Josefina Gálvez, a local councillor for Spain's United Left party, usually doesn't keep old newspapers but she still owns a print edition of the New York Times of August 1988, in memory of the few days when Totana, a small southeastern town, grabbed headlines throughout the world.
As the regional government decided to expel 133 of the 500 Ecuadorian immigrants who had lived in town for five years, local residents demonstrated to stop their deportation in an unprecedented display of solidarity.
Just one year later, in 1989, the situation had changed radically. In the streets of Totana, solidarity was no longer the word of the day. Instead, xenophobic comments such as "Ecuadorians thugs" had become more common.
As world media coverage of the 1988 demonstrations created a magnet effect, the migrant population in Totana saw a five-fold increase in just five years.
Totana makes headlines again
Almost twenty years later, Totana is back in the news — for very different reasons. Last week, the town became the only municipality ruled by the communist United Left party to vote massively for the far-right Vox party.
Reacting to the results, Totana's far-left mayor Juan José Cánovas told Euronews: “We must bear in mind that this Sunday we voted in general elections where people tend to vote for ideas they believe in. For local elections, in turn, people tend to vote for someone they like.”
When Spain voted for general elections on April 28, the ruling Socialist Party (PSOE) won the most votes in Totana (23 %). But as the country voted again on November 10 in an attempt to break political stalemate, Vox nabbed 30.6% of the votes. In total, 4,029 Totana residents subscribed to the message of the far-right party.
According to Cánovas, Vox's campaign was based on spreading misinformation. First, the party claimed that the migrant population in Totana was higher than the national average. "It is false, 80% of the population in Totana is Spanish," Cánovas said.
Vox also purported that migrants received more social benefits than locals. Yet, according to the mayor, "almost 70% of municipal aid has been granted to Spaniards, while the foreign population only received 30%."
Immigration at the centre of voters' concerns
In 1998, as international media praised the town's solidarity spirit, immigration boomed in Totana. Nowadays, migrants make up an estimated 20% of the population, bringing both benefits and tensions.
“Infrastructures were not adequately prepared for this," the mayor said. "We have problems with homelessness, rising rental prices and situations where properties are overpopulated.”
According to the town hall, the combination of a conservative society, problems of coexistence and Vox's inflammatory rhetoric managed to radically change the vote of the population.
Josefina Gálvez, who took part in the solidarity demonstrations back in 1988, regrets that immigration has now become a source "conflict." Like the mayor, she thinks that the integration of migrants lies at the heart of the problem.
Yet, she argues, the town has largely benefited from its migrant population.
“If Totana woke up without immigrants, we would go and look for them in their home countries. They have helped economic growth. Twenty years ago, farmers were losing their lands because there was no one work on them.”
According to an analysis published by El País newspaper based on 30,000 census sections, the Murcia region (where Totana is located) shows a clear correlation between the number of immigrants in any given municipality and the number of Vox voters. The party gets the most votes in the towns that have a greater number of non-European immigrants.
Migrants voting for Vox?
Perhaps more surprising is the fact that parts of Totana's migrant population may have voted for Vox as well, Cánovas told Spanish television Cuatro in an interview, adding that he did not have a satisfactory explanation for it.
Vox's section in Totana replied to the mayor in a Facebook post.
“The mayor does not understand that workers and immigrants can vote for whoever they want," the local section of the party said.
“We are already seeing how well we all do with leftist policies when for example, there are bars that close in the middle of the afternoon and reopen for dinner because the law does not allow them to work overtime. Workers are paid less at the end of the month as a result."
“The communist mayor understands that he bears no responsibility in the fact VOX won in Totana. Of course, how will it be possible for people to think for themselves? Poor things, It would be better if the system was like in Venezuela, Cuba or North Korea. But as they don't know, they vote for VOX. They are so innocent," the Facebook post said.
According to Javier Lorente, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Madrid, volatility between political blocs is very rare. "There are very few voters who go from the left to the right or vice versa."
“The last major cases that we can remember in democracy were in 1982, when the socialists led by Felipe González won an overwhelming majority and in 2011 with the dramatic collapse that the same party suffered under the leadership of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero," Lorente said.
In both cases, the respective presidents had to call early elections due to social unrest and the difficulty they had to continue governing.
The average volatility between political blocs in Spain's general elections from 1982 to 2011 was 13%, according to a survey conducted by the Center for Sociological Research (CIS). These two elections were above the volatility average. In 2011, it was 16%, while in 1982 it was an unprecedented 50%.
Young voters tend to be more volatile than their elders, Lorente noted, since they haven't formed a defined partisan identity yet.
For Lorente, something "very traumatic" has to happen for citizens to change their vote and it is only in situations of deep discontent that they use the polls to punish political leaders.