saw the fastest growth and rustbelt ones the slowest. Only a few metro areas in the northern half of the country experienced major growth in the period, with Seattle, Minneapolis, and Omaha standing out. In the South, the relatively slow growth of New Orleans, Birmingham, Memphis, and Virginia Beach stands out, as does the rapid population expansion of the Austin, Nashville, and Raleigh metro areas.  

Two Additional Maps on Urban Population Change in the United States Read More »

The Dutch Bible Belt: Religion and Voting in the Netherlands (& Northwestern Iowa)

The Netherlands is one of the most secular countries in the world. In a 2022 survey, 57 percent of its people reported “no religion,” 18 percent Catholicism, thirteen percent Protestant Christianity, and 5.6 percent Islam. Many of those who profess Christianity, moreover, are not very religious. In 2015, 82 percent of the Dutch population indicated that they “never or almost never” set foot in a church. But despite such widespread secularism, religion plays a significant role in Dutch politics. Three of the 15 parties in the country’s parliament officially signal their Christianity and another has roots in Christian democracy. Such a seeming discrepancy calls for further analysis.

Historically, the Dutch people were often noted for their religiosity. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, they formed the core group of the influential Devotio Moderna movement that sought to revitalize Christianity through devotion to piety, humility, and simplicity of life. Learning was important as well, as exemplified by Erasmus of Rotterdam. In the mid-sixteenth century, conversion to Calvinism, or Reformed Christianity, was widespread, especially in Holland and Zeeland. This religious change helped spark rebellion against Spanish rule and the creation of the Dutch Republic in 1579. Although the Dutch Republic was noted for its religious toleration, it was closely associated with Calvinism, which continued to spread across its seven constituent provinces (Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Friesland, Groningen, Overijssel, and Gelderland). Territorial gains made with the Peace of Westphalia (1648) brought substantial Catholic territories into the republic, most notably in North Brabant, which were long ruled on a semi-colonial basis. As the intensity of Dutch Protestantism declined in the nineteenth century, religion conflict intensified, pitting Catholics, Calvinists, and post-Calvinists against each other. The main response was the “pillarization” of Dutch society, defined as the “the vertical separation of citizens into groups by religion and associated political beliefs.” By the beginning of the twentieth century, four main pillars had crystalized: Catholic, Protestant, Liberal, and Socialist. As Wikipedia notes:

Each pillar [had] its own social institutions and social organizations. These [included] its own newspapers, broadcasting organisations, political parties, trade unions, farmers’ associations, banks, stores, schools, hospitals, universities, scouting organisations and sports clubs. Such segregation [meant] that many people [had] little or no personal contact with members of other pillars. [Note: quotation edited to put it in the past tense.]

Depillarization began after World War II, but remnants persist, especially in education. The Netherland’s several Christian political parties might also be seen a holdover of the pillarization era, although some of their sectarian lines have blurred over time. The Christian Union party is rooted in the Reformed Church and thus takes a conservative stance on social matters, but it now leans to the left on economic and environmental issues, based on the Biblical precepts of charity and stewardship. The somewhat more conservative Christian Democratic Appeal originated in 1977 through the confederation of three religious-political groups, two Protestant and one Catholic. The third explicitly religious party, the Reformed Party (SGP), represents unreconstructed Calvinism and is decidedly rightwing. It is sometimes even regarded as advocating theocracy, although that allegation is controversial. SGP is the Netherland’s oldest political party, having been established in 1918. One of its founders envisioned a Netherlands “without cinema, sports, vaccination, and social security.” While the antipathy to sports has dissipated, opposition to playing games on Sundays has not.

Although religious affiliation has declined more sharply in the traditionally Protestant parts of the Netherlands than in the traditionally Catholic ones (see the first map below), intense religiosity is more common in the former region. The Old Reformed (strictly Calvinist) congregations have a membership of roughly 400,000, although some sources claim that over a million Dutch people remain affiliated with their version of the Reformed faith. Staunch believers are concentrated in a discontinuous “Bible Belt” that stretches from Zeeland in the southwest to the Netherlands’ center-north. It is often mapped based on support for the Christian Union and Reformed parties (see the map below). Intriguingly, the Dutch Bible Belt is located just north of the historical divide between the Protestant and Catholic parts of the country. This distribution pattern has been used as evidence that the Netherlands’ Bible Belt originated from Protestant stalwarts fleeing Catholic domination before the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, but this interpretation remains uncertain.

In the 2023 general election, the (Calvinist) Reformed Party had its best showing by a wide margin in Zeeland, where it took almost 10 percent of the vote. But it came in first place in only one of the Zeeland’s municipalities. Nationwide, it did so in eight of the 342 municipalities into which the Netherlands is divided. Rather than forming a contiguous belt, these municipalities are widely scattered. One lies in the country’s demographic core (Woudenberg in Utrecht Province) and another, Urk, is found in Flevoland, a land that did not even exist until it was diked and drained in the 1950s and ‘60s. As a new province, it might seem surprising the Flavoland would be home to such a traditional community. But Urk is an old fishing town that sat on an island before the massive drainage projects of the mid twentieth century. It is often regarded as the country’s most conservative municipality. Its politics have long been dominated by Christian parties, particularly the SGP and local offshoots, although in recent years the right-populist PVV and FvD have gained considerable support. The 21,000 residents of Urk have also maintained their own distinct dialect, usually called Urkers As noted in Wikipedia article on Urk:

One of the oldest and most distinctive dialects of Dutch is the language spoken in Urk. Nearly everyone in the village speaks this dialect and uses it in daily life. The dialect deviates considerably from contemporary standard Dutch and has preserved many old characteristics that disappeared from standard Dutch a long time ago. The Urkish dialect also includes elements that are older than standard Dutch  and were never part of the standard language.  … The dialect developed this way because until World War II, Urk was an island and could only be reached by boat. Radio was unknown, and the poor population did not have much money for newspapers and books. Until the modern era primary education for the children typically lasted only two years; afterwards children had to help maintain the family and formal schooling ended.

The hardline Calvinist communities in the Bible Belt have been subjected to harsh criticism in mainstream Dutch society. Opposition to vaccination has long generated opposition. Recent censure often focuses on their steadfast hostility to gay rights and gender ideology.

The deep conservatism of old-school Dutch Calvinism is politically reflected in places far from the Netherlands, most notably among the Afrikaners of South Africa. It can also be seen in the United States, particularly in a few counties in southwestern Michigan and northwestern Iowa that were heavily settled by Dutch immigrants. This correlation can be seen in the paired maps posted below, one showing the prevalence of the (Dutch) Reformed Church in Iowa and the other showing the results of the 2020 presidential election in the same state. Donald Trump is anything but a reflection of Calvinist values, but the overwhelming support that he received in northwestern Iowa does indicate an abiding hostility to liberalism and leftism in this region that has deep roots in the Dutch Reformed Church.

As a final note, it is intriguing that the centrist Christian Union party had by far its best showing in the 2023 general election in Bonaire and the two other special Dutch municipalities located in the Caribbean.

The Dutch Bible Belt: Religion and Voting in the Netherlands (& Northwestern Iowa) Read More »

The Rotterdam Enigma: Dutch Cities in the 2023 General Election

In the United States, electoral patterns increasingly correlate with population density, with voters in metropolitan cores favoring the left and those in more peripheral areas preferring the populist right. Does this pattern hold in the Netherlands? The answer is partially “yes” but mostly “no.” The situation, in other words, is complicated.

As the map posted below shows, in a few Dutch provinces the municipalities with the largest city were the only ones that favored GreenLeft-Labour, with all others giving the plurality of their votes to a conservative party, mostly Geert Wilders’ PVV. Intriguingly, this pattern is limited to peripheral provinces: Zeeland, Groningen, and North Brabant. It almost holds in Friesland, but the province’s – and the country’s –  two most sparsely populated municipalities, Schiermonnikoog and Vlieland, also voted GreenLeft-Labour. It is probably not coincidental that they heavily depend on tourism.

