Spain’s increasingly polarized political landscape made for a bitter election in Madrid, with the nation’s right-wing elements coming out on top Tuesday.
(CN) — Spain’s ruling left-wing coalition government suffered a bitter defeat in an election for Madrid, the capital, after anti-lockdown champion Isabel Diaz Ayuso, a pugnacious 42-year-old rising star on the right, scored a resounding reelection on Tuesday.
Her win was a crushing defeat for Pablo Iglesias, a pony-tailed Marxist-inspired academic-turned-politician who was, until Tuesday night, Spain’s most prominent left-wing leader and head of Unidas Podemos, a junior coalition partner in the Socialist-led national government. On Tuesday night, as the vote returns showed a right-wing victory, Iglesias told supporters he was quitting politics.
The win by Ayuso — the incumbent president of the Madrid region — brings with it a troubling possibility that she will govern Madrid in an alliance with the toxic far-right Vox party. If that happens, it would be seen by critics as the dangerous normalization of Vox’s extremist views.
The Madrid election was marked by high tensions between the left and the right as each side accused the other of being either “communists” or “fascists.” A feeling that the Spanish Civil War was being refought hung over the election as the leaders of Vox, Ayuso and Iglesias stirred up political passions.
The election was also a referendum on Ayuso’s controversial handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Last fall, as infections and deaths mounted in Madrid, she refused to place the city under a lockdown and sparked a feud with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who tried to impose restrictions. Ayuso won the legal battle, and bars, restaurants and cafes remained open in Madrid.
She turned her anti-lockdown stance a main theme in the election. Signs with her face juxtaposed with the single word “libertad” (freedom) sprouted up all over the city. Many stores and bars put her election signs on their front windows and doors, a token of gratitude from business owners for her anti-lockdown posture.
Her critics, though, said her policies led to far higher infection rates in Madrid and caused unnecessary deaths from the virus. The Madrid region has recorded the worst death toll among Spain’s 17 regions, with about 15,000 deaths out of a total of 78,000 and nearly 700,000 cases out of a total of 3.5 million.
Ayuso and her mainstream conservative Popular Party won about 44.5% of the vote, giving her party 65 seats in the regional assembly, which is shy of a majority. This will likely leave her relying on the 13 seats won by Vox to govern Madrid and the surrounding region.
The Madrid election was a disaster for the Ciudadanos party, another Spanish party that became a new political force, just like Podemos, in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007–08 as dissatisfaction grew in Spain with the country’s two biggest parties, the conservative Popular Party and center-left Socialists.
After taking office in August 2019, Ayuso governed Madrid with support from the Ciudadanos (Citizens) party. But that alliance blew up in March due to internal strife within Ciudadanos.
Ciudadanos came into existence about 15 years ago as a Spanish version of a liberal democratic party with a pro-business and socially liberal platform. Initially, it did very well among many left-leaning middle-class voters but it opposed Catalan independence, and this stance drove the party to the right. It found itself both competing and aligned with the Popular Party.
That rightward strategy has proven problematic for Ciudadanos, though, and its electoral success has stalled. Faced with declining support, Ciudadanos recently made a move in the region of Murcia, where it was in a coalition with the Popular Party, to switch its alignment back to the left and join the Socialists. This shift in political alignment was called an earthquake by the Spanish press. Similar coalitions between Ciudadanos and the Popular Party are in place in Andalucia and Castile-Leon.
Sensing an opportunity, in March Ayuso suddenly dissolved her coalition with Ciudadanos and called for a snap election. Her strategy was a tactical success. On Tuesday, Ciudadanos collapsed and picked up only about 3.6% of the vote, losing all 26 seats it held in the assembly.
Besides vanquishing Ciudadanos, Ayuso scored an even more significant victory by crushing Iglesias, whom she derided as a “communist.”
In a surprise move, in March Iglesias entered the Madrid election, vowing that he wanted to keep Vox out of government. In stepping into the Madrid race, he resigned as deputy prime minister in the Socialist-led national government.
But his attempt to win in Madrid fell flat with Podemos getting only about 7.2% of the vote. His presence in the election gave Ayuso and Vox an easy target. Far-right protesters held daily pickets outside his home. He also received a package containing a death threat and bullets. During a debate, the Vox candidate, Rocio Monasterio, said she doubted he’d received the death threat, prompting him to walk off.
As the votes came in Tuesday, he announced he was retiring was active politics.
“When one stops being useful, one has to realize it’s time to move on,” Iglesias said in a speech to supporters. He added that he had become “a scapegoat that mobilizes the darkest sentiments that exist in democracy.”
Iglesias is a polarizing figure, and his departure from politics will be welcomed by both his allies and enemies. Within Podemos, a change in leadership was viewed as crucial for the party’s survival.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.