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5 May 2021

Spain’s lockdown-sceptic right storms to victory in Madrid election

Isabel Díaz Ayuso is likely to harness the support of the far-right Vox to govern.  

Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the right-wing, lockdown-sceptic candidate of the conservative Partido Popular (PP), has won a resounding victory at yesterday’s (4 May) regional election in Madrid. The PP more than doubled its share of seats in the regional assembly, which represents both the Spanish capital and the surrounding region, from 30 seats to 65. That puts it just short of the 69 needed for a majority in the 136-seat legislature, meaning Ayuso only needs the far-right party Vox (whose seat share rose from 12 to 13) to abstain in order to hold the region’s presidency. She is also expected to use Vox support to secure majorities for items of legislation. 

The story of Spanish politics in recent years has been one of the fragmentation of the country’s old, stable two-party system and, at points, its partial reconsolidation. Following a dismal PP result in 2019, Ayuso had nonetheless became president of the Madrid region, known as the Community of Madrid, at the helm of a coalition with the conservative-liberal Ciudadanos (Cs) party (it, too, a relatively new force in Spanish politics). But in March she called early elections when Cs brought down a similar coalition with the PP in the south-eastern region of Murcia, claiming she was acting to prevent it doing the same to her.

There followed a bitterly fought campaign. Several prominent figures received bullets in the post. Left-of-centre candidates pulled out of a debate in solidarity with Pablo Iglesias of the left-wing Unidas Podemos (UP) when Vox’s candidate questioned the veracity of his claims to have been one of the recipients. One Vox poster demonising unaccompanied child migrants was investigated as a possible hate crime. For her part, Ayuso nudged the PP to the right with a campaign melding lockdown fatigue (she has presided over looser restrictions in Madrid than in other parts of Spain, despite the city’s terrible death toll) with culture wars (being called a fascist is a sign you are on the right side, she claimed) under the slogan “libertad”, freedom. Her campaign was directed as much against Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sánchez as against the local candidate of his centre-left Socialist party (PSOE), and won plaudits from, among others, Italy’s Matteo Salvini.

It paid off: support for Ayuso’s erstwhile Cs coalition partners collapsed and the party fell below the 5 per cent threshold required for seats in the assembly. The left, too, lost support, its collective seat share dropping from 64 to 58 as modest gains for UP and Más Madrid (a greenish outfit partially formed from a UP splinter) failed to compensate for PSOE’s fall from 37 to 24 seats. As the results came in last night Iglesias, who had resigned as deputy prime minister in Sánchez’s national PSOE-UP coalition to campaign in Madrid, announced that he would leave politics altogether. That in itself marks the end of an era in Spanish politics: the pony-tailed Iglesias led the emergence of Podemos from the anti-austerity protests of the early 2010s, to a high of 20.7 per cent of the vote in 2015, through a merger to form UP and the splintering off of the kernel of today’s Más País (the national version of Más Madrid) under Iglesias’s one-time comrade Íñigo Errejón.

The question now is what Madrid’s results mean for Spain’s roiling national politics. Sánchez has been prime minister since 2018, leading first a minority government produced by a vote of no-confidence in the PP’s Mariano Rajoy, then after an inconclusive election in April 2019 a caretaker government and finally after another election in November 2019 a coalition government, modern Spain’s first, with UP. The next general election is due by late 2023 and so Madrid’s election stood as a form of mid-term test for both Sánchez and his PSOE as well as the PP’s leader Pablo Casado, who took over following the fall of Rajoy in 2018.

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How representative the Madrid region is of the national picture is debatable. It is rare among large European urban areas for having a long tradition (unbroken for 26 years so far) of conservative leadership. The phenomenon is not merely explained by the region’s inclusion of the city’s mountainous rural hinterland: even Madrid’s geographically narrower city mayoralty has been held by the PP for 26 of the past 30 years. Instead it has been attributed variously to Madrid’s role as the national capital associated with the centralising instincts of Spanish conservatism, structural factors such as the large share of private and religious education and private health provision in the city, as well as the way that the PP has gradually built out its reach into lower-income districts by investing heavily in infrastructure (particularly Madrid’s metro network, now the second largest in Europe after London’s).

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Not only has the city been a bastion of the PP, even in times of PSOE national government, but it has also been a battleground between different tendencies within Spanish conservatism. Many still recall the long-standing contest between Esperanza Aguirre, a polarising self-described Thatcherite with a taste for culture wars, and the more liberal Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón during the period from 2003 to 2011, in which the former held the regional presidency and the latter the city mayoralty. As president of the Community of Madrid, Ayuso has governed and campaigned firmly in the provocative, divisive mould of Aguirre (“socialism or freedom” she tweeted early in the campaign, later escalating this to “communism or freedom”) and has even surrounded herself with some of Aguirre’s one-time lieutenants, such as Aguirre’s former chief of staff Javier Fernández-Lasquetty. Ayuso’s politics has been dubbed “Aguirrism 2.0”.

The PSOE will certainly hope that recent events in Spain’s conservative capital region do not foreshadow the future of national politics. Nationwide, Sánchez’s party still polls close to the 28 per cent it won at the last election. It even secured a strong result in Catalonia’s election in February – though the struggles over independence there probably made that result even less representative of the country than Madrid’s. Responding to the results last night José Luis Ábalos, a top PSOE figure, insisted that they “don’t represent the whole of Spain”.

For the PP, however, the hope is that they do. Ayuso’s candidacy in Madrid was personally backed by Casado, who as leader has himself flirted with a rightwards tilt (such is her success that he will now be looking over his shoulder at her as a rival prospective prime minister if he seems unlikely to lead the party to success at the next election). Speaking last night, he called the result, “a vote of no-confidence in Sánchez’s politics” and proof that “by uniting the whole of the centre-right, Sánchez can be beaten”. Polls suggest that a mild form of the conservative consolidation witnessed in Madrid is indeed taking place more widely: C’s support is collapsing and pushing up the PP vote by two to three points.

But much remains to be seen, including whether that trend continues, whether the PSOE’s support begins to slip, too, as voters tire of Sánchez amid high unemployment, whether the PP now comprehensively embraces the polarising and anti-lockdown messages that propelled Ayuso to her success yesterday, and whether her tilt towards Vox heralds a similar shift by the party nationally. The possibility of a PP government of Spain reliant on the support of the far-right cannot be ruled out. It probably became more likely yesterday.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Ayuso needed Vox’s support to remain Madrid’s president. In fact she only needs its abstention. This has been corrected.

[See also: Annalena Baerbock: the woman who could become Germany’s first Green chancellor]