Global Affairs

Madrid’s Divisive Regional Elections Reinvigorate the Spanish Centre-Right

On Tuesday, the 4th of May, the people of Madrid went to the polls. After the centre-right president of the autonomous community, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, dissolved the regional assembly and called snap elections, a divisive contest began. Ultimately, Ayuso scored a decisive victory, halting the far-right’s advance and inflicting a humiliating defeat on her left-wing opponents. Such a success is being seen by the European centre-right as an example, as conservatives and Christian Democrats face dwindling electoral prospects across the continent. But Ayuso’s success may not be easily replicable outside Madrid. 

Since 1982, the two greatest political parties in Spain have been the centre-right PP (Partido Popular, or People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, or Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party). Governments have typically been single-party, alternating between the two after relatively long prime ministerial tenures. In 2018, the PP administration, led by Mariano Rajoy, fell after a vote of no confidence. Pedro Sánchez, leader of the PSOE, became Prime Minister, but his was a minority government which became the shortest of Spain’s post-Franco democracy when he called snap elections in 2019. The April 2019 election saw the far-right party Vox gain parliamentary representation for the first time, while Sánchez beat Pablo Casado, Rajoy’s successor as the leader of the Populares. Without a full majority, however, Sánchez could not form a government, and so new elections were called in November. The political deadlock would eventually be resolved by the formation of a left-wing coalition between the PSOE and the far-left UP (Unidas Podemos, or United We Can). Pablo Iglesias, the UP’s leader and a polarising figure in Spanish politics, became Deputy Prime Minister, shaping the government’s wider strategy despite having a smaller ministerial portfolio.

About a month after the first inconclusive general election of 2019, Isabel Díaz Ayuso narrowly came second in Madrid’s regional elections. Ayuso was an unusual candidate for the Comunidad de Madrid, Spain’s third largest autonomous community by population and the largest regional economy. Born in 1978 in the Chamberí district (where she still lives, in a 60 square metre rented flat), her parents sold medical equipment. She studied journalism and communications at the Complutense University of Madrid before spending most of her career working for PP, where one of her better-known gigs was managing the Twitter account of Pecas, the dog of Esperanza Aguirre, then-president of the autonomous community.

She was a little-known PP functionary when Pablo Casado, an old friend from her days in PP’s youth wing, chose her as the party’s candidate for the 2019 regional elections. In its worst result ever in the region, the PP, which had governed Madrid since 1995, came second after the PSOE and lost 18 regional deputies. Yet Ayuso formed a coalition with Ciudadanos, secured Vox’s parliamentary support, and became the region’s 8th president – the 7th from the Populares.

Ayuso was never a fan of the governing PSOE-UP coalition but the pandemic pitted them against each other as the central government imposed strict lockdowns while Ayuso defended a laxer approach that gave priority to the economy. Although other regions closed down bars and restaurants, Ayuso’s administration kept them open, leading Sánchez’s government to use emergency powers and place a ban on people entering and leaving Madrid and nine nearby municipalities. In May, Ayuso’s regional government sued Sánchez’s central government over its covid restrictions, and reopened bars and restaurants over the summer. By September, the region had Spain’s worst coronavirus infection rates, but Ayuso focused on the economic importance of keeping the city open. Her staff claimed that, for each week that the central government’s restrictions were in place, the region would lose 18,000 jobs and €750 million.

Until last March, Ayuso’s government was one of the 4 regional coalitions between the PP and the liberal/centrist Cs (Ciudadanos, or Citizens). But their coalition wasn’t always an easy one and, after corruption accusations and coronavirus vaccination scandals, Ciudadanos switched sides in the autonomous community of Murcia and allied themselves with the socialists to put forward a vote of no confidence. The Populares avoided getting ejected from office when three liberal representatives defected to support the regional government, but the shockwaves reached Madrid. Ayuso didn’t hesitate: she fired the Ciudadanos ministers in her executive and dissolved the regional assembly, calling for snap elections, before Cs and the PSOE attempted to oust her through a vote of no confidence. Having ruled in Madrid for 26 years, the election was “an all-or nothing gamble by conservatives, who can’t afford to lose the region”, said political scientist Máriam Martínez-Bascuñán.

