"In this neighbourhood, the vote for Vox is going to be very high," says Lidia Lopez worriedly, saying the far-right had manipulated local concerns over an immigrant centre which houses unaccompanied minors.

As a steady stream of residents turned out to vote Sunday in Madrid's Hortaleza district, rising support for Vox was on many people's minds as Spain held its fourth election in as many years.

Earlier this week, Vox leader Santiago Abascal, who has made no secret of his desire to expel all unaccompanied minors, used this sprawling northeastern neighbourhood where he lives as an example of an area blighted by crime by immigrant youngsters.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric, particularly targeting minors, has been a key part of Abascal's approach with his party coming under fire for falsifying and manipulating data to try to establish a supposed cause-and-effect relationship between illegal immigration and urban delinquency.

Just two days earlier, Spain's human rights czar Francisco Fernandez Marugan had issued a sharply-worded denunciation of "xenophobic and racist messages" linking migrant youths to crime, warning they could be used to "justify acts of violence against them".

And in this neighbourhood, such words have hit home.

"We have a lot of problems with these youngsters, they are stealing every day. Here all three of us are going to vote for Vox," admitted Jose Morales, 79, a former porter perched on a barstool drinking red wine with two friends, one of whom was tucking into a small plate of paella.

All three say they used to vote for the rightwing Popular Party, but grew disillusioned following a string of corruption scandals.

For them, Vox is the only one that has tried to address the neighbourhood's problems, says 73-year-old Jose Rodriquez, a former fishmonger who says he was cornered by two youths last year who snatched his gold watch and a gold chain from round his neck.

But local resident Eva Millan Martin dismissed the problem out of hand, saying she had never been aware of any problems with the centre.

"I've never been worried about walking past it and I've never heard of any problem with it," said this 33-year-old programmer who voted for the radical leftwing Podemos, saying Vox was "simply running a racist campaign."

Others, however, admit there are problems, and accuse Abascal of using that to chalk up political gains for the far-right.

Vox's far-right candidate Santiago Abascal poses with his ballots in Madrid as his party looks for a surge in support
Vox's far-right candidate Santiago Abascal poses with his ballots in Madrid as his party looks for a surge in support AFP / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU

"Many people have problems with immigration and have used this to vote for Vox," said Lopez, a 21-year-old trainee journalist who voted for the radical leftwing Podemos.

"There are problems with the centre, there are a lot of people and it's badly run... But the solution is not throwing them out," she said.

"He is using the neighbourhood's problems as a racist argument for throwing these people out."

Several Spanish flags could be seen fluttering from the surrounding apartment blocks as people hurried out of the polling station and into a nearby cafe to escape the biting chill, the neighbourhood a mix of working-class tower blocks, leafy middle-class streets and luxurious wealthy villas.

"We are in a working class neighbourhood where people struggle to find work, so he just says what people want to hear, using falsified data," said David Barcelo, a 25-year-old engineer who also voted for Podemos.

"Abascal says: I'm going to help you find work by throwing these people out when clearly that isn't the solution."

Fear of the rising support for Vox also pushed others to vote who might not have done so given the widespread disillusionment at the deadlock that has gripped Spanish politics for the past four years.

"I thought my sister wasn't going to vote in this election but thanks to Vox getting stronger, she's now going to vote for the left to stop them," said Eleuterio Risoto Roldan, a 27-year-old computer technician who voted for the newly-formed leftwing party Mas Pais.

Standing with a group of veteran Socialist supporters who had lived all their life in the area, Pilar Rodriguez, 73, said she was not afraid the far right would make gains, despite what the polls predicted.

"Vox is threatening to throw everyone out, including all the unaccompanied minors but it can't because the EU protects them," she told AFP, recalling that during the decades of dictatorship, Spain was not part of Europe.

"I'm not afraid of Vox because we're in Europe," she said. "If we weren't, we would be really fearful."