Anti-lockdown leader poised for re-election in Madrid vote

Daniel SILVA
·3-min read

Madrid residents voted Tuesday in a regional election expected to hand a comfortable victory to its hardline leader who has soared in prominence for stubbornly resisting virus restrictions.

A rising star in the right-wing Popular Party (PP), Isabel Diaz Ayuso has been one of the leading critics of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's leftist government and its handling of the pandemic.

At the helm of Spain's richest region, Ayuso has stood out for defiantly defending the local economy.

Madrid is the only major European capital that has kept bars, restaurants and theatres open since the national lockdown ended in June 2020.

Just over 5.1 million people are eligible to vote in Tuesday's election, which comes after a bitterly-fought and divisive campaign in a region that has been ruled by the PP for more than 25 years.

From the early morning, long queues could be seen outside polling stations across the capital and by 7:00 pm (1700 GMT), an hour before the close, turnout stood at just over 69 percent, almost 11 percentage points higher than in 2019.

Although Madrid has suffered Spain's highest numbers of infections and deaths, Ayuso has consistently defied calls to shut bars and restaurants, turning her into the heroine of the hospitality sector.

A year into the pandemic, Ayuso caught the political establishment by surprise, calling a snap election in a bid to cash in on the political capital she has more than likely earned.

Polls suggest her gamble will pay off, with Ayuso seen almost doubling support for the PP and strengthening its hold on the region, while potentially handing the Socialists their worst-ever result.

- 'Having a beer is important' -

With "freedom" her campaign slogan, the populist leader has focused on people's need for normality, despite the pandemic.

"Having beers is important," the 42-year-old said last month. "After a bad day, a beer cheers you up."

But critics say her lax restrictions have ultimately cost lives in a region where almost 15,000 have died, accounting for one in five of Spain's 78,000 coronavirus toll.

"Ayuso deserves to be loved for what she's done in keeping bars open and saving jobs," said 63-year-old civil servant Jose Luis Cordon, who had voted for the PP at a polling station in the city centre.

Across the region, polling stations were disinfected every three hours and voters were being handed a second mask to put on over their own face covering.

With polling stations closing at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT), the authorities have asked virus patients or those in quarantine to vote in the last hour.

At stake are 136 seats in the regional parliament, with polls suggesting the PP will win 40 percent of the vote, up from some 20 percent in 2019, while the Socialists would sink to 20 percent, down from 27 percent.

Without an absolute majority, Ayuso would likely need support from the far-right anti-immigration Vox to govern, an option she has said "wouldn't be the end of the world".

The PP's likely tie-up with Vox has been a central campaign issue for the left with Sanchez himself warning "our democracy" was at stake in the vote.

After voting, opposition leader and PP chief Pablo Casado said the vote would be "a turning point for Spain's future", insisting it would be a precursor of the party's fight to topple the Socialists in the 2023 general elections.

The campaign has been characterised by deep polarisation, with several political leaders receiving death threats in letters containing bullets, among them Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias and more recently Ayuso.

Iglesias stepped down as a deputy prime minister to run as the Podemos candidate for Madrid, but polls suggest the party is heading for a rout.

Even if the left takes a drubbing, analysts don't see any major impact on Spain's ruling coalition, although a solid victory for Ayuso would likely exacerbate the antagonism between the PP and the government.