In the Dutch demographic and economic core, however, this electoral pattern breaks down. This region, called the Randstad (“Rim City”), is roughly equivalent to the provinces of North Holland, South Holland, and Utrecht. It is conventionally divided into two subregions, the “South Wing” (Zuidvleugel), anchored by Rotterdam and the Hague, and the “North Wing” (Noordvleugel), anchored by Amsterdam and Utrecht (although the Utrecht area is sometime seen as constituting a wing of its own). The Randstad is home to some 8.4 million people, roughly half of the Netherlands’ population. Between its two wings lies the more sparsely populated Groene Hart (“Green Heart”), a region dominated by farms and wetlands, although it also contains a few cities, such as Gouda and Zoetermeer.

As the map below shows, the North Wing of the Randstad largely fits the electoral pattern found in the United States, with most of its larger cities giving a plurality of their votes to the GreenLeft-Labour Party and with plurality support for Geert Wilders’ PVV mostly confined to more peripheral areas. Amsterdam, Utrecht, Haarlem, Amersfoort, and Hilversum (the Dutch media capital) are all unsurprisingly colored red for the Labour Party on the map to the left below.

It is a different story, however, in the Randstad’s South Wing. Rotterdam and The Hague, the Netherlands’ second- and third-largest cities, both gave plurality support to the populist-right PVV. In this region the only municipalities to support GreenLeft-Labour were Leiden, a university center, and Delft. Gouda, located in the Randstad’s “Green Heart,” also voted GreenLeft-Labour.

The fact that the PVV came in first place in Rotterdam and The Hague does not, however, mean that they are dominated by the populist right. In the former city, PVV received 22 percent of the vote while GreenLeft Labour got 19.8%, center-right VVD 11.2%, pro-immigrant but socially conservative DENK 10.4%, and center/center-right NSC 9.0%. Similar ratios were found in The Hague. Although profoundly mixed, these results indicate “center-leaning” electorates shifting in a right-populist direction. In both Rotterdam and The Hague, Geert Wilder’s PVV Party more than doubled its level of support over that received in the previous election.

The popularity of such a vociferously anti-immigrant party is especially surprising in Rotterdam, a city demographically dominated by recent immigrant and their descendants. Fifty-two percent of its residents have at least one parent born outside of the country. Since 2009, moreover, Rotterdam’s mayor has been Ahmed Aboutaleb, a Muslim of Moroccan descent who represents the Labour Party. Rotterdam is also a relatively poor city, which, by conventional reasoning, would lead one to expect a higher level of support for Labour and other parties of the left.

One theory for Rotterdam’s populist shift focuses on the city’s non-immigrant population, contending that that the influx of migrants and the increased cultural diversity that it entails has pushed them in a xenophobic direction. But some evidence indicates that increasing numbers of immigrants are themselves turning to the PVV. A recent Guardian article, for example, reports that:

Across the street, Hasan Jakh, a recently arrived immigrant from Turkey, confessed he had voted for Wilders, driven by his frustration over the lack of affordable housing. “It’s stupid that he’s so Islamophobic,” he said. “But for the rest, he’s great.”

Housing affordability seems to be a key factor in the growing support for anti-immigration parties, and not just in Rotterdam. Just because a person is of immigrant origin does not necessarily entail support more immigration, especially if it is perceived to be against one’s own economic interest.

Not surprisingly, Rotterdam’s populist turn has generated considerable interest and concern among scholars. As the conclusion to an edited collection on the topic by Steven Vertovec begins:

What’s the matter with Rotterdam? This is a question I asked in a 2017 lecture (available to view at, when trying to figure out how and why the city seems to disrupt common contemporary narratives concerning migration and cities. That is, social scientists since Simmel have postulated that cities are largely incubators of cosmopolitanism, or openness (if only indifference) to socio-cultural differences. It is often presumed that such openness goes together with an acceptance of ethnic diversity and immigration. Opinion polls and ethnographic research in cities usually bears out this presumption. Hence, it comes as surprising if not shocking to learn that in super-diverse Rotterdam – with over 50% of its population stemming from some 180 nations – the urban model of cosmopolitan incubator seems to fail. Authors in this collection have pointed to developments in Rotterdam by way of negative reactions to diversity, substantial voting for rightwing, anti- immigrant parties, and an ‘unhappy version’ of super-diversity in which the growth of a disapproving atmosphere has led to sharper ethnic boundaries, retreat into white enclaves, and low levels of white-ethnic minority social contact. Indeed, what’s the matter with Rotterdam?

In this volume we have read of how, despite – or because of? – its remarkable levels and kinds of diversity, Rotterdam is the Dutch city with the highest number of voters for Geert Wilders’ populist PVV (Partij voor de Vrijheid or Party for Freedom), and where the rightwing Leefbaar Rotterdam (Livable Rotterdam) party, heirs of Pim Fortuyn’s anti-immigrant movement, is also the City Council’s largest. How and why has this particular configuration (a high degree of super-diversity combined with strong right-wing sentiments) arisen?

Vertovec’s analysis, however, is rather indecisive, although he does conclude that “there is nothing the matter with Rotterdam.” What I wonder is whether Rotterdam is more a singular exception to a firmly ensconced rule or more a harbinger of things to come. In the United, communities rooted in relatively recent immigrations streams are also showing signs of moving in a right-populist direction, as Ruy Teixeira emphasizes. If this trend holds, we may see major political upheavals and electoral reconfigurations in the coming years.

The Rotterdam Enigma: Dutch Cities in the 2023 General Election Read More »

The Relative Lack of Regional Voting Differences in the Netherlands – And the Partial Exception of Friesland

The Dutch general election of 2023 reveals a low degree of regional political differentiation, with most parties receiving relatively similar vote percentages across the country. The main exception is the special Dutch municipalities in the Caribbean: Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, and Saba.

Consider, for example, the provincial voting patterns for the top five parties (see the maps below). Geert Wilders’ PVV took between 17.6 (Utrecht) and 30.1 (Limburg) percent of the vote everywhere, coming in first place in every province except Utrecht and North Holland. As the first map shows, PVV did slightly worse in the Netherlands’ demographic and economic core (North and South Holland and Utrecht) and slightly better in more peripheral regions, but the differences are relatively small, and South Holland, the most populous province, defies the generalization. The GreenLeft-Labour Party narrowly came in first place in North Holland and Utrecht and also did relatively well in Groningen, historically noted for its labor activism, but again the discrepancies are relatively minor. Regional differences were also relatively muted for the main center-right party, VVD. The new centrist NSC party does, however, have something of a positive outlier in Overijssel; it is not coincidental that NSC is closely associated with its founder, Pieter Omtzigt, who lives in that province. The centrist party D66 also shows relatively minor regional voting variation, with the notable exception of the Netherlands’ Caribbean municipalities.

The Netherlands does, however, have a number of strictly regional political parties, but they generally restrict their activities to provincial elections. But as the map below shows, few of them gained more than a few percent of the vote in the 2023 provincial elections, and in the three core provinces (North and South Holland and Utrecht) their share was negligible. The one outlier on this map is Friesland, where the Frisian National Party took over 8 percent of the vote and the Provincial Interest of Friesland Party a little more than 2 percent. In 2003, however, the Frisian National Party received more than 13 percent of the vote in Friesland’s provincial election.

It is not surprising that Friesland would have the Netherland’s strongest regional party, as it is a culturally distinctive province with its own language, West Frisian. (In Frisian, “Friesland” is called “Fryslân.”) Despite its nationalistic name, the party does not push for independence. Instead, it advocates a federal system of governance for the country, which would allow substantial autonomy for Friesland. It also wants more support for the Frisian language and provincial control of local natural gas reserves. Although most regional political parties in Europe lean decidedly either to the left or the right, the Frisian National Party spans the spectrum. As reported by Wikipedia,  “According to a survey of 554 party members done by the European Policies Research Centre… in 2009, 5.05% of members identified as far-left  on the political spectrum, 13.9% as left-wing, 28.16% as center-left, 17.51% as centrist, 14.98% as center-right, 7.4% as right-wing, and 2.53% as far-right, with 10.47% unsure. Whether such ideological diversity helps or hinders the movement for Frisian autonomy is an open question.

