Ultimate magazine theme for WordPress.

Empty promise: new political group stands up for depopulated rural Spain

Judith Iturbe grimaces when she thinks of August and what it means for the inhabitants and rhythms of Milmarcos.

At the height of summer, the population of this small and pretty Spanish village, which lies close to Castilla-La Mancha’s border with Aragón, rises from just 44 to around 1,000.

“For me, August is the worst time of the year because all these people come from the city with their urgent needs,” said Iturbe, who a small brewery in Milmarcos. Twenty-one years ago, she and her partner decided to give up their hectic jobs and lives in Madrid and start over.

Judith Iturbe, 52, who left Madrid 21 years ago to settle with her partner in the small village of Milmarcos. Photo: Sam Jones/The Guardian

When it was quiet, they gasped, they are not disappointed. The only people in the village streets this afternoon are two elderly residents sitting on lawn chairs by the church tower to chat and enjoy the rays of the low winter sun.

However, the peace and quiet comes at a price. The doctor only visits once a week, the three children of the village have an hour-long bus ride to school and Milmarcos has exactly one shop and one bar. As Iturbe points out, only half-jokingly, this corner of the province of Guadalajara is one of the most eroded parts of the demographic empire known as la espana vacida – the hollowed-out Spain.

Decades of depopulation have left huge swaths of rural Spain starved of people, attention and investment, prompting the Socialist-led coalition government to create a ministry for the demographic challenge.

But for many in such areas, the change has not come soon enough. End of September, an association of more than 160 local and regional groups decided to participate in regional and national elections as a joint platform.

Photos of former villagers are printed and displayed on a facade in the abandoned Galician village of Bexan
Photos of former villagers are printed and displayed on a facade in the abandoned Galician village of Bexan. Photo: Miguel Riopa/AFP/Getty Images

The Espana Vaciada platform was inspired by the fact that Teruel Existe, a movement campaigning to improve conditions in the overlooked region of Teruel in eastern Spain, won one seat in Congress and two in the general election in November 2019. the Senate won. Despite having only one MP, Teruel Existe has become a powerful force in an increasingly fragmented political landscape that relies on horse-trading to get things done.

Antonio Saz, a coordinator for the Espana Vaciada Association, says that while the election platform is new, the “fight against depopulation and for territorial rebalancing” goes back at least 20 years.

“We always say we are not a planned action; we are the consequences of ignoring and abandoning the rural world and depopulated areas,” he says. “These issues are now on the agenda of politicians, even if we don’t see them in their programs and actions yet.”

Among the platforms 101 initiatives is a national plan with guaranteed funding that would enable overlooked parts of the country to catch up with the more developed, the creation of a non-political, expert agency to tackle depopulation, and improved rail links and services .

“We also have a simple plan for boosting recovery and balancing things, which we call 100/30/30,” says Saz. “That’s 100 mbps symmetrical internet, 30 minutes to basic services like education, health or safety, and 30 km [18 miles] to a high-capacity road. If we could get all that, we would have a much more balanced country.”

The Teruel Existe MP Tomas Guitarte (left)
The Teruel Existe MP Tomas Guitarte (left). His party is campaigning to improve conditions in the overlooked region of Teruel. Photo: Antonio Garcia/EPA

The platform – which will undergo its first ballot box test in February’s regional elections in Castilla y León – is not fond of ideological labels. So would it like to make deals with either the far-left Unidas Podemos or the far-right Vox?

“Our ideology is driven by the vital need to tackle depopulation before it’s too late and we disappear — that’s what binds us more than left and right blocs,” Saz says.

While saying it’s far too early to speculate on electoral performance, Saz acknowledges that the platform is eager to gain the kind of influence Teruel Existe can wield: “The more weight we have when it comes to seats, the more they’ll listen. to us and the more we can do.”

José Pablo Ferrándiz, lecturer in social sciences at Carlos III University in Madrid, says the platform is probably the biggest threat to Spain’s old political duopoly – the ruling Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and the conservative People’s Party (PP).

“In light of these new demands – which are actually not new at all – the two major parties cannot say that they are the ones who are going to solve these problems because they have been voted on before and haven’t solved them,” he says.

Ferrándiz thinks the arrival of Espana Vaciada — which follows the eruption in recent years of Podemos, Vox and the fading center-right Civic Party — could usher in even greater fragmentation.

“In a national political scenario where even Teruel Existe’s vote is fundamental in forming majorities – and possibly even forming governments – the PP and the PSOE know that as these platforms grow and win even three or four seats , they will be important when it comes to forming national governments.”

The sign leading to the brewery and shop set up by Judith Iturbe in Milmarcos
The sign leading to the brewery and shop, set up by Judith Iturbe in Milmarcos. Photo: Sam Jones/The Guardian

Back at the brewery, Iturbe labels beer bottles, keeps an eye on electoral developments – and refuses to place her hopes.

“At least the platform is made up of people who know the rural world, so maybe it will do something,” she says. “But at the national level nothing has changed politically and even after Podemos and Citizens it is all back in the hands of the PP and the PSOE.”

However, time is running out for Milmarcos and tens of thousands of other Spanish villages. As Iturbe points out, only a third of Milmarcos’ permanent residents are around age 50 or younger. In 10 years, many of his older people will be dead and his children will probably think about moving elsewhere.

“The politicians need to listen to us, because they haven’t done that yet,” she says. “They have to differentiate between urban and rural areas, but at the moment all the laws are made in offices in the city, meaning they don’t meet our needs in any way. No matter how many times they come here in their chauffeured cars, they never get it.”