Madrid election: lockdown opponent Isabel Diaz Ayuso coasts to victory

Conservative soared to prominence for stubbornly resisting coronavirus restrictions

epa09178058 A handout photo made available by the People's Party (PP's) shows Madrid's regional president and candidate to reelection Isabel Diaz Ayuso (R) and PP Part Leader Pablo Casado (L) as they celebrate the results in Madrid's regional elections at the party's headquarters in Madrid, central Spain, 04 May 2021. Madrid holds regional elections after President, Isabel Diaz Ayuso, called for early elections back in March 2021. Isabel Díaz Ayuso could be reelected with between 62 and 65 deputies but might need the support of far-right Vox to form a government, according to Spanish media.  EPA/David Mudarra / PEOPLE PARTY HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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Isabel Diaz Ayuso, Madrid’s combative conservative leader who campaigned under the slogan of “Freedom”, won a resounding victory in a regional election.

The result cements her position as Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s most powerful critic.

Ms Ayuso is a champion of relaxed measures against the coronavirus and is a scourge of the left-wing central government’s handling of the pandemic.

With nearly all votes counted, results early on Wednesday showed a solid win for Ms Ayuso, a rising star in the right-wing Popular Party, who won almost 45 per cent of the votes.

Since being plucked from relative obscurity to run Spain’s most important region 18 months ago, she has won popularity with her unapologetically hardline rhetoric, by consistently attacking Mr Sanchez and by challenging the European consensus on restrictions to movement and economic activity during the pandemic.

“Freedom has won in Madrid, once again,” Ms Ayuso said in her victory speech. "Today begins a new chapter in the history of Spain.”

Madrid is the only major European capital that has kept bars, restaurants and theatres open since a national lockdown ended in June last year.

epa09178025 Madrid's regional president and candidate to reelection Isabel Diaz Ayuso celebrates her results in Madrid's regional elections results at the party's headquarters in Madrid, central Spain, 04 May 2021. Isabel Diaz Ayuso could be reelected with between 62 and 65 deputies but would need the support of far-right Vox to form a governmet, according to Spanish media.  EPA/Mariscal

Although Madrid has suffered Spain's highest numbers of infections and deaths, Ms Ayuso consistently defied calls to shut bars and restaurants, with the hospitality sector regarding her as a heroine.

In a sign that her popularity extends beyond Spanish borders, the leader of Italy’s right-wing League, Matteo Salvini, praised the Madrid regional chief.

“Congratulations and good work to President Isabel Díaz Ayuso, winner of the Madrid elections, a woman of common sense and courage, who has combined protection of health, right to work and freedom,” he said.

People wave Spanish flags as they react outside the Vox party headquarters in Madrid, Spain, Tuesday, May 4, 2021. Madrid residents voted in droves for a new regional assembly in an election that tests the depths of resistance to virus lockdown measures and the divide between left-wing and right-wing parties. Regional President Isabel Diaz Ayuso, who called the early election by dissolving her center-right coalition, had set off to broaden her power base and open up to an alliance with the far-right. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

With 95 per cent of the votes counted, Ms Ayuso more than doubled her party's showing in the 2019 ballot, winning 65 of the regional parliament's 136 seats, while the Socialists lost 13 seats to secure only 24.

Falling short of an absolute majority of 69 seats, Ms Ayuso, 42, will be forced to seek support from the far-right Vox party that secured 13 seats – an option she said "wouldn't be the end of the world".

Vox leader Santiago Abascal congratulated Ms Ayuso while celebrating what he defined as a major defeat for Mr Sanchez.

With the left facing with a major defeat, Pablo Iglesias, head of the far-left Podemos party, junior partner in Spain's ruling coalition, announced he was stepping down from politics.

"We have failed. We have been very far from putting together a sufficient majority," he said, just seven weeks after standing down as deputy prime minister to run as his party's candidate.

"When you are no longer useful, you need to know when to withdraw."

More than 5.1 million people were eligible to vote in Tuesday's election, which came after a bitterly and divisive campaign in a region ruled by the Popular Party for 26 years.

From the early hours, there were long queues outside polling stations, with turnout at 76 per cent, about 11 percentage points higher than 2019.

Ms Ayuso’s call for a snap election caught the political establishment by surprise but was an astute move aimed at cashing in on the political capital she had clearly accrued.

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