Although the Frisians are not recognized as a distinct national minority in the Netherlands as they are in Germany, the Frisian language is in a much healthier condition in the former country. Whereas roughly half a million people speak West Frisian in the Netherlands, the two Frisian dialects (more properly, languages) of Germany together have only around 12,000 speakers. In schools in Dutch Friesland, instruction in the language is mandatory. But as the map posted below indicates, most people in southern Friesland cannot speak the language, although many more can understand it. Many Frisians fear, moreover, that their language will be gradually supplanted by Dutch.

Frisian was a much more important language a thousand years ago than it is today. As one of the maps posted above shows, it once covered the entire North Sea coast from what is now the Netherlands’ border with Belgium to Germany’s border with Denmark. Frisian is usually regarded as the language most closely related to English, although this interpretation remains somewhat controversial and it holds only if Scots English is reckoned as a dialect rather than a separate language. It must also be noted that English has undergone such profound transformations that its relatively close relationship with Frisian is by no means obvious to native speakers of either language.

The Relative Lack of Regional Voting Differences in the Netherlands – And the Partial Exception of Friesland Read More »

The Shift Toward Rightwing Populism in the Centrist Electorate of the Netherlands

The recent Dutch election sent out political shockwaves that extend well beyond the Netherlands, as noted in media outlets both left and right. A headline in right-leaning Spiked Online reads “The Humiliation of the Dutch Establishment: The Victory of Geert Wilders Shows Voters are Desperate to Hit Back Against the Elites,” while one in left-leaning Daily Beast claims that “Shock Election Triumph Crowns Geert Wilders as the World’s ‘King of Islamophobia: Far-right Populist … Scores Huge Victory in Dutch Election, Despite Previous Conviction and Bans.” Although such interpretations are understandable, they obscure the complexities of Dutch electoral politics and exaggerate the trends that this election revealed. Although Wilders’ right-populist Party for Freedom (PVV) did better than any other party, it still took less than a quarter of the votes cast, giving it only 37 out of 150 seats in the House Representatives. It will be a challenge, and perhaps an impossibility, for Wilders to cobble together a coalition large enough for him to form a government and become prime minister. If that does happen, his Party for Freedom will probably have to moderate if not abandon its most controversial positions. (It is his party, moreover, as he is the sole member.)

With strictly proportional representation and a low threshold – 0.67% ­– for parliamentary representation, the Netherlands has a complex political environment with many competitive parties. In 2023, 15 received enough votes for representation in the House of Representative, down from 17 in 2021. As a result, multi-party coalitions are generally needed to gain a parliamentary majority of 76 seats.

 To get a better sense of the election results, I have arranged the main Dutch parties along a conventional one-dimensional political spectrum, extending from the far-left to the far-right (see below). In doing so, I relied on Wikipedia to categorize their political positions along this axis, as it uses relatively consistent criteria for doing so. I am, however, skeptical of the one-dimensional “left-right” spectrum, omnipresent though it is. It has never adequately captured the essence of political viewpoint diversity, and its misalignment with actual conditions is currently intensifying. What is needed instead is multi-dimensional model of political space. But for time being, I reluctantly retain the one-dimensional scheme. But I do deviate from the norm by dividing Dutch parties into three main categories: left, right, and center. Given the strength, albeit diminishing, of the Dutch political center, this scheme is more fitting than a simple “left/right” bifurcation. In the system used in the diagram below, a party that is deemed either “center-right” or “center-left” by Wikipedia is slotted into the broad political “center,” while one described as “center-left to left-wing” is classified instead as “leftwing,” just as one deemed “center-right to right-wing” is classified as “rightwing.” Several of Wikipedia’s designations, however, are highly debatable, and as a result the categorization scheme found below should be regarded as merely suggestive.

As the diagram shows, although the center parties suffered a sharp rebuke in the 2023 election, together they remain the Netherlands’ largest block by a considerable margin. Overall, the Dutch electorate skews slightly to the right of center, at least according to the classification scheme used here. In the 2023 general election, the political center’s loss resulted in major gains for the populist right. Rightwing populist voters moved toward Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV), with two smaller parties of the same ilk losing support. One of these, JA21, portrays itself a “proper” rightwing party, less radical than Wilders’ PVV (although Wikipedia slots them into the same political space). The other, FvD, is usually regard as more radical than PVV, as well as more favorable to Vladimir Putin. The more centrist but still right-populist BBB, or Farmer-Citizen Movement, also registered major gains. It did not, however, perform nearly as well as it had in the Dutch provincial elections earlier in this year, when it took 19 percent of the vote nationwide and gained the largest number of seats in all 12 Dutch provinces. The BBB’s agrarian focus, along with the lack of ambition for national leadership by its leader, Caroline van der Plas, probably contributed to its loss of votes in the general election.

Of the three Dutch electoral segments outlined here, the left is clearly the weakest. It now receives much less support than it had in the late twentieth century, when the leader of the Labour Party (PvdA) Wim Kok served as Prime Minister (1994 to 2002). After poor showings in 2021, the two main “center-left/leftwing” parties, Labour and the Greens, combined to form PvdA–GroenLinks (GreenLeft-Labour). As can be seen, this joint party did relatively well in 2023, winning eight seats more than its two constituent parties had won in 2021. Its gains, however, apparently came at the cost of the Netherland’s more leftwing parties, which collectively lost eight seats. The party furthest to the left, the Marxian, identity-focused BIJ1, did not receive enough votes to retain parliamentary representation.

Despite its solid showing overall, the broad Dutch political center experienced major losses and profound upheaval in this election cycle. Its three main parties, center-right VVD (Party for Freedom and Democracy), center/center-right CDA (Christian Democratic Appeal), and center-center D66 (Democrats 66) saw a staggering collective loss of 35 seats. These three parties, along with the smaller Christian Union (which also lost seats), had formed the Netherland’s governing coalition. D66, which supports European Federalism, lost more than half of its seats, while CDA lost two-thirds. As a result, Christian Democratic Appeal is a now a shadow of its former self; as recently as 2006 it was the Netherlands’ top party, winning 41 seats and taking 26.5 percent of the vote that year. Many of the defections from the parties of the governing coalition went to a new center party, NSC (New Social Contract). Led by Ph.D economist Pieter Omtzigt, NCS grew out of the Eurosceptic wing of Christian Democratic Appeal. In the 2023 election, Omtzigt positioned himself as a maverick centrist, “conservative on immigration and climate change but leftist on reducing poverty and improving healthcare.” Significantly, the centrism of the larger Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) of out-going Prime Minister Mark Rutte is of the opposite order, leaning left on immigration and climate change while advocating small government, laissez-faire economics, and tax reductions. The centrism of the Turkish-oriented DENK party skews in yet another direction, to the left on immigration and multiculturalism, but increasingly to the right on social issues.

European integration, immigration, and climate-change mitigation were key issues in the 2023 Dutch election. Skepticism about all three figured prominently in the losses experienced by the center/center-right governing coalition, with some of its voters moving to the hard right and others to a less-internationalist version of Dutch centrism. Intriguingly, the story on the left was quite different, with its more Eurosceptical and anti-globalist parties losing seats to the more centrist and EU-oriented GreenLeft-Labour party.

Overall, the Dutch electorate clearly shifted to a more nationalistic and climate-skeptical position. Similar shifts have occurred recently in several other countries, although Poland notably bucked the trend, as was explored in previous GeoCurrents posts. This tendency challenges the idea that a single one-dimensional spectrum adequately captures the full array of political thought. It seems likely that we will continue to see the growth of parties and movements, like the Netherlands’ New Social Contract, that lean economically to the left but are more conservative on environmental, social, and immigration issues. Conversely, movements advocating the opposite mix, like the Teal Independents of Australia, could also gain clout, as could other alternative parties with their own eclectic policy ideas. Overall, the populist/establishment divide will probably intensify. As a result, democratic countries could see electoral destabilization with rapid swings in the fortunes of established political parties. Such a situation may be perilous, but it is also extremely interesting. Stay tuned.

The Shift Toward Rightwing Populism in the Centrist Electorate of the Netherlands Read More »

Melbourne Vs. Sydney Revisited

Australia is an unusual country in having two metropolitan areas of roughly equal population that overshadow all others. As the tables posted below show, Melbourne and Sydney each have around five million inhabitants, roughly twice as many as third-ranking Brisbane. It is also not entirely clear which metropolis is larger. Although Sydney has generally received the honor, Melbourne is growing more rapidity and has reportedly “snatched back its crown as Australia’s largest city, knocking Sydney off the top spot.” (Different population figures are derived from different way of spatially delimiting the metro area.)

