Madrid appears set to pick lockdown rebel in regional election, early polls show

Supporters of People's Party (PP) wave flags as they attend a campaign meeting for the up-coming Madrid regional elections, in Madrid on May 2, 2021.
Supporters of People's Party (PP) wave flags as they attend a campaign meeting for the up-coming Madrid regional elections, in Madrid on May 2, 2021. © Javier Soriano, AFP

The conservative leader of Spain's Madrid region, who for months defied the leftist central government by keeping bars and shops open during the Covid-19 pandemic, won a regional election on Tuesday, an opinion poll showed as voting ended.

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Isabel Diaz Ayuso's People's Party (PP) more than doubled its score to 62-65 seats from 30 in 2019, the opinion poll showed, in a major win for the maverick who had banked on her loose Covid strategy to appeal to voters.

Ayuso fell just shy of winning enough seats to rule the region without the support of any other party, according to the telephone poll conducted in the last few days by GAD3 for broadcasters TVE and Telemadrid.

"It seems that the people of Madrid are backing Isabel Diaz Ayuso's project for Madrid in a significant and major way," Alfonso Serrano, Ayuso's campaign director, told TVE.

The PP has controlled the region for the past 26 years and the convincing win, if confirmed, would likely give it impetus at a national level. In the national parliament, PP is the second-biggest party after the ruling Socialists.

Ayuso, the outgoing leader of the key Madrid regional administration, has consistently pushed back against central government pressure to impose tighter virus restrictions.

The 42-year-old rising star in the PP argues keeping the economy afloat and preserving social interaction is also important for health.

On her watch, Madrid has had Spain's lightest virus restrictions. It has been the only major European capital to keep bars, restaurants and theatres open with few restrictions since a nationwide lockdown ended in mid-2020.

"Having beers is important," Ayuso told Cadena Ser radio station last month. "After a bad day a beer cheers you up." She campaigned under the slogan "Freedom".

Critics however say her lax restrictions have come at too high a price.

They point out that Madrid has the highest percentage of intensive care beds occupied by Covid-19 patients in the country, at nearly 45 percent – and one of the country's highest infection rates.

Just over 5.1 million people are eligible to vote in the election in Spain's richest region, which has been governed by the PP since 1995.

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Death threats

Final opinion polls gave the PP party around 40-percent support, almost double their result in the May 2019 election.

That placed them well ahead of the Socialists, whose backing in the opinion poll had dropped to 20 percent from just over 27 percent in 2019.

Ayuso may yet still need the support of far-right Vox party to govern. That would not be "the end of the world", she has said.

Leftist parties had sought to rally their voters by warning of the dangers of the PP governing with anti-immigrant Vox.

During the Socialist party final campaign rally on Sunday night, Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez repeated his warning that "our democracy" was at stake in the elections.

The campaign also saw anonymous death threat letters with bullets sent to top politicians, including Ayuso and the leader of far-left party Podemos, Pablo Iglesias.

Podemos is the junior partner in Sanchez's minority coalition government and Iglesias stepped down as a deputy prime minister in Sanchez's coalition government to run as the party's candidate.

The early election was called by Ayuso in March after she broke up her ruling coalition with the centrist Ciudadanos party.

Unlike in other elections in the Covid-19 era in recent months, turnout was high, at 69%, from 58% in 2019.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS) 

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