FUENTECAMBRÓN, Spain — At 48, Ignacio Sotillos García has the dubious distinction of being the youngest inhabitant of his village in Soria, a province of northern Spain.
He shares a home with his elder brother and parents, who are both in their 80s. Only four other houses remain occupied. Still, his village, Fuentecambrón, is doing better than neighboring Cenegro, which lost its last resident three years ago.
Withering as they may be, provinces like Soria, which has 88,000 inhabitants — half of what it had 60 years ago — will be critical to the outcome of Spain’s national election on Sunday, its third since 2015.
These emptying hinterlands are where Spain’s changing demographic and political landscapes collide, making for an utterly new and volatile dynamic that will determine the country’s future.
Spain is being hollowed out. The populations of its inner provinces are shrinking and aging so quickly that Spain is on course to overtake Japan as the country with the longest life expectancy in the world. Over all, more than half of Spain’s municipalities are at risk of extinction, having already fallen below the threshold of 1,000 inhabitants.
They are feeling cut off and demanding fresh attention. In late March, with the election approaching, Mr. Sotillos García joined tens of thousands of protesters who went to Spain’s capital, Madrid, to start what they called “the revolt of emptied-out Spain.”
“It cannot be that we live less than 150 kilometers from Madrid, but feel here as if we’re at the end of the world,” Mr. Sotillos García said. “We don’t have the protest culture of France and we’re not the Yellow Vests, but it’s time to make our voices heard.”
But even if voters like him feel marginalized, they punch above their weight politically in a party system that has severely fractured in recent years.
Under Spain’s system of proportional representation, about 100 of the 350 seats in Parliament are now occupied by politicians from thinly populated provinces.
The system guarantees each of Spain’s 50 provinces at least two seats in Parliament. Otherwise, a province like Soria, which is Spain’s least populated province — would get no seats at all.
The anomalies have given rise to a growing debate in Spain over electoral reform, similar to that about the Electoral College in the United States.
But that will not change the results on Sunday, when for the first time since the end of Franco’s dictatorship in the 1970s, at least five parties will be vying nationally, including a new ultranationalist party, Vox.
“When you switch from a relatively predictable two-party system to one in which five parties are each expected to win more than 10 percent of the votes, you find that the swing seats in empty Spain could really become decisive,” said Rafael Rubio, a professor of constitutional law at the Complutense University in Madrid, who has been advising the conservative Popular Party.
Before Sunday’s election, all the main parties offered pledges to rescue inland Spain, where many residents have left for larger cities.
In the televised debates featuring the main candidates, the discussion was peppered with references to Spain’s low birthrate and its neglected interior.
Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the far-left Unidas Podemos party, argued that “there is a territorial problem in Spain, not only Catalonia,” where a secessionist push in 2017 set off the country’s biggest political crisis.
Ciudadanos, another party, wants a 60 percent cut in income tax for residents of towns of less than 5,000 inhabitants.
The discontent has presented a particular challenge for the conservative Popular Party, which has counted on the support of a conservative heartland that is the cradle of Castilian Spain.
The Popular Party has promised more spending on technology and transport infrastructure in rural areas. But it also sought to persuade Vox not to field candidates in provinces like Soria, to avoid a fragmentation of the right-wing vote.
That effort failed, leaving Vox as a potential kingmaker in any coalition-building after the vote. Vox, too, has tried to tap into the discontent by appealing to nationalist feeling in the hinterland, as well as to the specific needs of rural areas.
For instance, animal rights activists recently challenged in a regional court the practice of hunting, but Vox has vowed to defend Spain’s nearly one million hunters as part of a broader pledge to protect Spanish traditions, including bullfighting.
“If there’s a big surprise on Sunday, it will come from Vox,” said María Luisa Aguilera Sastre, a Socialist and the mayor of San Esteban de Gormaz, a town in Soria. “Even if people here now feel abandoned, they also feel very strongly Spanish, and hunting is also a big business here.”
Still, the more common complaint in Spain’s rural provinces is that they missed out on the country’s transformation to a modern economy, particularly following its membership of the European Union in 1986.
For instance, after Spain started operating a high-speed train network in the 1990s, national and regional legislators decided to circumvent Segovia, a province neighboring Soria, deepening its isolation. It is a decision residents there are still fighting.
This month, however, both the governing Socialist party and the opposition Popular Party promised to reopen the disused local railway line, at least to transport goods.
“We once had a great railway line, but at some point Spain decided to modernize without us,” said Jesús Lopéz, the president of Codinse, an association that uses public subsidies from the European Union and Spain to sustain 119 villages in northeastern Segovia.
The villages have a combined population of 10,500 people, about 60 percent of whom are now older than 60.
Fernando Arevalo, an activist from an association that fights depopulation in Soria, said voters should be wary of “empty promises” by politicians before elections.
But he also acknowledged that his association was struggling to mobilize older, traditional-minded voters.
“People talk about the need for change, but then they mostly don’t vote for change,” he said.
Antonio Arribas, 84, a former shepherd, lamented that health problems recently forced him to move from his village home to a residence for the elderly a few miles away. He said he would stick with the Popular Party on Sunday, “but I can’t really tell you why.”
“In any case,’’ he said, ‘‘I don’t think any politician is going to save our villages.”
Orignially published in NYT.