MADRID (AP) — Residents in Madrid, one of Europe’s worst-hit regions in the pandemic, are voting Tuesday for a new regional assembly in an election that tests the depths of resistance to lockdown measures.
The early election was called by a conservative regional chief who is trying to cling to power after her center-right coalition crumbled. Isabel Díaz Ayuso has made a name for herself by resisting the strictest measures against the virus and criticizing the national government’s handling of the pandemic.
By keeping Madrid’s bars, restaurants, museums and concert halls open, Díaz Ayuso has invigorated support for her conservative Popular Party. She has also made inroads among voters recently seduced by the patriotic populism of Vox, an upstart far-right party.
Restaurateurs have come up with dishes and menus with her name and her portrait is ubiquitous on the city’s billboards and on mail-in ballots. Díaz Ayuso says the election is about choosing between her promise of “freedom” and the left’s “socialism” and “communism,” in reference to her two rivals who are part of the ruling national coalition.
Her resistance to sweeping coronavirus closures has constantly pitched the 42-year-old conservative against Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the Socialists and the anti-austerity United We Can Party leader, Pablo Iglesias. Iglesias quit his Cabinet position last month to run against Díaz Ayuso in the regional vote.
WHAT DOES THE HEALTH DATA SAY?
The virus ravaged the Madrid region’s nursing homes, especially last year. More than 5,000 elderly died before they could be taken in by a hospital system that buckled amid the first wave of infections.
Since then, keeping the country’s economic engine up and running has become key goal for Díaz Ayuso, even if that meant having to add hospitals and more beds to treat COVID-19 patients.
Díaz Ayuso has firmly resisted curbing travel in and out of Madrid. Instead she has relied on mass screenings with coronavirus antigen tests and setting up large venues to speed up vaccinations.
As a result, the region that is home to 14% of the country’s 47 million people has seen more than 19% of the country’s 3.5 million infections and of a national confirmed death toll of over 78,000.
The 14-day accumulated caseload on Friday stood at 384 new infections per 100,000 residents, way beyond the national average of 229 new cases per 100,000.
WHAT DO THE POLLS SAY?
Although a few pollsters are predicting that an absolute majority of the regional assembly’s seats will go to Díaz Ayuso’s conservatives, most estimates hint at a win of over 40% of the vote. That would potentially double the number of Popular Party lawmakers since the last election in 2019.
The polls also place the far-right Vox party as the most likely choice for an alliance that would allow Díaz Ayuso to form a government.
A smaller possibility is that the center-left camp, fragmented into three parties, will clinch enough votes to form a governing alliance.
WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES?
Most political analysts agree that any solid victory for Díaz Ayuso will pave the way for more antagonism between the Socialist-led national government and the conservative party that has dominated Spain’s political landscape until recently.
It would also mean a rebuke of the recent strategy by the Popular Party’s national leader, Pablo Casado, who has tried to distance his party from Vox’s far-right ideology.
Whatever emerges from the ballot, the winner will have the challenge of putting Madrid back on its feet after a tough year with COVID-19 that included a winter blizzard which paralyzed the city for days.
The region, rampant with inequality, has been a stronghold of the Popular Party since 1991.
The left-wing parties want more investment to solve the social and economic crisis, especially propping up the region’s public education and health systems following years of austerity and privatization.
Díaz Ayuso has promised to lower taxes to attract more companies and boost consumption, as well as building more than 6,000 units of social housing.
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