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The Rural/Urban Divide in Catalonia’s 2015 Election

Submitted by on October 7, 2015 – 11:01 am 16 Comments |  
According to most media sources, the Catalan independence movement scored a major victory in the September 28 regional election, taking 72 out of 135 seats in Catalonia’s parliament (Parlament de Catalunya). More careful reporting, however, noted that the results were actually mixed. In terms of the popular vote, candidates advocating independence gained the support of less than half of the electorate. Had the vote been an actual plebiscite on soverienty, skeptics argue, the motion would have been defeated. But Artur Mas, the leader of the independence movement, offered a different interpretation, claiming that “the Catalan people have spoken”—and have spoken for independence. As he put it, writing in The Guardian:

On 27 September Catalonia’s voters went to the polls and with a record 77.4% turnout gave a win in every single electoral district to the political forces whose campaign promise was, if elected, that they would follow a “roadmap” towards Catalan independence from Spain. Pro-independence lists obtained 48% of the votes and 72 seats out of 135, whereas unionist lists got 39% of the votes and 52 seats. These plebiscitary elections were the only way possible to give the Catalan people the vote on the political future they have long called for, after the Spanish government’s longstanding refusal to allow an independence referendum.

The fact that the pro-independence vote and the Spanish-unionist vote together fall well short of 100 percent indicates the presence of a third option, that of enhanced regional autonomy without actual sovereignty. But this third “regionalist” option, which rests on a mixed sense of Catalan and Spanish identity, was favored by relatively few voters. According to a recent Politico article, this “middle ground” lost support in part “because the campaign was not based on a rational debate on whether it makes economic sense to have full fiscal autonomy or leave the EU, the eurozone or NATO. Rather, it pandered to nationalistic feelings and prejudices…”


Catalonia 2015 Election MapAs mentioned in an Economist article, the pro-independence parties were able to gain control of the regional parliament without winning an outright majority due to “Catalonia’s unequal voting system, which favours less-populated rural areas.” The uneven electoral geography of the contest is clearly evident in a series of maps, posted on the website Saint Brendan’s Island, that show the percentage of the vote taken by the top six parties in each comarca (administrative division). I have amended these maps slightly by providing a crude characterization of the political philosophy of each of these groups (in red), along with their percentage of the vote across Catalonia. The leading contingent, an electoral coalition called “Together for Yes” (Junts pel Sí), is marked as “big tent” on the map because its constituent parties span a fairly wide range of political positions, falling both to the right and the left of center. The much less popular Popular Unity Candidacy party also favors Catalan independence but is situated too far to the left to have joined the “Together for Yes” coalition.


Catalonia Population Density Election MapThe second illustration, which juxtaposes a population density map with an expanded map of the “Together for Yes” vote, clearly shows the urban/rural electoral divide in Catalonia. The region’s most densely populated areas in general gave relatively little support to the independence movement, favoring instead the unionist and regionalist parties. One factor here is the presence of many migrants from other parts of Spain, who not surprisingly tend to support the unionist cause. In Barcelona, Spanish (or Castilian, as most Catalan nationalists insist) is the main language, and although three-quarters of the city’s inhabitants can speak Catalan, fewer than half are able to write in the language. Similar situations are found in the other major urban areas of Catalonia. As noted in the Wikipedia article on the historic city of Lleida: “After some decades without any kind of population growth, it met a massive migration of Andalusians who helped the town undergo a relative demographic growth.”


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  • Very interesting post, Martin. I wonder if the same urban-rural correlation with independence votes applies elsewhere, for example in Scotland. There’s certainly a similar demographic picture there, with more sparsely populated rural areas being more Gaelic-speaking and urban areas featuring more immigrants from outside Scotland (I think). Anyway, just a thought.

    • Colin Reid

      Gaelic speakers are too peripheral and few in number to have much influence on Scotland’s politics nowadays. The Scots language has more political salience, but it is rarely used in writing nowadays and the spoken varieties exist on a continuum with English. In the 2014 referendum, Scotland’s largest city (Glasgow) stood out as one of the few places where ‘yes’ got a majority. English immigrants to Scotland are more likely to be unionist, but from what I have heard, this is not the case for Scottish residents of non-UK origin/ancestry.

      • Thanks for this detailed response, it sounds more complex than I originally thought… very interesting though… I am wondering, however, if in rural areas where SOME people speak Gaelic the others who do not speak it are also more Scottish culture/identity oriented though… That was certainly my impression when traveling in those parts. As for unionist English immigrants to Scotland, oh yes, we had one B&B landlady who was rejoiced that we paid in banknotes from Bank of England rather than Bank of Scotland — it seems to have been a big deal for her…

  • mountleek

    Big cities’ prosperity can be dependable on the size of the whole state. If a 46.4 million state is reduced to a 7.6 million state, the significance of a city may be reduced, some jobs may be lost. People in big cities can depend more on the whole state, life of people in smaller towns needn’t change that much. Can this be a factor (alongside the non-Catalonian immigrants) of the lesser support for independence in the big cities? Also it would be interesting to see a population density map based on comarcas.

