In Tuesday’s regional elections in Madrid, the right-wing Partido Popular emerged as by far the most successful party, more than doubling its representation to win 65 of the 136 seats in the assembly.
Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the 42-year-old local Partido Popular leader who was seeking re-election, won more seats than the three left-wing parties combined. Vox (13 seats), the most right-wing party on the Spanish political spectrum, has already promised Ayuso the support she needs in order to govern.
Despite not quite delivering an outright majority, Ayuso’s bold decision to call the snap election has clearly paid off. Her slogan of ‘Libertad’ (Liberty), her attacks on the way Spain’s socialist Prime Minister has handled the pandemic – ‘Madrid’s problem is Pedro Sánchez’ – and her comparatively light touch with Covid restrictions have clearly won her many friends, especially in the hospitality sector.
Most significantly of all perhaps, she has seen off her previous partner in government, the liberal, right-of-centre party Ciudadanos. Over the last couple of years Ciudadanos has seen its support collapse. The party won 57 seats in the April 2019 general election but only managed ten in the re-run in November later that year. It won 36 seats in the Catalan regional parliament in 2017 but just six in the election in February this year. And now it has lost all 26 of its seats in Madrid.
During a bruising and at times vicious election campaign Ciudadanos tried in vain to carve out a new role for itself as a peace-maker, proposing that all six competing parties – three on the left and three on the right – agree to condemn violence and undertake to stop branding their political rivals as criminals. Nobody took much notice.
Instead the campaign became an increasingly heated affair. As it progressed there was less and less constructive debate about responding to the pandemic – despite the worrying number of Covid cases in Madrid – or about governing the region. The candidates seemed to prefer name-calling and trading insults to serious discussion. Politicians on the left accused their opponents on the right of being fascists. Politicians on the right called their opponents on the left communists. Both sides claimed they were engaged in a crusade to preserve democracy from extremists.
Ayuso, for example, presented the elections as a stark, indeed apocalyptic choice: voters should decide if they wanted ‘Communism or liberty’ and if they preferred ‘Madrid or Caracas’ (an allusion to the links between the radical left Podemos party and the Venezuela of Chávez and Maduro). ‘When they call you a fascist… you know you’re on the right side of history,’ she announced proudly.
This polarisation of the campaign worked out well for her. Turnout was very high and many who had previously voted for Ciudadanos turned further to the right – to Ayuso’s Partido Popular. She has consolidated her position as a high-profile opponent of Spain’s socialist government and is even being talked of as the future leader of the party: voters seem to prefer her categorical, plain-speaking approach to the opportunistic ideological shifts of her party’s national leader, Pablo Casado.
Indeed, this victory for the right in Madrid seems set to change the political landscape at national level too. If, as seems most likely, the more moderate Ciudadanos is now consigned to oblivion, the coming months should see support for the Partido Popular grow considerably as ever more Ciudadanos voters shift their allegiance to a party with a chance of winning.
Even so, to form a government after the next general election the Partido Popular will probably need the support of Vox, a party which is routinely described by the left as beyond the pale: far right, xenophobic, misogynistic and homophobic. In the last general election the Partido Popular won 89 seats and Vox 52; a total of 141 which left the parties well short of the 176 needed to govern the country. But that was before the demise of Ciudadanos.
Politics in Spain is now likely to become even more polarised, bad-tempered and aggressive. And the next general election, which is due in 2023, might well see the Partido Popular return to power – perhaps under more abrasive Ayuso-style leadership – with the support of Vox.