Madrid’s loose-cannon populist is an asset and a worry for Spain’s conservatives

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MADRID ̵1; Isabel Diaz Ayuso is the most powerful electoral weapon of the Spanish political right. But, even as the president of the Madrid region cruises to another electoral victory, his divisive brand of moderate populism is causing problems for his conservative Popular Party (PP).

Elections are to be held for 12 regional assemblies and municipalities across Spain on 28 May. polls show that Díaz Ayuso would be re-elected with a large margin. The only uncertainty is whether the PP will increase its share of seats enough to give it an absolute majority in the Madrid regional assembly, a rare feat in Spain’s fractured politics.

Since taking power in 2019, his popularity and profile have given Díaz Ayuso a national presence that transcends regional politics.

“Ayuso is a phenomenon,” said Luis Orioles, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III University. “She is not only the president of the Madrid region, but also the main point of reference when it comes to the confrontation with the central government of Pedro Sánchez. This gives her a lot of visibility.

Diaz Ayuso, 44, came to prominence during the pandemic when, governing in coalition with right-wing Ciudadanos, she took an aggressive stance against COVID-related measures being introduced by Sanchez’s left-wing administration.

On the back of those struggles and running under the slogan of one word – “freedom(Freedom) – His party more than doubled its seats in the Madrid Assembly in a 2021 snap election, allowing it to govern alone, though with support from the far-right Vox. Two years later, she is aiming to go a step further and win a majority under a similar minimalist campaign phrase:Desire(meaning “will” and “you win”).

This is despite facing severe criticism from several quarters for his management of the public sector. During the pandemic, Díaz Ayuso was often accused of favoring commercial activity over protection. health care workers which have been striking in recent months point to the fact that Madrid spends less on his territory per inhabitant than any other region, while spending less on social services in general than any other region in mainland Spain.

Madrid’s mayoral candidate for the leftist Podemos, Roberto Sotomayor, called them “health care terrorists”.

Brushing off such criticisms, she has firmly engaged in an ideological battle, positioning herself as a defender of values ​​rather than concrete policies.

At a campaign rally in a square in Madrid’s wealthy Goya neighborhood, she was praised by Lisbon’s conservative mayor, former European Commissioner Carlos Moedas.

“You’ve got rid of the thing that is the worst thing about the Left today: its moral superiority,” he said. “As if they are better people because they are on the left, as if they are more human. Isabelle looks into their eyes and says: ‘No, it’s not.'”

Moments later, to thunderous applause, Díaz Ayuso raised the same topic.

Alberto Núñez Feijoa took charge of the PP in April 2022, succeeding Pablo Casado, whose determination to govern in Diaz Ayuso resulted in a public tussle Javier Soriano/AFP via Getty Images

“What [the left] I don’t understand why when people are free and prosperous and united, despite their differences, they are unbeatable,” she said.

“They want to stop bullfighting in the city with the biggest bulling in the world, they want to get rid of our freedom to control our working hours,” she said. “And all they want is to stay out of the public domain.”

culture warrior

Díaz Ayuso’s team acknowledges that their candidate has participated in Spain’s culture wars.

“She has taken ownership of the word ‘freedom’ from the left,” said a person close to her, who wished to remain anonymous because of her staff status.

“If you say ‘independence’ in Madrid, people think of Ayuso … He has waged all possible ideological battles in the last few years and this explains his success.”

Those battles include attacking the government’s feminist agenda, as well as climate change skeptics.

For the PP’s national leader, Alberto Núñez Feijoa, this means that Madrid – arguably Spain’s most important region in electoral terms – will remain in the hands of his party. But it also means that its president has threatened to come down heavily on them.

Núñez Feijoa assumed command of the PP in April 2022, succeeding Pablo Casado, whose determination to rein in Díaz Ayuso resulted in a public feud. Casado tries to get Diaz Ayuso An investigation into allegations of corruption related to the facemask deal for the region in which his brother was involved led to his ouster.

With Núñez Feijo lacking the charisma of Madrid’s president, he and the party leadership have been miscast by some of his more attention-grabbing announcements.

More recently, this was the case when the Basque Nationalist Party emerged Eh Bildu Local elections in the country’s north saw 44 candidates linked to the militant group Etah, which disbanded in 2018. Seven candidates, who had served prison terms for murder, eventually stated that they would not take up their positions as councilors if voted on. Straying beyond Madrid’s local politics, Díaz Ayuso echoed the far-right Vox party in calling for EH Bildu to be declared illegal.

,[EH] Bildu is not Etah’s heir, he Are Etta,” she said.

Núñez Feijoo did not support calls to outlaw EH Bildu and senior party leaders said it was unforgivable. However, the debate kept Díaz Ayuso firmly in the spotlight.

Carlos III of the University Orioles said, “Díaz Ayuso feels free to ignore PP’s classic ideological limitations and that means he can compete with Vox, but it also creates a problem for PP.” ” The intensity of his rhetoric, he said, threatens to drown out the voice of the national leader and drag the party into radical territory.

Sánchez’s Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) has also considered the possibility of another leadership change for conservatives if these local elections do not go well for Núñez Feijo outside Madrid.

“If the result [the PP] If expectations are not met, regional leaders prefer [Andalusia’s Juanma] Moreno Bonilla or Ayuso could be the change many in PP demand.” Read an internal PSOE memo In January.

Díaz Ayuso’s team rejected the possibility that she could replace Núñez Feijoa as the PP’s candidate in the general election, which is due at the end of the year, given the time constraints and the fact that her Does not have a parliamentary seat.

However, there is some doubt that his moment will come. There are parallels with the career of José María Aznar, who made the jump from regional to national politics in the 1990s and became prime minister.

At a party rally in Madrid, PP supporters waved Spanish flags and clapped to a languid, bass-heavy tune, accompanied by “Desirecampaign slogan.

“If you’re on the right you should be on the right, if you’re on the left you should be on the left,” said Maria, a pensioner who came to Madrid to watch the president speak. “You can’t be soft. I’m not voting for PP, I’m voting for Ayuso.”