    • Interesting points. Certainly the larger cities of Catalonia are linked more closely to the rest Spain than are the rural areas and small towns. I have not seen a map of population density by comarca for Catalonia. There are, however, some interesting maps of Catalonia and Catalan found here:

    • Enric

      This is a strange theory and not true.

      Almost all cities, including Barcelona, have neighbourhoods where the pro-independence won. If the yes won in some neighbourhoods and lost in the others is just because immigration. While in a few rural the no won simply because there wasn’t too many people with Catalan sentiment.

      Plus pro-independence people (in average) have more studies and less unemployment.

      Here you have a density map

      • mountleek

        Thanks for info and for the map.

  • Enric

    Good article, but there are a few inaccuracies in this post.

    – Firstly, the elections were on September 27, not 28

    – Secondly. When analysing the results you should take in consideration that these elections were David vs Goliat. They were after the worst campaign of the history of Catalonia. Biased (with plenty of media ignoring the pro-independence parties), full of manipulation, international participation and where all debates were “all against one”. And the electoral day wasn’t much better with a bunch of minor frauds around Catalonia such nuns forcing very old people to vote the Spanish government party. And don’t forget how the large majority of Catalan abroad weren’t allowed to vote, and they are mainly pro-independence.

    – But even imagining there were completely clean elections and everyone was allowed to vote freely, the results of an independence referendum would be better for the pro-independence side. There were many candidates in the elections, but only two were pro-independence. Take in consideration that a coalition called “Together for the yes”, with no ideology and with the independence as only program only could get pro-independence votes. CUP might have a few voters who don’t support the independence openly, but they are really few. Yet, there’s a sizeable number of people who support the independence but haven’t voted any of these two parties. Sure, most people who voted other parties were against the independence, but most isn’t everyone.

    – What you call “third option” is not a party supporting “enhanced regional autonomy”, but something more confusing. They are actually parties that don’t have a clear idea of what they want. The big left wing coalition (Catalunya si que es pot) includes both people who support and who are against the independence. The second party would be UDC, a small demochristian party that was once part of CiU (the government coalition) and that had an internal referendum with an unclear question. Both caim to support a self-determination referendum while being against no unilateral independence, and yet their political views are very far away. Also they don’t offer a political political proposal and even if they did, it would be useless as there’s no way to negotiate an “enhanced regional autonomy” when the biggest parties of Spain are against it. And after these two parties there’s a smaller one called “PACMA” that cares only about animal rights and has no opinions about anything else; it cannot be considered pro-independence, against independence or anything like this. In a referendum the voters of these parties would be divided between the “yes” and the “no”. And the “yes” only had to get a little more

    – The pro-independence parties haven’t used any “nationalist feeling and prejudice” in the campaign, rather the opposite. They try to look as far from Catalan nationalism as they can. And their lists had immigrants such Eduardo Reyes (Andalusian) or Chakir El Homrani (Moroccan)

    – Castilian isn’t a name made by “Catalan nationalists”, but the traditional name of Spanish language. It’s widely documented and it has been used by everyone until recently. In fact the Spanish Constitution of 1978 still calls the language Castilian.

    – The voting system doesn’t benefit rural areas so much, especially when you compare it with other systems. Barcelona chooses 85 deputies, that’s almost two thirds of the Parliament. There aren’t many electoral districts around the world choosing such a high percentage of deputies. But as Barcelona has nearly three quarters of the population the other provinces choose a slightly percentage of deputies higher than their population percentage. Again, it’s slightly. And the demographically smaller provinces have urban areas as well. In fact Catalonia is very urban and people who live in truly rural areas are a small minority. If you want to see a truly unequal voting system check out the Basque Country where Bizkaia chooses the same amount of deputies than Araba, despite having four times its population. Or the voting systems in the USA or the UK where some parties can gain millions of votes and yet no representation, unless they win in a state/electoral district.

    – And now back to the topic. The pro-independence parties simply won where ethnic Catalans are a majority or almost a majority, and yes that’s mainly rural areas, but not only. There are electoral maps that go beyond and show the results in each city and neighbourhood. And these maps are the most accurate ethnic map of Catalonia I have seen. You can see how the “yes” won in the neighbourhoods with a higher percentage of local population. In Barcelona for example the “yes” got its best results in the middle of the city (Gràcia and Eixample), places where most inhabitants have Catalan origin and Catalan language and culture is still alive. While the “no” got its best results in “Nou Barris” which means “new neighbourhoods”, a zone of Barcelona where almost everyone is of immigrant origin. The pro-independence parties tried really hard to convince people with immigrant origin (mainly Spaniards) to support them, but they failed.

    And the parties against the independence don’t even try to convince people with Catalan origin, their whole campaign was scare people and try to convince immigrants to “be faithful to their blood”; and it worked with most people.

    • Many thanks for the very detailed and informative reply (and for the corrections)! Can you let us know where we can find “electoral maps that go beyond and show the results in each city and neighbourhood.” That would be very interesting for many readers.

      • Enric

        You’re welcome, I’m glad you liked it.

        Vilaweb created the best maps.