Few other countries have such dual top cities. The only one that come readily to my mind is Vietnam; Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) both have around eight million inhabitants, with the next largest, Haiphong, coming in at only two million. Such urban duality can lead to sharp cultural rivalry, which is indeed the case in both Australia and Vietnam.

Given their shared top position, Melbourne and Sydney’s differences are worth exploring. As a recent GeoCurrents post noted, Melbourne leans much more to the political left. But how else do they differ? Internet queries deliver mostly tourist-oriented information, focused on climate, sights and scenery, and dining and nightlife. Cultural, social, and economic comparisons are more difficult to find. Several sources, however, note that Melbourne is less expensive, which might be one reason why it is growing more quickly:

The rental prices in Melbourne are a lot more affordable than those in Sydney, which is probably the best thing about Melbourne  when compared to Sydney. It is estimated that the rent for a one-bedroom apartment located in the central business district of Sydney will be approximately AUD $2,689 (US $2127) per month. The same thing in the Australian city of Melbourne will set you back approximately $1,725 (or $1,364 in US currency).

Elevated housing costs in Sydney reflect the fact that it is wealthier than Melbourne, as can be seen on the paired maps posted below. Note that the top three categories on the Sydney median-family-income map are missing from Melbourne, while the lowest one is missing from Sydney (in Melbourne it is limited to the far peripheral division of Indi). I also included Perth, Western Australia’s only metropolis, in this map set for broader comparative purposes; its income profile is much more like that of Melbourne than that of Sydney. I was surprised to see these lower income figures for Perth, as Western Australia is the country’s richest state on a per capita basis, with a much higher level of GDP per person than either New South Wales or Victoria (see below). Non-metropolitan regions of New South Wales, however, do generally have lower average incomes than non-metropolitan parts of Western Australia (compare, for example, WA’s sparsely settled but mineral-rich Pilbara and NSW’s agrarian New England on the map below).



The more important distinction in income between Sydney and Melbourne, however, is that of differentiation. Although Sydney’s wealthiest division are richer than those of Melbourne, Sydney’s poorest division are slightly poorer than those of Melbourne. The areas of greater Melbourne with median weekly household income below 1,600 Australian dollars are all located in the exurban fringe, whereas those of Sydney form one the city’s main suburban cores. One might expect such income differentiation to lead to a more leftwing voting pattern in Sydney, but the opposite situation holds.

The remaining set of maps show some relatively muted but still significant differences between Australia’s two largest cities. Regarding educational attainment, central Melbourne and central Sydney look quite similar, but Melbourne’s suburbs have a slightly larger percentage of college graduates. Suburban Sydney is somewhat more religious than suburban Melbourne, which reflects the fact that it has a higher percentage of people born outside Australia (see the first to maps below). Both central Melbourne and central Sydney, however, have large immigrant populations and low levels of religious belief. In both metro areas – and presumable across the country – peripheral divisions have mostly Australia-born populations. Regarding marital states, it is notable that Sydney’s wealthy northern suburbs report higher rates of marriage than any electoral divisions of Melbourne.

Melbourne Vs. Sydney Revisited Read More »

Australia’s Centrist Teal Alternative – and a Possible Center-Populist Alternative to the Alternative

The center-right Australian Liberal Party has long been a major political force, leading Australia’s government, in coalition with the agrarian-focused National Party, from 2013 to 2022. In 2022, however, it suffered a sharp reversal, losing 17 seats in the House of Representatives. Most of these losses were in wealthy inner-suburban electoral division in major metropolitan areas – historically the party’s main bases of power. The residents of these areas, however, have become more leftwing on social and cultural issues than the party as a whole, and they are much more concerned about climate change. Although some of these former Liberal strongholds turned to the center-left Labour Party, others opted for so-called Teal independents. While the Teals are strongly committed to countering climate change and upholding leftwing social values, they retain the Liberal Party’s more conservative economic outlook. Their “teal” label reflects these ideological commitments, as the color combines blue, symbolizing the Liberal Party, and green, symbolizing, of course, the Green Party.

The seven Teal independents who now sit in Australia’s House of Representatives are an interesting group. They are, by U.S. standards at least, relatively young, but they are also very accomplished. Several have had high-level executive careers, and two are scions of noted political dynasties. As befits sports-besotted Australia, a few of them are celebrated athletes. But what is more remarkable is that they are all women. (The slides posted below provide basic information on the seven Teal MPs.)

Although women are over-represented, men are not absent from the Teal movement. In 2022, the Australian Capital Territory (Canberra, essentially) elected a Teal candidate, David Pocock, as one of its two senators. (The Australian Senate is less powerful than the House of Representatives, but it is significant.) Born and reared in Zimbabwe, Pocock fits the Teal model, as he was vice captain of Canberra’s professional rugby union team, the Brumbies, and was twice a finalist for the World Rugby association’s honor of “player of the year.” He is also a noted activist for environmental causes and same-sex marriage.

The Teal surge reveals some interesting and important developments in political philosophy that are not limited to Australia. Historically, most democratic countries have been dominated by two main political parties, one of which primarily represents the economic interest of the elites, and the other those of the working and lower-middle classes. But as the former party has typically been more socially and culturally conservative, it has also attracted some support from working-class voters, particularly those living outside of metropolitan areas. By the same token, as the latter party has typically been more socially and culturally leftwing, it has also attracted support from elite voters, particularly those living in urban areas. Such discrepant bases of support generate tensions and imbalances that can potentially lead to political realignments.

In the United States, the Republican Party has historically been more oriented toward elites and the Democratic Party more oriented toward the working class. These orientations began to shift after the social upheavals of the 1960s, as culturally conservative non-elites – “Reagan Democrats” – turned to the Republican Party while culturally progressive elites flocked to the Democratic Party. In the 1990s, Democratic president Bill Clinton further propelled this realignment by embracing Wall Street and corporate capitalism more generally and by deemphasizing the party’s traditional working-class base. Although both parties now encompass major contingents of both elite and non-elite voters, the balance has shifted. As maverick Democratic Party analyst Ruy Teixeira demonstrates, the Republican Party seems to be emerging as the first choice of the multi-ethnic working class. The Democratic Party, in contrast, now enjoys overwhelming support in the county’s wealthiest inner suburbs, once Republican bastions. (See, most recently, Teixeira & Judis, Where Have all the Democrats Gone?)

Political evolution, however, has worked out differently in Australia, where the Labour Party has remained more focused on working-class voters. As a result, wealthy inner suburbs long remained loyal to the “Tories” (Liberals). But emerging tensions between increasingly green and socially progressive elite voters and the more conservative party base and establishment could not be contained forever. But rather than opting for the more economically leftwing Labour Party, many residents of the country’s wealthiest areas turned instead to the more economically conservative Teal independents. As a result of this exodus, the Liberal Party now finds itself in an uncomfortable situation, with some observers thinking that it might be relegated to long-term minority status.

But Australia’s Labour Party has its own problems, as indicated by the decisive defeat of the Indigenous Voice referendum that it strongly supported. As it turns out, many of its leftwing social and cultural policies have limited support in the working-class and immigrant communities that form Labour’s main bulwarks. Climate policy might become a bigger problem. In 2022, Australia’s parliament passed a far-reaching act that “codifies a 43 per cent emissions reduction target by 2030 (on 2005 levels), requires the Climate Change Authority to provide advice on Australia’s progress against those targets, mandates that the Minister for Climate Change reports annually to Parliament on Australia’s progress, and forces federal government agencies to adhere to the legislative requirements of the Act.” If this act results in significantly higher energy prices coupled with reduced reliability, as conservative critics foresee, significant working-class defections from the Labour Party might follow.

But where could such disgruntled voters go? In the United States, the increasingly right-populist Republican Party is the choice of many who find themselves in the same situation. In Australia, however, the main right-populist party, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, has been in decline for decades and currently has a negligible presence in government (two national senate seats, one seat in state and territory lower houses, and three seats in state and territory upper houses). Its stridently anti-immigration and anti-Asian stance precludes widespread support in the more socially conservative working-class suburbs that rejected the Indigenous Voice referendum, as they all have large immigrant population.

