Two days before the election that revitalised Spain’s right, Madrid’s Las Ventas bullring threw open its doors for the first time since the pandemic began — thanks to Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the charismatic head of the regional government.
Spain’s health ministry wanted to ban such events in areas with more than a set level of coronavirus infections. Díaz Ayuso, in the midst of a re-election campaign, disagreed. “Where there are toros [bulls], there is freedom,” she said.
The 42-year-old conservative’s victory on bullfighting pales into insignificance next to the electoral devastation she then inflicted on her foes on the left, including Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez, in Tuesday’s regional vote.
But both battles featured the same appeal: a call, in the name of freedom, to Madrileños heartily sick of coronavirus restrictions. Díaz Ayuso made electoral inroads not just in conservative neighbourhoods long loyal to her People’s party, but across a working class “red belt” around the capital.
A journalism graduate whose parents sold medical equipment, she rents a 60 square metre flat in Madrid’s bar-packed Chamberi district. She drives a VW Golf she bought second-hand in 2012. “She’s different from the party’s traditional Madrid leaders. She’s not a posh girl, she’s more of a street fighter,” says Lucía Méndez, a leading journalist.
“She had never run anything before coming into office, but her big gamble — to keep the hospitality industry open even during the second wave of the pandemic — paid off politically. If you know anything about Madrid, you know that bars and restaurants are not just economically important but socially vital.”
Grateful restaurateurs have already named a pizza, a beer and a potato dish in tribute to the Madrid leader.
In Tuesday’s election, Díaz Ayuso doubled PP support from 22 to 45 per cent, picking up supporters from parties to her left and right. Her feat contrasts with the travails of Europe’s centre-right elsewhere, with Germany’s Christian Democrats trailing the Greens in pre-election polls and France’s Les Républicains mired in also-ran status.
Her victory over the national government was nothing if not resounding. In a disastrous campaign overseen by the prime minister’s head of staff, the Socialists plummeted from first to third place. Pablo Iglesias, leader of the radical left Podemos party and deputy premier in Sánchez’s coalition before he resigned to run in the race, quit politics after coming in fifth.
Speaking to the Financial Times before the vote, Díaz Ayuso characterised the contest as a clash of opposites in which she championed the “rights of the family, the self-employed, the business person to remain in control of their lives” against what she depicted as communist fellow travellers. Her opponents paint her as an ideologue with a woeful administrative record.
The question is whether her approach — an unapologetic conservatism that has capitalised on coronavirus restriction fatigue — is replicable elsewhere by Spain’s battered, fragmented right and its counterparts in Europe.
Díaz Ayuso was chosen by Pablo Casado, her party’s leader and an old friend from its youth wing, as Madrid candidate two years ago. At the time she was a little-known party functionary whose services had included managing the Twitter account of a previous Madrid boss’s pet dog. “Casado made a risky bet on her as a member of a new generation,” says a political ally. “But he knew her qualities would help to refloat a brand that had been very damaged by cases of corruption.”
In the event, she scraped into power in 2019, helped by other parties on the right. But her tenure soon became marked by confrontation with the Sánchez government, which repeatedly sought to impose tougher restrictions on Madrid when the pandemic hit.
The Madrid leader casts those moves as authoritarian, even totalitarian, depicting her administration as part of a select band battling for liberty. “The justice system, the Madrid region, the king and the laws are the obstacles to Pedro Sánchez changing this country by the back door,” she said in October.
But the Spanish government is not alone in criticising her Covid response.
“Madrid is an outlier in Europe,” says Miguel Hernán, an epidemiologist at Harvard University. “Its management of the pandemic has been very different from that of other big metropolitan areas in the west. Unlike other places, the government of Madrid prioritised keeping higher levels of economic activity over protecting the health system.”
Diaz Ayuso’s victory may now have ended the political argument. Restrictions in Spain are ebbing away. The national rules underpinning many coronavirus curbs expire on Sunday. The government hopes that, with 28 per cent of the population vaccinated, tough rules are no longer so necessary.
The PP hopes to repeat Díaz Ayuso’s success across Spain, but obstacles remain. In Madrid she will need to rely on the hard-right Vox party for a majority. But allying with Vox at a national level is all but certain to alienate regional parties that hold the swing votes in Spain’s parliament.
For Sandra León of Madrid’s Carlos III university, Díaz Ayuso’s triumph owes much to the pandemic. Díaz Ayuso says her present post is the limit of her ambition. Still, having bested a prime minister, forced the retirement of a far-left bête noire and rallied the right, she is set to play an even more commanding role in Spain’s politics.