        Here you have one by municipalities (in Barcelona by districts):

        Percentage of people who voted pro-independence parties (Junts pel Sí+CUP) vs percentage of people who voted “others” (either against the independence or not positioned)

        And here you have more detailed maps:
        Almost street by street

        The first map is again by percentage of people who vted a pro-independence party, while the others are maps for each party/coalition.

        Hope it helps.

        • mountleek

          Can you translate to me the text in map titles in the second link? “Dades provisionals amb el 100% escrutat.”

          Those are some great maps. Though I would prefer if the borders of the electoral districts would be visible also in the countryside. And the grey color for “others” is not a good choice for reading information, often it can’t be differentiated from the background. Those are great datasets showing the built-up areas…

          • Enric

            I agree they could use better colours such red vs blue and avoid the grey scale. Though it’s quite complete, you can see the maps in full screen clicking a button on the corner.

            The literal translation of “Dades provisionals amb el 100% escrutat” would be “Provisional data with 100% scrutinized”.

            To be simple. The maps were made with the results published by the government on September 28 at 13:42. That was when the votes of all voting booths in Catalonia were finally calculated. It includes the votes of all people who voted on day 27th in Catalonia, plus the votes of a few people who voted by mail before the elections.

            But it’s called provisional because:
            – It doesn’t include the votes from Catalans abroad. That was a big problem because most Catalans abroad who asked to vote weren’t alloewd to vote. and the votes from some were cancelled after having voted. The most obvious example is Italy. All the votes sent from that country went to the trash can because the Spanish ambassador decided to cancel their votes.
            – Technically after the votes are counted, during some days, the political parties can ask for recounting the votes in some voting booths. This typically happens when one deputy can change by a small number of votes..

            So anyway the main difference between the maps results are the final results are only 15,000 votes from Catalans abroad (64,11% for the independence). Here you have the final results from the official site if you want to compare them: (in English)

          • mountleek

            Thank you for explanation, I was curious why it was called provisional and at the same time it showed 100 %.

    • Nakashchit

      Dear Enric,

      You write that “The pro-independence parties tried really hard to convince people with immigrant origin (mainly Spaniards) to support them, but they failed”.

      When I recently visited Barcelona after many years, I was deeply disappointed that shopkeepers addressed me in Castilian, just like in the 1970s when Catalans automatically switched to Castilian a soon as they heard a foreign accent. You still do this! How can you integrate immigrants if you automatically exclude them from speaking the national language? During my time in Barcelona, I learned to write quite passable Castilian, but not Catalan, much though I would have liked to! Apparently, little has changed, apart from the names of the streets.

      In Quebec, by contrast, the French language is now spoken everywhere, and people expect immigrants as well as English-Canadians, to speak French – and they do. French is mandatory in work-places and on public signage.

      The independence movement – which was once spear-headed by the intellectual elite – is now a refuge of the conservative rural population who fear change and fear the English language, which they cannot speak well. The racist fringe of the Quebec nationalist movement, with its appeals to the Quebecois “pure laine”, is fading. A movement for national rebirth that is introverted and exclusive has little attraction for immigrants, nor even for its own people who want to be part of a wider world. As Martin has pointed out here, even the Valencians and Baleares Islanders, who speak the same language, want no part of Catalan nationalism.

      In Quebec, the struggle to shed the colonial yoke has been won, not on the battlefield, nor even by the ballot box, but in the minds of the people. The matter of whether Quebec shall remain within Canada is now one that can be decided not from a desperate sense of fear, loss and oppression, but based on the practicalities and on positive sentiment: The French of Quebec like to think of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains as part of their country; and the English Canadians are, as Parti Quebecois founder René Lévesque pointed out, fundamentally a decent, civilised people, and one with whom they have shared a long history. This could be the model for Catalonia.

      The existence of a confident national consciousness need not be predicated on a nation state. As I understand it, Turkish-speaking Azeris in Iran do not wish to be united with Turkey, nor even with independent Azerbaijan (whose citizens are outnumbered two-to-one by the Iranian Azeris). They are proud of their long association with Iranian civilisation, as well as of their own distinctive language and culture. Similarly, I have known people who were born in the Hapsburg Empire, but not ethnically German, who identified themselves as of Austrian origin – including Jews, despite their later persecution.

      With the emergence of the multi-national European Union and Russian Federation, and the recognition of traditional and regional languages in Spain, Canada, India, China, recently in Bolivia, the concept of Nation State that has dominated political thought since the French Revolution will be superseded by new, more nuanced, patterns of “national” identity. It is almost “forward to the past”, which I discussed earlier in this blog regarding the mixed identities of the parts of the Crown of Aragon.

  • Liz Castro V!

    The data point that attracted my attention was that “fewer than half [of Barcelonians] are able to write in the language”. Besides questions about how accurate this is (what does it mean to be able to write in the language? Write well? How much? etc.), I would call your attention to the fact that the data originally used to support the Wikipedia article is 14 years old and illustrates unsurprisingly that older respondents (who went to school when Catalan was forbidden under Franco) have less knowledge of the written knowledge than younger ones. The data from 2011, 53%, does indicate that written knowledge is rising as more of the population benefits from immersion schooling. You can find the updated data here: