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13th Jun 2021

Conservatives' Covid-strategy wins in lockdown-fatigue Madrid

  • Madrid's conservative leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso has vowed to be a 'counter-power' to the left-wing coalition led by Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez (Photo: Populares de Madrid)

Madrid's conservative leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso, a fierce critic of Covid-19 lockdowns, secured a major victory in Tuesday's regional election for Spain's capital city - an outcome likely to reshape the country's volatile political landscape.

The Popular Party's (PP) candidate took 65 seats in the 136-seat regional assembly - doubling its result from the previous 2019 election and consolidating her party's powerful position in the capital, where PP has governed for the last 26 years.

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However, failing to secure an absolute majority of 69 seats means Ayuso will need the abstention of far-right Vox to form a new government. Vox's leader Santiago Abascal already confirmed that their 13 seats "will be at the disposition of Ayuso to facilitate her investiture".

The two parties together muster 77 deputies, while the leftist bloc could only secure 58 seats between them.

The socialist party (PSOE) of prime minister Pedro Sánchez crashed from 37 seats to 24, registering its worst result ever in Madrid regional elections, while its coalition partner, Unidas Podemos (United We Can), won only 10 seats - prompting his leader and founder Pablo Iglesias to leave Spanish politics.

For its part, the pro-environment and urban Más Madrid party drew level with the socialists, in a historic reversal in the left-wing bloc of the region - securing 24 seats. This relatively new party, formed by Podemos exiles, actually received the second-most votes.

Meanwhile, the centre-right Ciudadanos party (Citizens) disappeared from the political spectrum in Madrid, losing its 26 deputies as its lead candidate Edmundo Bal did not reach the minimum threshold of five percent of support.

Tuesday's election registered a record turnout, influenced by the highly-polarised campaign.

'Sweden-in-the-South'

Ayuso has become a political phenomenon mainly because of her success in keeping Madrid open during the worst moments of the pandemic, defying the central government and even regional health experts by keeping bars, restaurants, museums and concert halls open.

Her popularity soared - especially among the hospitality sector, where businesses have come up with menus and even a beer named after her.

However, critics accuse Ayuso of neglecting health and social care services - while only protecting businesses.

According to Miguel Otero, policy analyst for Spanish think tank Elcano Royal Institute, "Ayuso has achieved with her 'Sweden-in-the-South' strategy to get support from many groups that believe their jobs and/or businesses have been saved thanks to that".

Exploiting lockdown fatigue and a year-long battle against the coronavirus, her campaign motto made voters choose between "Freedom" and "Socialism" or "Communism," referring to her left-wing rivals.

However, the Spanish capital, home to nearly seven million people, has seen more than 19 percent of the country's 3.5 million infections and a national confirmed death toll of over 78,000.

Currently, the infection rate stands at 498, well beyond the national average of 214 infections per 100,000 people over a two-weeks period.

'Ready for 2023'

Many consider that the outcome of Madrid's regional election will reshape the national political landscape, while analysts called for caution when using these results as a proxy for the rest of Spain.

"The "libertarian" (for many Trumpian) discourse of Ayuso moves the PP again away from the centre and this benefits Sanchez overall," Otero wrote on Twitter.

However, the regional leader vowed on Wednesday (5 May) to remain a "counter-power" to the left-wing coalition led by prime minister Sánchez, arguing that her victory "is going to be a stimulus and a change of cycle".

"We will continue here being the counterweight and the counter-power that are needed [against Sánchez]," she told Spanish station EsRadio.

That idea was echoed by national PP leader Pablo Casado, who said Ayuso's resounding victory in Madrid signalled that "things are changing" in Spain. "When Sánchez calls elections, we will win," he said.

Fellow PP lawmaker Pablo Montesinos also said Ayuso's success marks "the beginning of the end" for Sanchez's government.

The PP governed Spain under prime minister Mariano Rajoy between 2011 and mid-2018, when the Socialist Party called a confidence vote and took over with a minority government.

Following two inconclusive elections, Sanchez formed a minority coalition government with Unidas Podemos in January 2020.

The next general election is set for late 2023.

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