Perhaps a new party or political movement will emerge to represent the concerns of such voters and communities. The only existing possibility, to my knowledge, is the center-populist Dai Le & Frank Carbone Network, which was registered as a political party earlier this year. Tellingly, its two founders hail from the two main parties. Frank Carbone, formerly of the Labour Party, is currently mayor of the astoundingly diverse city of Fairfield – home to one of the world’s largest Assyrian Christian communities – while former Liberal Dai Le represents the spatially intersecting electoral division of Fowler in the Australian House of Representatives. She won this position in 2022 even though Fowler had been classified as one of Labour’s safest seats. Significantly, Le abstained from the Climate Change Bill of 2022, stating that “I support a cleaner and greener environment, but my main priority is making sure the high cost of living and unemployment rates in our area are stabilised – especially in these very tough economic times.”

Similarly, the stance of the Dai Le & Frank Carbone Network on the Indigenous Voice referendum was “unknown, undecided, ambiguous or neutral.” But after the measure’s defeat, Le, who came to Australia as a child refugee from Vietnam, pushed back at accusations that it revealed a deep strain of racism in the country. As she put it: “Of course, they are people who are racist, but it doesn’t mean Australia is a racist country. Far from it, we are … in the Southeast Asian region and we have become a multicultural country …  We are embracing that.”

Le also proudly embraces Australian patriotism. She symbolized this attitude by wearing an Australian-flag dress for her first Parliamentary speech (see below). In this emotional address, she praised the “freedom” and “endless possibilities” that Australia offers.

But although the Dai Le & Frank Carbone Network potentially represents a new force in Australian politics, its current ambitions are limited and local. As reported in the Wikipedia article on the new party:

The ideals espoused by Le and Carbone have had an emphasis on the Western Sydney region, a majority Labour-aligned area. Le stated to the Guardian Australia in May, following the party’s creation, “Our people… pay tolls and taxes, and yet the money doesn’t come back into building services and infrastructure for our community, we need to come together and build a stronger western Sydney voice for our community.” Further adding: “The end goal is to have representation for western Sydney, from people who are actually from western Sydney, live in western Sydney, understand the issues of western Sydney.” Party co-founder Frank Carbone, in an interview with Sydney’s 2GB said: “Ultimately we’re here for the people in the western suburbs, and, you know, the western suburbs is one of the largest economies in Australia and we just feel that a lot more needs to be done to actually improve the quality of life of people who live out here…”

Mainstream political parties in many countries are currently in some peril, losing voters, suffering from internal conflicts, and undergoing wild swings of fortune. Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union is currently polling at only around 29 percent in “national party voter intention,” while its rival center-left Social Democratic Party comes in at a miserable 16 percent. In the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party scored a stunning victory in 2019, gaining 48 seats in the House of Commons while the Labour Party lost 60; today the Conservatives are polling at less than 25 percent. In the United States, the presumptive nominees of both main parties are decidedly unpopular with the electorate at large, opening possibilities for third-party candidates of various stripes.

Although there are many reasons for such instability, I suspect that the dynamics explored above in the Australian context figure prominently. Historically, parties representing the economic interests of the elites were also socially and culturally conservative, regarding radical change in these areas as threatening the status quo that upheld their power. By the same token, parties representing the economic interests of the working and lower middle classes were open to change, and as result tended to be suspicious of conservatism across the board. Today, many working-class voters fear that radical cultural change threatens their standing, while many elites welcome it, viewing it as more liberatory than threatening. If such tendencies intensify, we could see politically mature democracies transform from political systems dominated by center-left and center-right mainstream parties to ones dominated instead by culturally progressive center-elite parties (“Teals”) and more culturally conservative center-populist parties (“Dai Le & Frank Carbonites”?). But it is probably more likely that we will see instead intensified chaos and the growth of parties and political movements of more extremist bents, whether left, right, or unclassifiable on a one-dimensional spectrum. I, for one, hope that the center holds, but I am not confident that it will.

Australia’s Centrist Teal Alternative – and a Possible Center-Populist Alternative to the Alternative Read More »

Australia’s Indigenous Voice Referendum Vote in Greater Melbourne

As noted in previous posts, Australian voters decisively rejected the Indigenous Voice referendum in October 2023. As our electoral analysis of greater Sydney revealed, many areas that usually support the Labour Party, which endorsed the measure, voted against it, some by a wide margin. By the same token, several electoral divisions that have historically supported the center-right Liberal Party, which opposed the measure, voted in favor of it. In general, the more wealthy and highly educated parts of Sydney voted “yes,” whereas the poorer divisions, and those with large numbers of immigrants, voted “no.”

Today’s post examines the same issues in the greater Melbourne region. As was also previously mentioned, Melbourne is considerably more leftwing than Sydney, and as a result it not surprising that it was more favorably disposed to the referendum. In the Melbourne area, as the map below shows, support tended to decline with distance from the urban core, with the central electoral division (Melbourne) voting 77 percent in its favor, the highest figure in the country.  As the second map show, the greater Melbourne region overwhelmingly supported the Labour Party in the 2022 parliamentary election, with the rival center-right Liberal Party taking only four seats, all of which are in the outer eastern suburbs and exurban fringe. The 2022 election, however, was unusual, as several traditionally Liberal-voting divisions turned either to Labour or to “Teal” independents, the latter being left on social and environmental issues, but center-right or centrist on economic and fiscal policies. Central Melbourne, in contrast, voted for the Green Party, as it has since 2010. Here Labour came in second place, with the Liberal party receiving only 15 percent of the vote.

As was the case in Sydney, many Labour-voting divisions in greater Melbourne rejected the Indigenous Voice referendum just as several traditionally Liberal-voting divisions supported it, thus going against the recommendations of the parties that their voters prefer. Such seemingly anomalous divisions are outlined on the map below. Here, Labour-voting districts (in 2022) that rejected the measure are enclosed with a heavy black line. They are found in two contiguous blocks, one to the east and north of the city, and the other to in southeast. To examine traditionally Liberal-voting districts that supported the measure, I turned to the 2019 election, which occurred before the rise of the Teal independents. As can be seen, this set of “anomalous” divisions are tightly clustered in Melbourne’s inner southeastern suburbs.

The same correlations between voting patterns and socio-economic indicators are found in Melbourne as in Sydney, but with a few minor differences. As the map below shows, the divisions that voted Liberal in 2019 yet supported the referendum are all characterized by relatively high median household incomes. Labour-voting districts with higher-than-average income levels also supported the measure, with the exception of peripheral McEwen, where Labour won by a relatively thin margin in 2022. Poorer divisions, whether Labour or Liberal (Flinders), generally voted “no.” An exception here is Fraser, a strongly Labour-voting area with a relatively low level of income that solidly supported the measure. Intriguingly, Fraser is known for its large population of Vietnamese birth (14.6 percent).

The map of educational attainment, showing the percentage of the population with a bachelor’s degree or higher, correlates well with both income and voting behavior. Highly educated divisions, regardless of their party preference, tended to support the Indigenous Voice referendum, while divisions with lower rates of education tended to reject it.

The next map, showing the percentage of the population that reported “no religion” in the 2021 census, corelates poorly with the map of the referendum vote. Highly irreligious districts are found both in metropolitan Melbourne’s center and periphery, with the former voting “yes” and the latter “no.” The most religious divisions, in contrast, voted “no,” even though all of them supported Labour in 2022. As was the case in Sydney, religiously inclined divisions are characterized by high percentages of residents born overseas. But irreligious, yes-voting central Melbourne also has a large immigrant population. But it also has a very young average age (31), and the youth vote was decidedly in the “yes” direction. Not surprisingly, Central Melbourne also has a low rate of marriage. Divisions with low marriage rates, which are clustered in the central Melbourne metropolitan area, voted in favor of the referendum.

The next post, second-t0-last in this series, will consider these finding in the light of Australia’s overarching political divisions, taking a close look at the rise of the Teal independents.

