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The electoral dynamics of urban Europe - by Josse de Voogd

Publication date 18-04-2016

A multicolored patchwork, that’s what the electoral map of Europe looks like. In a study published by World Policy Journal, I made a composition of all the political maps of the European countries together. This offers an intriguing insight in the different religiosities, class-differences, rivalries and lifestyles that are present. One of the main factors shaping this electoral geography is the divide between the urban, suburban and rural.

The way urban areas stand out on the map differs by country. When we look to the Anglo-Saxon and Germanic countries, we clearly recognize the urban regions on the map as left-wing isles in right-wing surroundings. These cities are traditionally populated by industrial workers, intellectuals and immigrants, while socialized housing often occupies a significant part of the urban landscape. At the same time, broad swaths of the middle class have left for a house with a garden in the suburbs or in the countryside, creating a rightist commuter-belt around these cities. Urban-rural patterns look different when we move to Europe’s periphery. In the Nordic countries, industries are primarily based in small rural towns, while the broad countryside is far out of reach for affluent commuters. These rural zones are traditionally strongholds of the left and some centrist agrarian parties, while most urban regions vote from right to the center. In southern Europe, urban-rural distinctions are not as clearly marked. An exception is Spain, from Madrid on to the South, where cities are, at least relatively, rightist strongholds in leftist agricultural provinces. Mediterranean cities display a different structure from their northern European counterparts. The working classes live at the periphery, while the rich are living in expensive apartments in and around the compact city center. Neither the home nor garden, but the paseo, the collective evening walk, seems to be the central point of reference.

The case of France shows that electoral geographic patterns are not static, as it once fitted mostly in the Southern European city model, with central Paris being a rightist stronghold surrounded by a communist high-rise banlieu. But even there the leftist yuppies advanced and colored the inner city red. Affluent and booming urban regions with a highly educated population, either if they were traditional social-democratic red as Amsterdam or conservative-liberal blue like Stockholm, are trending to leftist liberal progressivism. It is remarkable how support for so called “post-materialist” parties, that place an emphasis on individualism, cosmopolitanism, environmentalism and multiculturalism, is concentrated in comparable areas across the continent: gentrified neighborhoods built in the 19th century just outside the city center. These areas, among them Nørrebro in Copenhagen, De Pijp in Amsterdam, Prenzlauerberg in Berlin, and Neubau in Vienna, are dominated by hipster cafés, organic supermarkets, galleries, and yoga studios.

In contrast there is the European wide rise of right-wing populism, flourishing on anger about migration, European integration, high taxes, cuts to the welfare state and resistance to a supposed out-of-touch elite. Populism finds its support in industrial towns that are struggling, along with lower middle-class suburbs that are in decay, and in shrinking peripheries. Although earlier more radical rightist parties were often embraced in deprived areas within the large cities, the new right-wing populism clearly derives its strength from outside the urban cores. On the map London’s eastern commuter belt, Amsterdam’s satellite towns, and Copenhagen’s suburbs stand out as populist strongholds, while France’s Front National clearly curls around Paris. The protest-vote has been suburbanized, and seems to derive from a rejection of both the spread of urban problems like crime and migration, as of urban paradigms concerning multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism. While the metropolises are separating themselves mentally from their national states, countries are getting more and more polarized from within instead of in between.

Josse de Voogd

Josse de Voogd published several books and articles about the geography of elections before he started as a PhD on self-build housing and self-organization at the Department for Human Geography, Planning and International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam and member of the Centre for Urban Studies.

Read here the blog in the World Policy Journal