Pablo Iglesias’s plan for the left to win the May 4 election for the 136-seat Assembly of Madrid was simple: to inspire the workers and poor of the region surrounding the Spanish capital to vote.
The Unidas Podemos (UP) leader, who left his position as second deputy prime minister to lead the UP’s Madrid campaign, seized upon one key fact: the conservative People’s Party (PP) domination of the Community of Madrid has been guaranteed by an 80%-plus participation by voters from the wealthiest 30% of its neighborhoods.
If the poorest 70% could be persuaded to vote with even half that commitment, a victory for the broadly defined left — the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), the Greens-style More Madrid and the radical UP — would be certain.
When May 4 arrived, the participation rate certainly leaped, climbing from 64.27% at the 2019 poll to 76.25%, as an extra 400,000 turned out to vote, despite the ongoing COVID-19 danger.
However, this tide was overwhelmingly composed of people intending to vote for the PP of incumbent Madrid premier Isabel Ayuso, or for the racist Vox, led by Rocio Monasterio, granddaughter of a Cuban landowner expropriated in the 1959 revolution.
These two forces, plus the neoliberal Citizens (which failed to make the parliament’s 5% threshold for representation) added more than 440,000 votes to the right bloc’s score on May 4, reaching 57.43% of the formal vote (up from 50.57% in 2019).
At the same time, despite the jump in participation, the vote for the parties of the left actually fell, from 47.6% to 41.03% (55,000 votes). Support for More Madrid and UP rose (by 140,000 and 80,000 respectively) but these gains were wiped about by the collapse in support for the PSOE (down by 275,000).
While a triumphant Ayuso more than doubled the PP’s seat tally to 65 (up from 30) and Vox won 13 (up from 12), the PSOE recorded its worst ever result in a Community of Madrid election (24, down from 37).The PSOE was even nudged into third place by More Madrid (24 seats, up from 20).
Iglesias’s intervention ensured that UP avoided Citizens-style annihilation, but his party’s gains (from 7 seats to 10) was too little to prevent the seat tally of the three left parties together falling short of the PP’s.
Regional Madrid will now have an ultra-neoliberal, ultra-Spanish nationalist PP administration, supported from without by Vox: the prospect of Trumpism, bullfighting and war on “the enemies of Spain”, with the “socialist-communist” government of PSOE prime minister Pedro Sánchez as prime target.
A mobilised right and far right
With this result, the PP achieved all its war aims: it was freed from dependence on Citizens; kept Vox from growing at its expense; strengthened the hand of PSOE’s regional leaders opposed to governing with UP and with the support of Basque and Catalan “secessionists”; added credibility to its claim to be the natural home of the right; and projected its win as “kilometre zero” in the struggle to “recover Spain”.
It even had the satisfaction of seeing Iglesias announce his resignation from his elected positions and from politics altogether.
How was this disaster possible, given the Madrid PP’s atrocious history of corruption, deliberate neglect of public health and education and the 2019–21 PP-Citizens administration’s delinquent handling of the COVID-19 crisis, the worst of Spain’s 17 regional governments?
Superficially, the surge in the right’s vote could be ascribed to Iglesias’s announced plan to mobilise Madrid’s poorer “south”, especially UP’s proposal to tax the wealthiest to fund the restoration of Madrid’s run-down public health and education. That predictably set off a massive counter-mobilisation of the capital’s prosperous “north”.
This reaction was very real: the prospect of losing its main political stronghold put all parts of the right’s political machine — the media of the Madrid “cavern”, the venomous “independent” social networks, exiled Latin American (especially Venezuelan) big money, and the most retrograde elements of the Catholic Church — on a war footing.
The result was an election campaign with echoes of the class polarisation of the 1936–39 Civil War, with Iglesias (“Pony-Tail”) as central target of the right’s abuse and lies. Their filth reached its lowest point when Monasterio refused to condemn a death threat (complete with bullets) mailed to Iglesias, insinuating it was a UP operation done to win sympathy.
Why was there no rise in the overall left vote, but rather a shift within the left bloc from the PSOE to the more radical positions of UP and More Madrid? Why was there even a shift of some tens of thousands of votes from the PSOE to Ayuso?
Madrid’s regional administration has always had a triple function for the PP: as laboratory for its policies of privatisation and tax relief for the rich; as trough for the snouts of party heavies and their business mates — the last three Madrid premiers have been charged and two jailed for corruption — and as a trench from which to rain shellfire on the PSOE in the Spanish national government.
The pandemic provided Ayuso with a precious opportunity for pursuing this last purpose. When, in March 2020, Sánchez centralised all powers for tackling the pandemic, imposing a Spain-wide state of emergency and lockdown, Ayuso dragged her feet, even refusing the request of coalition partner Citizens for the army to be allowed to disinfect old peoples’ homes.
(When the army disinfection units finally entered the homes, they found horrific scenes of death and dying.)
When Sánchez gave some powers back to regional governments in May, Ayuso yielded to business pressure and eased the lockdown, causing Yolanda Fuentes, Madrid’s director-general of public health, to resign.
Ayuso’s minister responsible for nursing homes and her heads of primary health care and hospitals also departed in October, protesting premature easing of lockdowns and refusal to collaborate with the Sánchez government.
However, the Madrid premier was focused on the recipe developed by her chief adviser, Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, the former spokesperson for the 1996-2004 PP government of José María Aznar. This was to mobilise two constituencies against Sánchez: those not affected by the COVID-19 crisis but fed up with the attendant lockdowns and business closures and those who feared that a “socialist-communist” government would take away the PP’s years of tax breaks to the well-off.
With polarisation intensifying after Iglesias’s entry into the contest, the Ayuso campaign took the form of a Trumpesque mix of bragging (“Madrid, an example to the world”); barefaced lying (“If it weren’t for Sánchez I would already have had Madrid 100% vaccinated”); virulent abuse of Iglesias (“born of evil to do evil”) — all under the campaign slogan of “communism or freedom”.
Ayuso also added a hip tone into what would otherwise have been a standard PP rant against the left. Asked on TV what she meant by “freedom”, she mentioned Madrid’s nightlife (she had reopened bars and restaurants against the advice of epidemiologists) and not having always to bump into your ex because Madrid is just so big and so cool).
In one of her campaign ads, she appeared as a cool, leather-clad biker, having a beer with the guys after a ride.
With this approach Ayuso recaptured former PP voters who had gone over to Citizens in the 2019 regional election, Vox voters because of her virulent opposition to Sánchez and Iglesias, and PSOE voters opposed to Sánchez’s dealings with “communists” and “secessionists”.
Her campaign was also proof against the mid-campaign attempt of UP, followed by the PSOE and More Madrid, to turn Ayuso’s slogan of “freedom or communism” against her with the slogan “democracy or fascism”.
This shift followed Monasterio’s refusal to condemn the death threats against Iglesias, Vox’s publishing of a racist poster against unaccompanied underage refugees, and Ayuso’s own comment that doing a deal with Vox “wouldn’t be the end of the world”.
Having started this warfare with her “communism or freedom” slogan, Ayuso now posed as the practical politician uninterested in ideological sloganeering.
It worked, because the parties of the left had no common set of proposals with which to counter Ayuso’s “Madrid First” message. “Fascism or democracy” introduced late into the campaign just looked like vote-winning, and because the PSOE-UP administration had been too blindly complacent about the benefits of its anti-COVID measures to notice the discontent that Ayuso has exploited so successfully against it.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A full analysis of the Madrid May 4 election will soon appear on the web site of Links — International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]