Australia’s Indigenous Voice Referendum Vote in Greater Melbourne Read More »

Explaining Seeming Anomalies in the Indigenous Voice Referendum Vote in Greater Sydney

In Australia’s 2023 Indigenous Voice Referendum (see the two previous posts), a significant number of solid Labour electoral divisions voted “no,” some by a significant margin, even though the Labour Party strongly supported the measure. It was a different story on the other side of Australia’s political divide. Only one division that voted for a party in the country’s conservative alliance in 2022 voted “yes” in 2023. That division was Bradfield in northern Sydney, a traditionally strong Liberal (center-right) constituency. But a handful of historical Liberal strongholds that had bucked the party for “teal” independents in 2022 also supported the referendum. We will examine the rise of Australia’s teal politicians – who are on the left regarding socio-cultural and environmental issues but are center-right economically, in a later post. For today, we will take a closer look at the seemingly anomalous electoral divisions in the Indigenous Voice referendum in the greater Sydney area. As always, we shall do so through cartographic analysis.

The first map shows the “yes” vote in the 2023 referendum. As can be seen, support was highest – by a significant margin – in the central urban area (the divisions of Sydney and Grayndler). The other “yes-voting” divisions are concentrated in the northeastern suburbs. (Reid, to the west of the urban core, is mapped as having supported the measure by a thin margin, reflecting the Wikipedia table used to make this map; many other sources, however, map Reid as having voted “no.”) The second map shows the local results of Australia’s 2022 parliamentary election. As can be seen, the “teal” divisions are also located in Sydney’s northeastern suburbs, all of which voted “yes” in the referendum. In contrast, Labour’s strongholds in 2022 were located in central Sydney and in the western suburbs, as has been the historical norm. The third map takes information from the second map and overlays it on the first, outlining the “anomalous” parts of Sydney in this election (“no-voting” Labor divisions and “yes-voting” Liberal (and teal) divisions. The same overlay will be employed in the remaining maps in today’s post.

As other sources have noted, level of education was a good predictor in the Indigenous Voice referendum. The next map cartographically examines this correlation. As can be seen, rates of college education are much higher in eastern Sydney than in the rest of the region. The most highly educated divisions either supported the measure or narrowly turned it down, with strongly Liberal Mitchell being the only significant exception. In Labour-voting divisions, those with high levels of education supported the referendum whereas those with low levels voted “no.” (The data used to make this map, like the rest others in this sequence, come from the 2021 Australian Census.)


Not surprisingly, the map of median household income correlates closely with that of educational attainment. Centrally located Sydney and Grayndler, however, have lower income levels than would  be expected from their educational profiles. This is partly due to their young populations; at 33, the median age in the Division of Sydney is tied for the lowest in the region mapped. The general message conveyed by this map is that relatively poor Labour-voting areas in suburban Sydney voted “no,” as did relatively poor Liberal-voting areas in the western exurban fringe. Wealthy electoral divisions, in contrast, either supported the measure or narrowly turned it down, with Mitchell again forming an exception. It is not coincidental that the two wealthiest divisions in Sydney form the epicenter of the “teal rebellion” against the Liberal Party.

Religion was another factor in the Indigenous Voice Referendum. As can be seen, the yes-voting areas of the center and northeast all reported high levels of “no religion” in the 2021 Australian census. Strikingly, the most irreligious divisions, Sydney and Grayndler, had the highest percentage of “yes” votes. In contrast, the divisions with the lowest percentages of non-religious residents all supported Labour in 2022 and all voted “no” in 2023.

The religiosity map loosely correlates with the map of people born in Australia. The divisions with the highest percentages of foreign-born residents are concentrated in central Sydney and in the relatively poor western suburbs. Those located in the west rejected the referendum, some by substantial margins. Many of these areas have large Muslim populations. Peripheral districts with high percentages of Australian-born residents also voted “no,” whereas those in the wealthier and more highly educated center and northeast voted “yes.”


The final map, showing marital status, is not as revealing. It does show, however, that divisions with low percentages of married people tended to vote “yes,” although one with a high marriage rate, Bradfield, voted “yes.” (Bradfield was Australia’s only Liberal-voting division in the 2022 election that supported the referendum). Intriguingly, the wealthiest divisions of Sydney have some of the region’s highest and lowest rates of marriage. It is perhaps not coincidental that Mitchell, the richest “no-voting” division, also has the region’s highest marriage rate.

These various patterns and correlations can tell us a lot about both Sydney’s electoral geography and the (changing?) ideological positions of Australia’s major parties. Before delving into these important issues, however, we will examine greater Melbourne through the same comparative-cartographic lens employed in today’s post.


Explaining Seeming Anomalies in the Indigenous Voice Referendum Vote in Greater Sydney Read More »

The Metropolitan Concentration of Support for Australia’s Indigenous Voice Referendum and the Melbourne/Sydney Divide

Australian electoral geography, like that of many other countries, is increasingly structured around the metropolitan-peripheral divide. Consider, for example, the map of the 2022 federal election in Western Australia and South Australia (below), in which Labour victories were limited to Perth and Adelaide. In the 2023 Indigenous Voice Referendum (see the previous post), this tendency was even more pronounced. A casual glance at the nationwide electoral map (second map below) might make it seem that two rural areas supported the measure, one in southern Tasmania and the other in inland southeastern New South Wales, but that is not the case. The sizable Tasmanian electoral division that supported the measure is demographically based in the suburbs of Hobart, the state’s main city. The other easily visible blue splotch on the map is the Australian Capital Territory, based in the relatively large city of Canberra (with a metropolitan population of almost half a million).

As a close examination of the results reveals, all 34 of the electoral division that supported the initiative are located in urban and suburban areas. Consider, for example, the election map (below) of New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state by a considerable margin. Six of the state’s eight division that voted “yes” are in Sydney, while the other two are in Newcastle and Wollongong, sizable cities in their own right that are close enough to Sydney to arguably be within its greater metropolitan ambit. (Newcastle is less than 100 miles from Sydney and has an urban population of half a million; Wollongong is 52 miles from Sydney and has an urban population of over 300,000).

A more interesting feature of this election, however, was the failure of the “yes” vote in some of Australia’s main areas of population concentration. Perth and Adelaide are both major cities, with metropolitan populations of 2.2 and 1.4 million respectively, that supported the Labour Party in the 2022 election. In the Indigenous Voice Referendum, however, only two of Perth’s divisions voted “yes.” None did so in Adelaide.

What is more even remarkable, however, is the concentration of the “yes” vote in just one city: Melbourne. Thirteen of the 34 electoral districts in the country that supported the measure are found in this metropolitan area. In greater Melbourne, all central-city and inner-suburban divisions voted “yes,” as did several outer-suburban ones. The contrast with Sydney, where many relatively densely populated, Labour-voting divisions soundly rejected the measure, is noteworthy.

This election’s voting patterns in both Sydney and Melbourne will be cartographically explored in subsequent posts. For now, I will merely forward some insightful observations on the different political climates of the two cities made by Nick Nicholas and posted on the Quora website in response to the question “Why is Melbourne more left wing/progressive politically than the rest of Australia?” In his reply, Nicholas focuses on the state level, comparing Victoria (VIC), which is demographically dominated by Melbourne, with New South Wales (NSW), which is demographically dominated by Sydney. Wisely shunning “recentism,” he notes that in from 1955 to 1972 “Victoria was the Tory stronghold, and NSW was Labor territory,” and then states that “It was only in 2018 that John Howard memorably said that VIC was “’the Massachusetts of Australia.’”

Intriguingly, Nicholas goes on to contend that “The trend over the last few years has been for both the Liberal and Labor parties in NSW to skew more right wing—the Liberals more outspoken in their social conservatism, Labor more ruthless in their economic rationalism; and for both parties to skew more left wing in VIC—VIC being the last refuge of the old school Liberal moderates, and Labor being clearly leftist, especially in culture war issues.”

Nicholas’s explanations for this difference are also worth quoting. Here is a sample; interested readers are advised to visit Quora to see his full account:

But if VIC is more progressive than NSW, it’s not because Melbourne has an industrial past and pioneered unionism—that wouldn’t explain why NSW was so strongly in the hands of Labor for the first two thirds of the 20th century. It’s not because Melbourne is more multicultural than Sydney—that claim doesn’t make any sense to me. And it’s not a categorical difference, it’s really one of degree: there are plenty of reactionaries in VIC, and plenty of progressives in NSW. NSW has a progressive inner city too—though they vote independents or moderate Liberals in, not Greens.

