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Half a million marched this weekend in Barcelona. Do terrorist attacks make people more politically engaged?

- August 28, 2017

The Aug. 17, 2017 terrorist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils, in Catalonia, have reminded Spaniards of the horror of this type of political violence. From 1959-2011, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), a Basque terrorist organization, carried out hundreds of attacks (killing 829 people), aimed at forcing the creation of a separate Basque state.

ETA completely disarmed in 2017, but Spain was also the target of al-Qaeda bomb attacks on four Madrid commuter trains in March 2004, right before national elections that led to the Socialist Party victory against the incumbent party, the Partido Popular (PP).

Do terrorist attacks shake up voters?

Will the 2017 attack lead to political fallout for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s PP? Will it change support for the Catalan regional government led by Carles Puigdemont? While ETA, al-Qaeda and ISIS are different actors with different goals, our research on the political consequences of ETA terrorist attacks can give us a clue as to how Spaniards might react to the latest attacks.

In a recent paper, we examine the impact of ETA terrorist attacks that took place while Spain’s leading survey organization (Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas) was conducting interviews around the country to assess citizens’ political participation. The arguably random occurrence of the attacks with respect to the survey fieldwork lets us compare the reported political behavior of people surveyed a few days before the attacks with interviews from nearby citizens surveyed a few days afterward.

We find that people did not plan on changing the direction of their vote after the attacks, which suggests that they would not “punish” the incumbent party for failing to protect citizens from this sort of political violence. However, Spaniards interviewed after the ETA attacks expressed a greater intention to actually go out and vote. Voter participation reported in surveys is not the same as actual political participation, but our design and identification strategy bring us close to estimating the causal effect that a terrorist attack would have on voting behavior.

Other types of violence also influence political participation

A number of scholars have documented increased political participation of victims of civil war violence, crime or terrorist violence such as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York City. Our study shows an increase in reported political participation among people across Spain, not just the actual victims of the ETA attacks. In other words, learning about ETA attacks through the radio, TV or newspapers made all Spaniards more likely to participate in the elections.

We find that the impact on political participation is greater when civilians were targeted, as opposed to attacks against members of the police or military. This suggests that voters tend to empathize more with their fellow civilians. The impact is also stronger among people who did not participate in previous elections, indicating that the attacks mobilized nonvoters.

The increase in participation in democratic elections suggests that terrorist attacks boost civic engagement and citizens’ sense of duty. This increased engagement might be temporary, but it can have important consequences if political entrepreneurs decide to exploit it.

Will there be any impact on Catalonia’s independence bid?

In Catalonia, for example, there were many signs of increased civic engagement in the hours after the attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils. Thousands congregated in Les Rambles and Plaça de Catalunya to show solidarity with the victims and condemn the attacks. Last Monday, thousands of Muslims marched in Barcelona against terrorism and in support of its victims. There have also been spontaneous displays of support for the Catalan police and their handling of the investigation.

This Saturday, half a million citizens marched in Barcelona, along with key political players. A clear message guided the march: “No tenim por” (We are not afraid). The aim was to show political and social unity against terrorists. There have also been rallies in the small towns of Cambrils and Ripoll.

This enlarged civic engagement and political participation (in this case, nonconventional) is overall consistent with what we observed in our quasi-experimental research on the ETA attacks.

Some journalists, pundits and newspaper editorials blamed the Catalan nationalist government and its secessionist agenda for this month’s attacks, an apparent attempt to decrease popular support for an independent Catalonia. But our research suggests that policy positions, including preferences for independence, are unlikely to change immediately after terrorist attacks. Indeed, we did not note significant changes in electoral support for nationalist parties after the ETA attacks.

Ultimately, the attacks in Catalonia may change the dynamics between the Spanish and Catalan governments, for better or worse. However, our research suggests that the attacks are unlikely to lead to significant changes in how people see political parties and how they vote. The attacks are probably not going to alter support for independence in the Oct. 1 referendum, which has been unilaterally called by the Catalan government — the Spanish government does not accept the referendum. The attacks might increase participation in this referendum, though.

Terrorist attacks make people more politically engaged

Some analysts argued that the 2004 al-Qaeda attacks in Madrid, which left 193 dead and more than 1,700 injured, triggered a change in behavior among voters that led to the ousting of the incumbent party. Those attacks were followed by misinformation and deception — the PP eventually had to admit that al-Qaeda, not ETA, was behind the attacks. This makes it hard to know whether voters punished the Popular Party because of the attacks or because of the misinformation that followed. Also, the results in the 2004 election were driven partly by the high levels of participation in those elections, as leftist voters in Spain are more likely to abstain in normal circumstances.

Our research on ETA suggests that terrorist attacks are likely to make people more politically engaged and supportive of the democratic system. We believe that this finding translates in the case of Islamist militant attacks; in fact, the levels of participation in the 2004 elections, after the Madrid train bombings, were among the highest in recent Spanish history.

While the effects of the current attack might fade by the time a new election takes place in Spain, the boost in civic engagement and trust in democratic institutions seen in the streets of Catalonia in the aftermath of the attacks is highly consistent with our study. The key takeaway? If terrorists are looking to undermine democracies they seem to be achieving the exact opposite.

Laia Balcells is an associate professor at Georgetown University. She is the author of  “Rivalry and Revenge: The Politics of Violence during Civil War” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Gerard Torrats-Espinosa is a doctoral candidate in sociology at New York University.