A Country for Old Men: How Spain's Electoral System Rewards Age

  • Rural support may boost ranks of PP lawmakers after election
  • Insurgent groups' urban focus a disadvantage in electoral math

Forget Barcelona’s youthful independence marchers or the pony-tailed protesters of Madrid: this election could be won or lost by people like retired teacher Pedro Calavia.

On his daily walk through Soria in northern Spain, the 72-year-old stops to visit his favorite religious icon, a life-sized Christ with fresh flowers laid at its feet. Calavia then heads down to the park, just as he does every morning. “Things should have their proper order,” he says.

That desire for continuity may help Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s bid for re-election on Dec. 20. For while Soria boasts a rich history and a sprinkling of handsome churches, it’s also blessed with an electoral quirk that makes voters like Calavia the most influential in the country.

In Madrid, each lawmaker won about 90,000 ballots at the last election in 2011; in Soria, it took just 16,000 votes to elect Felix Lavilla to represent the Socialist party, the fewest of any seat in country. That makes the elderly voters in Spain’s second-smallest provincial capital about five times more valuable than those in Madrid or Barcelona for election strategists trying to plot a path to a parliamentary majority.

Rajoy defended the lifestyle of these older voters above practically all other interest groups during the crisis, raising pensions even as he cut public wages, education spending, aid for young families and research funding. As a retiree, Calavia even gets subsidized vacations -- he’s been on about 20 holidays since reaching retirement age seven years ago just as the crisis started.

The government will spend 7.75 billion euros ($8.2 billion) from the pension reserve fund to pay a regular Christmas bonus for retirees this year because the system’s contributions aren’t enough to cover it, the Labor Ministry said Wednesday.

Rajoy’s People’s Party “is especially well placed in less populated districts in which voters are older than the nationwide average and where getting a seat is possible with fewer votes,” said Narciso Michavila, chairman of the Madrid-based polling company GAD3.

Spain’s political system has splintered since Rajoy was elected in 2011 as four years of austerity and a 41 billion-euro bank bailout eroded the support that earned the PP a record majority. The biggest change has been an unprecedented surge for new parties like Ciudadanos and Podemos, particularly among young, urban voters.

Skewed System

But Spain’s hybrid electoral system gives more weight to people in smaller towns where support for Rajoy’s party is holding up. So places like Soria “will help offset the erosion of the PP in bigger districts with younger people,” said Michavila.

Polls suggest the prime minister could lose more than a third of the votes he won in 2011 and still be in a position to govern, in part because of the boost from rural electors.

According to Spain’s state pollster, Spaniards over 55 years are twice as likely to back the PP as younger citizens and 36 percent of people in Soria are in that age bracket, compared with 26 percent in Madrid.

The disparity in political representation across different areas sets Spain apart from its European neighbors like Germany and the U.K., where the number of voters in each constituency tends to be weighted more evenly. The situation is not so extreme as in the U.S. Senate though, where the 580,000 people in Wyoming have two delegates, the same as California’s 39 million inhabitants.

Mish-Mash

The imbalances in Spain are partly down to a mish-mash of systems. The two biggest cities elect more than 30 lawmakers from a single constituency, so the allocation of seats is roughly proportional to the number of votes each party wins. In the smallest districts like Soria, Avila or Segovia, the modest number of seats up for grabs punish minor parties.

Compounding the electoral math, modern Spain’s founding fathers gave less economically developed areas and regions with a nationalist tradition like the Basque Country and Catalonia greater representation to help draw the country together.

Extrapolate that tendency over the whole nation and it adds up to a major advantage for the traditional parties. A Metroscopia survey for El Pais newspaper last month month gave the PP a lead of just one percentage point over Ciudadanos but projected Rajoy would win about 20 more delegates in the 350-seat legislature.

In the downtown park where Calavia ends his walk, it’s the retirees not the children who are out to play. Calavia’s pals swap jokes and gamble for pennies with a local version of skittles as immigrant carers help the more infirm on the fringes of the game.

“Rajoy is a serious man, he knows what to do and gets it done,” Calavia says, dark glasses shielding his eyes from the fall sunshine after a recent cataract operation. “I see a lot of these young politicians on TV doing a lot of talking, but what do they know?”

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