Sydney does have a much more aggressive conservative pundit culture, particularly on radio: compared to Alan Jones, Australia’s answer to Rush Limbaugh, the best Melbourne talkback radio can offer is the grumbly teddy bear Steve Price. But that’s symptom not cause, and besides, Melbourne is also home to Andrew Bolt, who I guess is our Tucker Carlson.

Other respondents have also pointed out that the topography of Sydney makes it more prone to communities getting balkanised, rather than seeing themselves as a single city as in the better connected Melbourne. (That helped inoculate Sydney against the spread of COVID in 2020—and it helped infect Sydney with the virus of race riots in 2005.) That makes Sydney a more troubled, combative place, but I don’t see that that makes Melbourne a more progressive place; a more optimistic place, perhaps, but for the fact that our weather is so gloomy.

The stereotype that Melbourne was more arty, more bohemian, and Sydney was more blokey, more outdoorsy, is of long standing; that Melbourne was the home of sophisticated comedy and Sydney only made lame sitcoms; that culture was at home in Melbourne and Sydney favoured sport instead—all these were certainly entrenched in the 80s.

I suspect what’s going on is that there’s more thought leadership of progressive politics in inner city Melbourne than inner city Sydney, and that’s leading to a perception of Melbourne being more progressive, which is self-fulfilling in social progress issues—even though Melbourne did vote for a Thatcherite like Kennett, and is host to plenty of reactionaries, as recent rallies outside State Parliament are demonstrating.

The Metropolitan Concentration of Support for Australia’s Indigenous Voice Referendum and the Melbourne/Sydney Divide Read More »

Mapping Australia’s 2023 Indigenous Voice Referendum, Part I

On October 14, 2023, Australian voters decisively rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have recognized the country’s indigenous population by creating a federal advisory body to represent the views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The 60 percent “no” vote shocked many Australian, as early in the year polling indicated that almost two-thirds of Australians supported the measure. The referendum’s defeat has resulted in a good deal of soul-searching, as well as accusations of misleading campaigning and outright prevarication by those opposed to the measure.

Although these are important issues, the next few GeoCurrents posts will consider instead the lessons that might be learned about Australian electoral geography from this hotly contested referendum. We will also consider what the vote pattern can tell us about the changing nature of Australia’s main political parties and the voting-blocks that support them. As we shall see, although the governing Labour Party strongly supported the measure, many heavily Labour-voting electoral divisions rejected it by considerable margin. At the same time, several important electoral divisions that have historically been strong supporters of the center-right Liberal Party, which opposed the measure, voted in its favor.

Today’s initial post, however, takes on a much simpler and more familiar issue: the tendency for electoral maps to exaggerate support for conservative parties and positions by giving undue visual weight to low-density, rural areas. Consider, for example, Wikipedia’s map of the election results (below). The is a poor example of the cartographer’s craft, as it lacks a key or any other form of explanation. But one can easily infer that darker shades of red indicate a strong “no” vote, whereas the small green area – Canberra, or the Australian Capital Territory – voted “yes.” The overall impression conveyed by this map is that the election was a landslide, with almost all constituencies voting against the measure.

A vastly better map was posted on Reddit’s MapPorn forum – as is so often the case. Unfortunately, however, this map misrepresents the vote in the Northern Territory, where 60.3 percent of voters opposed the measure. But by expanding the few relatively densely populated parts of the country, the map accurately shows widespread support for the referendum in metropolitan areas, where the most Australians live. Melbourne in particular is revealed as a stronghold for the “yes” vote. But the demographic imbalances in Australia are so extreme that this map still does not do justice to the actual vote. As the next set of maps illustrates, Australia’s two largest metropolitan areas, Sydney and Melbourne, together have more than twice the population of the entire western two-thirds of the country. In this vast region, only two electoral divisions, both in Perth, voted “yes,” whereas 17 did so in greater Melbourne and Sydney.

To adequately capture the demographic geography of this election, a cartogram* must be used instead. I was only able to find one example, a mosaic cartogram from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in which of the country’s 151 federal electoral divisions are depicted as hexagons of equal size (although these divisions vary slightly in population, they all have roughly the same number of voters). The cartogram on the right (below) gives a particularly good visual representation of the demographic patterns found in this election.

The problem with cartograms, however, is that of spatial representation. All cartograms distort size and shape, but the issue is often pronounced in places with extremely uneven distributions of population, such as Australia. In the ABC mosaic cartogram posted above, the “geobody” of the country becomes unrecognizable. As the next map shows, it also misrepresents spatial positions. The electoral division of Griffith, for example, appears to be located in central Queensland, but it is actually situated in the state’s far southeastern corner.

All such problems, however, are intrinsic to electoral mapping. My preferred response is to use a variety of maps, made at different scales, and compare them. The next few GeoCurrents posts will do exactly that for Australia’s Indigenous Voice referendum. For now, however, I would like to note that the ABC article that posted the cartograms discussed above also includes several excellent graphs of the election results. Two of these are posted below. Together, they show that the “no” vote was especially pronounced in remote areas with relatively low rates of educational attainment. These correlations, and more, will be explored in greater detail in a set of maps focused on the Sydney metropolitan area that will be posted on this website next soon.


*As defined by Wikipedia: A cartogram (also called a value-area map or an anamorphic map, the latter common among German-speakers) is a thematic map of a set of features (countries, provinces, etc.), in which their geographic size is altered to be directly proportional to a selected ratio-level variable, such as travel time, population or GNP. Geographic space itself is thus warped, sometimes extremely, in order to visualize the distribution of the variable. It is one of the most abstract types of map; in fact, some forms may more properly be called diagrams.

Mapping Australia’s 2023 Indigenous Voice Referendum, Part I Read More »

Surprising Findings in a Study of Post-COVID Urban Recovery Rates in the United States and Canada

I recently came across a brief report by the University of Toronto’s School of Cities on the recovery of urban cores in the U.S. and Canada since the COVID-19 pandemic. The study’s methodology is intriguing:

The recovery metrics on these charts are based on a sample of mobile phone data. The recovery metrics on the charts and maps are computed by counting the number of unique visitors in a city’s downtown area in the specified time period (standardized by region), and then dividing it by the standardized number of unique visitors during the equivalent time period in 2019. Specifically, the rankings below compare the period from the beginning of March to mid-June in 2023 relative to the same period in 2019. A recovery metric greater than 100% means that for the selected inputs, the mobile device activity increased relative to the 2019 comparison period. A value less than 100% means the opposite, that the city’s downtown has not recovered to pre-COVID activity levels.

As the results were given in tabular form, I thought that it would be useful to map them to more easily see if there are any distinct regional patterns or anomalies. The resulting map, posted below, has some expected features. Recovery has generally been faster in low-density sunbelt cities, with only Las Vegas showing an increase in downtown activity since 2019.

But there were also some unexpected findings. Columbus, Ohio, for example, has many characteristics of a sunbelt city, despite its cloudy winters, yet it has one of the worst downtown recovery rates. Minneapolis and Seattle also have unexpectedly low rankings. To understand what is going on in these cities one would have to examine exactly how “downtown” is defined in each case. In Columbus, for example, the old central business district has been declining over the past few decades, but a new vibrant urban core has emerged nearby, in a neighborhood dubbed “Short North.” I doubt that it was included in area deemed downtown Columbus.

A few other interesting findings deserve comment. It seems that Canadian downtowns have recovered more quickly on average than those of the northern United States. Is this because they tended to be more alive to begin with? The relatively quick recovery of Oakland, California that is indicated by the study makes little sense. From what I have read of Oakland, and from what I have seen in a few quick visits, the city’s downtown is in a desperate situation, with closing businesses and surging crime. In late September, 2023, Oakland saw an unprecedented strike of business owners. As reported by a local news source:

It’s not business as usual in downtown Oakland on Tuesday morning as store and restaurant owners go on strike over rising crime.

Business owners say the goal of this strike is to send a larger message to City Hall. They want better protection and support so they can safely operate their businesses and make a living.

