Madrid Voters to Reward Sanchez Rival Who Kept the Economy Open

In less than two years, Isabel Diaz Ayuso has emerged from relative obscurity to lead Spain’s most important region and become Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s most combative opponent.

On Tuesday, the candidate from the conservative People’s Party will be seeking to cement her control of Madrid’s regional government in a snap election that highlights the dividing lines in Spanish politics. Ayuso, 42, is running under the slogan “Communism or Freedom” -- portraying herself as the defender of the rights of Madrilenos against the overreaching national government, led by Sanchez’s Socialists.

The pitch is a reference to her determination to keep the Spanish capital’s economy open as much as possible through successive waves of the pandemic. The approach defied the consensus in the rest of Europe as well as the mounting death toll. Madrid suffered a bigger jump in the number of people dying last year than any other city in Europe and has seen the infection rate climb in recent weeks, though it’s still way short of the problems in Paris.

The final polls show that Ayuso is set to roughly double the number of seats she controls in the regional assembly, though she’s likely to fall short of an absolute majority.

Madrid Voters to Reward Sanchez Rival Who Kept the Economy Open

With no major ballots on the horizon, Sanchez was preparing for a period of relative calm in Spanish politics before Ayuso’s March decision to trigger a vote. Instead of focusing on rebuilding the country’s economy, he found himself dragged into the campaign in Madrid, with Ayuso framing the fight as a personal battle between herself and the prime minister.

Sanchez’s minority coalition depends on a web of parliamentary alliances to pass legislation and his political fortunes have been buoyed by the prospect of 70 billion euros ($84 billion) of European Union economic aid. While Madrid’s regional election is unlikely to change the balance of power, it will serve as an important test of strength in Spain’s most important political battleground.

Ayuso has set out her stall on defending the economy, and the Spanish capital has largely remained open since the summer. During the first two months of the year, Madrid’s bar and restaurant industry overtook the tourist centers of Andalusia and Catalonia for the first time in both sales and jobs, according to Juan Jose Blardony, head of the regional industry group. Even so, a fifth of all establishments have closed during the pandemic.

Madrid Voters to Reward Sanchez Rival Who Kept the Economy Open

“The biggest help we received so far is being allowed to stay open,” Blardony said. “When you are making a third of your normal revenue and are heavily in debt, it’s only natural that you welcome less restrictive lockdowns.”

Ayuso has managed to win over voters in Madrid despite criticism of her handling of the pandemic from health-care professionals. Her regional administration came under fire in particular for cutting the number of people being tested for Covid-19. Critics said that decision lowered the infection rate artificially because cases were going undetected -- a charge the regional government denies.

“From a medical point of view we thought it was wrong,” said Angela Hernandez, a surgeon who is also an official at medical union AMYTS. “It prevents any chance of following epidemiological chains and tracing contagion.”

Cutting One-Liners

All the same, the campaign has also reflected the growing acrimony in Spain on both sides of the ideological divide. The candidate for the far-left group Podemos, Spain’s interior minister and the head of the Civil Guard all received threatening letters containing bullets. A similar letter was sent to Ayuso but was intercepted before she received it.

Ayuso was handpicked to lead the PP into Madrid’s 2019 election at a moment when the party was being squeezed by competitors both in the center and to its right. While the conservative party lost more than a third of its seats and slipped to second place for the first time in its history, Ayuso managed to form a coalition with the center-right group Ciudadanos and proved herself adept at the rough and tumble of front-line politics.

Her public defiance of Sanchez’s lockdown policy and her unapologetically nationalist rhetoric reversed her party’s declines. On Tuesday, she’s set to wipe out her one-time coalition partners in Ciudadanos, giving the PP a freer hand to compete with the more hardline nationalists of Vox.

A journalist by training, Ayuso is comfortable speaking to the media and relishes face-to-face arguments with rivals, regularly firing off cutting one-liners. In February, she plunged into the national debate over a rapper who was jailed for insulting the royal family.

He’s just “a delinquent with less art in him than any of us here on the karaoke after a couple of rum and cokes,” she said.

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