Despite how worrying the new election may have been for the PP, it was the liberal Ciudadanos that faced political annihilation. Formed in Catalonia as a centrist party (not unlike Emmanuel Macron’s subsequent La République en Marche), it achieved initial electoral success due to its unapologetic stance against Catalonian independence, before a series of tactical mistakes (including refusing a coalition with the PSOE in 2018 and pivoting to the right since) led to a string of defeats. Since its failed vote of no confidence in Murcia, dozens of high-ranking officials have left the party, and opinion polls in Madrid were hardly encouraging for the liberals, forecasting that they would fall short of the 5 percent threshold to ensure representation in the regional assembly.

The predicted fall of Ciudadanos left Ayuso the centre-right candidate, flanked on the far-right by Vox’s Rocío Monasterio. But Ayuso’s conservative rhetoric and confrontational style led many to point towards even greater polarisation as the PP candidate portrayed herself as a paladin of liberty against a left-wing government that threatens to strangle Madrid’s economy and meddle in the personal freedoms of madrileños. Describing Ayuso’s candidacy as “Trumpist”, Iglesias stepped down as Deputy Prime Minister to run in the regional elections as UP’s candidate. “Madrid needs a left government and I believe I can be useful”, he said.

In response to Iglesias’ announcement, Ayuso said that “Spain owes me one. We’ve got Pablo Iglesias out of the government”. Her new campaign slogan became “Comunismo o Libertad” – communism or liberty. Her opponents on the left replied by adopting “Fascismo o democracia” – fascism or democracy. The campaign became a dirty and demagogic affair, with overt Spanish Civil War references. Several public figures, including Ayuso and Iglesias, received death threats during the campaign.

In the end, the result was a resounding victory for the conservatives, which secured more votes than the three parties to its left combined. Ayuso more than doubled her vote share from 22% to 45% and was just 4 representatives short of an absolute majority. Her results will probably allow her to govern alone, with some parliamentary support from Vox. The far-right held on to its 2019 result, with 9.1% compared to its previous vote share of 8.9%. Centrist Ciudadanos went from 26 representatives to zero, in the most predictable yet striking result of the night.

The centre-left PSOE fell from 1st to 3rd place, narrowly finishing behind Más Madrid, a new left-of-centre party formed after a split from UP. Despite gaining representatives, Unidas Podemos came fifth, in what was perceived by many to be a colossal defeat. The far-left’s defeat caused Iglesias to announce his retirement from politics. In his resignation speech, Iglesias admitted UP “had failed” and that “despite having improved, our result is still insufficient”.

Iglesias’ candidacy was meant to increase turnout and encourage people to vote. Ironically, turnout was actually higher than in 2019; Iglesias has suggested Ayuso’s victory was in part due to his being a scapegoat hated by many on the right. However, it wouldn’t be correct to ascribe Ayuso’s victory entirely to far-right voters. For one, Vox made neither losses nor gains, scoring just 0.2 percentage points more than in 2019. Most of Ayuso’s voters, it’s safe to say, were either abstentionists or centrist and centre-right voters who abandoned Cs en masse. The polarising strategy of comunismo o libertad pitted a right-wing bloc unquestionably led by Ayuso against a united PSOE-UP alliance, and ensured the PP’s hegemony to the right while making it difficult for the PSOE to reach moderate voters by tying them to Unidas Podemos. Ayuso didn’t dwell on the first half of her mantra, and in fact dropped it later on in the campaign in favour of a simpler message that became the core of her candidacy: liberty. She repeated that message throughout her victory speech after the results were announced, saying that “Madrid is freedom — and they [Sánchez and his government] don’t understand our way of living”.