Many of the participating businesses gathered in front of Le Cheval for a news conference on Tuesday to voice their concerns. The restaurant is closing at the end of the month because of the crime and slow sales post-pandemic.

Participating merchants say, just like Le Cheval, they’re losing customers and foot traffic because of car break-ins, carjackings, robberies and assaults.

In conclusion, I can only fall back of the most tiresome of all academic clichés: more research is needed.


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Journalistic Hyperbole and the Electoral Geography of Poland

Although The Economist magazine is to be commended for analyzing and mapping the role of Poland’s old imperial divisions in its current electoral geography, it succumbs to unnecessary and misleading simplification and exaggeration, as is so often the case when journalists take on intricate geographical issues. Consider, for example, the following assertion:

More remarkable, however, is that rather than following a gradual gradient from east to west, modern Poles’ political loyalties remain firm right up to the edge of a historical line that cuts down the middle of the country.

This vivid statement is incorrect, as is demonstrated by the maps included in the two previous GeoCurrents posts. A detail from one of these maps (below) drives the point home. As can be seen, there is only a vaguely discernable difference in “Poles’ political loyalties” as one cross the old boundary between the German and Russian empires between Łódź and Wroclaw. More significant is the fact that two of the five constituencies that gave the lowest percentage of their votes to United Right, Łódź and Warsaw, and two of the four that give the highest percentage to Civic Coalition (again, Łódź and Warsaw), are located to the east of the dividing line.

The Economist article in question also makes a more interesting observation:

From the air, the former Habsburg and Russian territories look like a patchwork mosaic of small farming plots, whereas the west is divided into sprawling fields designed to facilitate mechanised agriculture.

This assertion is certainly intriguing, but is it true? I tested it by trying to find the old border on satellite images found in Apple Maps. I did so with a modest level of success. Although I could not precisely trace out the divide, I did find a significant general difference in the divisions of agricultural land found in the two sectors. Consider, for example, an image (below) of the Kalisz area, located astride the old boundary. The fields on the left side of this image are larger than those on the right, although not to the extent that The Economist suggests. They are also more irregularly shaped.

If anything, the term “mosaic” fits more closely with the field patterns found in the old German sector, as the various pieces of a mosaic are typically of different size and shape. The two images posted below reveal a more mosaic-like agricultural pattern in the west, and a greater degree of field uniformity in the former Russian zone. What the second image shows is not a “mosaic” composed of disparate pieces, but a rather a patchwork composed of many elongated rectangular pieces of similar size. Such an arrangement reflects the pre-modern farming system that used long, narrow fields to facilitate plowing, as it was difficult to turn plow-teams of oxen or horses around. But although the redivision of the land that occurred in the west facilitated mechanization, it was not a necessary precondition for it.

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Mapping the Results of Poland’s 2023 Elections by Political Parties and Coalitions

Poland, like many other countries with parliamentary systems of government, has many active political parties, most of which belong to broader coalitions. Five of these coalitions, one on the left and center-left, two in the center, and two on the right, received enough votes to win seats in Poland’s Sejm, its powerful lower house of Parliament. Two additional stand-alone parties together received 3.5 percent of the vote, which was not enough to gain representation in the Sejm. One of these is a hard-right populist party and the other is described by Wikipedia as being on the center-left, although some of its positions are more centrist in orientation.

This post seeks to uncover some subtle aspects of Poland’s electoral geography by mapping the vote-share of each of these seven parties and coalitions in the 2023 Sejm election. For comparative purposes, all of them are mapped in the same color scheme and with the same categories of vote percentage. As a result of their low vote counts, the five secondary parties and coalitions are poorly represented on these maps. I have therefore re-mapped them on their own terms, using different color schemes. On these maps, low votes counts for a given party can still be mapped with dark shades, indicating relative success in that area.

Let us begin with the right-wing-populist United Right coalition, led by the Law and Justice (PiS) Party. Although it suffered a sharp rebuke in this election, United Right still received more votes (35.4 percent) than any of its rivals. United Right was the only organization to receive majority support in any electoral district. As can be seen on the first map below, its support was concentrated in the southern and eastern areas that had been under Russian and Austrian rule before WWI (see the previous post). United Right did poorly in major cities, getting less than 20 percent of the vote in Poznań. This map also reveals, albeit weakly, an electoral gradient in United Right’s main area of support, with its vote share increasing toward Poland’s southeastern borders. As might be expected, its main rival, the centrist Civic Coalition, exhibited an inverted spatial pattern of support, which is revealed in the second map posted below.

The major new player in this election, the centrist Third Way coalition, did not have strong regional patterning. It performed relatively well in some regions that had been ruled by Russia, German, and Austria before the reestablishment of Poland after WWI. Third Way did not do as well in major cities, however, as might be expected for a coalition that has a strong agrarianist bent. The only electoral district in which it failed to gain more than 10 percent of the vote is Katowice III. Although Katowice is not well-known outside of Europe, it is Poland’s largest metropolitan area, with more than three million people living in a group of closely clustered cities. (Metropolitan Warsaw, in contrast, has around two and half million inhabitants, while Krakow and Lodz, the next largest, have only a little more than one million each). Third Way’s vote-share was highest in the Bialystok district in the northeast; as the maps used in the previous post show, it even received a plurality of votes in a few areas in and near the city of Hajnówka, close to the border with Belarus. It is probably not coincidental that Hajnówka has a sizable (over 25 percent) Belarussian ethnic minority, whose members tend to shun the Polish ethnonationalism associated with the country’s right-wing parties.

As the next two maps show, support for Lewica – “The Left” – was strongest in urban areas and weakest in Poland’s more conservative eastern regions. As can be seen on the second map, Katowice III was again an outlier, giving more than 20 percent of its votes to a coalition than failed to crack 15 percent anywhere else in the country. Katowice’s economy has until recently been based on heavy industry, whose workers formed one of The Left’s traditional political bases. But as has been widely noted, that foundation of support has been slipping. As the Wikipedia article on Lewica notes, the coalition has lost votes because its “pro-LGBT rights platform failed to appeal to working class and economically left-leaning Poles, [who] tend to favour a more socially conservative policy (especially as both economically interventionist and social conservative positions were already being provided by the right-wing PiS party).”

The far-right Confederation Liberty and Independence, or simply Confederation, had a low but relatively evenly distributed level of support, receiving between five and 10 percent of the vote in every Polish electoral district. By mapping its results with a finer set of divisions, however, we can see that its support follows the typical pattern of rightwing organizations in Poland, being lower in urban areas and higher in the east. This geographical pattern is not so clear-cut, however, for the newest far-right party, There Is One Poland. Its elevated level of support in Nowy Sącz is difficult to explain. One of Confederation’s component parties is the monarchist and Russophile Confederation of the Polish Crown, which managed to secure two Sejm seats despite receiving less than one percent of the vote.

Finally, we come to the oddly named movement called Nonpartisan Local Government Activists. As its name implies, it is a highly decentralized organization that advocates increased regional and local autonomy. Many of its more concrete proposals have a leftward slant, but others are more conservative. It also has an environmentalist platform. At any rate, Wikipedia describes this organization as follows:

Formerly associated with the liberal wing of Christian democracy, the party advocates for proposals such as free public transport, free lunches for children and abolition of the personal income tax (PIT). The party also advocates for creation of a powerful ecological agency based on the American United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which would protect nature and its resources, prevent pollution environment and combat poaching and illegal hunting. The BS believes that the Polish government became too centralised and became unable to address local concerns; to this end, the party believes that the central government needs MPs who are “local government officials, entrepreneurs and community workers who are not concerned with political lists and agenda.”

As can be seen in the maps below, support for Nonpartisan Local Government Activists varied little across the county. Not surprisingly, it performed best in Legnica, which is located in Lower Silesia, the party’s birthplace. A Silesian autonomy movement has long enjoyed considerable support, buttressed by widespread suspicions about Polish nationalism and feelings of affinity with Germany and Germans. This is a complicated issue, however, that deserves its own post.

The most important aspect of Poland’s electoral geography is weakness of left-wing political parties in all areas of the country. The Polish Green party, for example, received less than one-third of one percent of the vote in the 2023 election, although, as part of the Civic Coalition, it did gain three seats in the Sejm.

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