ISABEL DÍAZ AYUSO EN CHAMBERÍ by Populares de Madrid is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Left replied with “fascism or democracy”, but emphasised the former while failing to point out the regional government’s mishandling of the pandemic or the deficit accumulation of the last 26 years, all under PP’s leadership. Only Más Madrid succeeded in putting forward a progressive platform similar to that of other ecosocialist parties across Europe while distancing itself both from the national government and from UP, and it reaped the rewards of its strategy. The PSOE’s high ideals underpinned its political narrative: protecting democracy and stopping the advance of the Right was imperative. But, as a PSOE official put it to Spanish paper El País, “many voters didn’t see the slightest need to save democracy, but rather to save their business and their job”.

Quite simply, Ayuso was a popular candidate with madrileños, though some accused her of being more populist than popular. Her strong stance against strict coronavirus restrictions and, in particular, her staunch support of the hospitality sector meant that restaurateurs and hoteliers were especially grateful: a pizza, a beer, and a potato dish have all been named after Ayuso. Her defence of keeping Madrid’s nightlife open during the pandemic played well with voters beyond the PP’s usual electorate, making in-roads into working class areas. Camino Mortera-Martinez, of the Centre for European Reform, said that “This was an election fought in bars”; Ignacio Escolar, editor of newsite elDiario.es, described the results as proof that “The freedom to drink beer in Madrid has triumphed”.

The Populares’ impressive victory has been pointed by many as a turning point in Spanish politics, the first step towards a centre-right bloc dominated by the PP, after having absorbed most of Ciudadanos’ voters and officials. In a European scenario where centre-right parties are increasingly unsuccessful, Ayuso’s breakthrough may be seen as an example not just for Casado but also for candidates like Germany’s Armin Laschet, leader of the German Christian Democrats and the man vying to succeed Angela Merkel as Chancellor, or France’s Xavier Bertrand, the leading conservative candidate for the Presidency. In Germany, Laschet’s CDU is trailing behind the Greens; in France, the centre-right Republicans face difficult electoral prospects and are ripe with internal conflicts, including a recent and controversial electoral coalition with Emmanuel Macron’s centrists for the upcoming regional elections in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. Along with the British Conservatives, Spain’s PP is one of the few European right or centre-right parties making gains. 

But the results of Madrid, like its inhabitants only a couple months ago, might find it hard to go beyond the autonomous community. Ayuso’s victory was also Ciudadanos’ defeat, and the French centrists are not as electorally feeble as their Spanish counterparts. Even purely on the national stage, the Populares under Casado may find it hard to replicate Ayuso’s results: Casado is simply not as popular as Ayuso, and relying on Vox may backfire, causing it to lose the support of smaller regional parties.

Ayuso has come under fire not just for her fiery rhetoric but also for her reliance on Vox’s parliamentary support. Even though her results mean she can comfortably govern without a coalition, she has said she’d be open to governing with Vox. But there are wide ideological differences between the two, including on abortion or gay rights. Ultra-catholic far-right activists supported Monasterio and campaigned against Ayuso by plastering her picture on trucks alongside quotes like “I defend women making and taking each decision freely”. In any case, Ayuso proved an electoral antidote to the far-right, halting Vox’s advances and definitely strengthening the PP as the voters’ best chance to unseat the socialists nation-wide.

The results of 4-M, the Spanish shorthand for the elections of May, the 4th, are certainly encouraging for the European centre-right, while pointing towards a new electoral configuration in Spain. A clear message around a simple, albeit simplistic, set of ideals resonates with voters exhausted by covid fatigue when it relates to their day-to-day concerns. Ayuso combined Reagan-like appeals to “liberty”, in a binary choice between that and communism, with a popular conception of personal freedom that meant bars and restaurants could remain open and people could keep their jobs. The PSOE and UP replied with a similar dichotomy, but forgot that the appeal to the ideal is never as strong as the call to the wallet. For the first time since 2018, the PSOE and PP are now virtually tied in national polls, and it seems safe to say that Spanish politics promises exciting developments.

Originally from Portugal, Duarte is the Senior Global Affairs Editor for the Oxford Blue. He is currently in his third year reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics at St Peter's College.