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Madrid Regional Election—Another Brick in the Conservative Bloc

Madrilenians will head to the polls to elect a regional parliament two years after the Super Sunday when they elected Isabel Diaz Ayuso (PP-EPP) as the regional president. The tension between centre-right PP and liberal Cs (RE)—the junior partner in the coalition—led to a simultaneous call for a snap election and a vote of no confidence in March. As both cannot stand simultaneously, the courts ruled in favour of the former, automatically dissolving the regional parliament. The centre-right PP has held the office of regional president continuously since 1995, a particular case among European capital regions, and Ayuso aims at capitalizing on her popularity.

This election will be indicative of the direction of Spanish polítics in three key aspects. First, it will show whether a right-wing government with PP and the national-conservative VOX (ECR) is feasible without Cs in the equation. Second, it will test the leadership of Isabel Díaz Ayuso in the right bloc, winning back voters from both VOX and Cs, and her management of the COVID-19 pandemic. Third, the left will have to reconcile very divergent policy preferences to have any chance at beating Ayuso.

How big can Ayuso go?

PP plays at home turf in Madrid. The centre-right has held an uncontested leadership in both the regional government and the mayorship since 1995, with the only exception of the 2015-2019 local government of progressive Más Madrid’s (G/EFA) Manuela Carmena. Both have been flagship offices for the centre-right PP, which have served to voice vocal opposition to centre-left PSOE (S&D) whenever this party has governed at the national level. Madrid has also been a testing lab for a particular model of governance, fiscality and public services such as health care and education.

Polls show a commanding lead by Isabel-Díaz Ayuso, and a solid victory could consolidate her vis-a-vis PP regional leaders with more moderate discourses, such as Galicia’s Alberto Nuñez Feijoo. Ayuso’s leadership has been cemented on a liberal-conservative ideology, marked by fiscal liberalism and privatisations, in a party already more conservative and economically liberal than its EPP peers. Ayuso has also managed the pandemic putting in place less restrictions than most Spanish regions and has repeatedly criticised the central government for limiting mobility within Spain. Linked to the absence of restrictions, the amount of direct aid to businesses and households provided by the Madrid regional government has been relatively low.

Ayuso’s momentum has come at the cost of huge losses on the side of Cs. As an exemple, a poll by NC Report in September 2020 showed a 14% vote share for Cs and 28.4% for PP. Last week, this same pollster put Cs at just 2.8%, whereas PP support has skyrocketed at 41.6%.

This being said, Ayuso must choose strategically when it comes to picturing the future parliament, given that a 5% electoral threshold applies in Madrid. Cs is in freefall and Ayuso should make sure that VOX—which she regarded as a ‘priority partner’—gains significant representation, as no poll gives Ayuso an absolute majority. The key question will thus be whether the result by PP and VOX suffices.

A (dis)united left

Centre-left PSOE won a plurality in the 2019 regional election, but the PP-Cs-VOX alliance held a majority of seats. Its result will likely be worse this time around, and any hopes at winning the regional presidency depend on the ability to unite in a coalition government with green progressive Más Madrid (G/EFA) and potentially left-wing UP (LEFT).

Even if the latest Metroscopia poll showed PSOE’s Angel Gabilondo to be the most popular candidate, PSOE’s regional manifesto is significantly more moderate than the national one. Among other measures, Gabilondo has promised to not amend the fiscal system in the near future, a promise that could alienate his partners on the left.

As for Más Madrid, it is a particularly Madrilenian phenomenon: in the 2019 regional election it gained almost as many votes as in overall Spain in the general election (475,000 v. 582,000). Más Mádrid voters are typically younger than PSOE’s, less skewed to the left in the income distribution than UP’s and more educated than both PSOE and UP. It is also an openly green party, running together with the pro-environment Equo party, and aligns well with other European green peers.

Finally, former vice-president Pablo Iglesias leads UP in this election. Even if not a hugely popular figure among Madrilenians, UP seems to have picked up from previous polls and should be able to gain parliament representation.

The ‘Madrid’ factor

Two additional points might help analyse the upcoming election.

First, Madrid is one of the regions with a more prominent left-right divide in the income distribution. Income and turnout have traditionally shown a positive correlation, but the current context of record high polarisation might contribute to mobilising the voters of the left. The latest CIS poll pointed at conservative voters being more likely to vote but it did not yet capture the growing tension showcased in the campaign.

Second, Madrid is a unique case in Europe where the right has consistently held the local and regional office, except for the mentioned 2015-2019 Carmena mayorship. Berlin has a centre-left (S&D) mayor, as does Paris even if the regional government is controlled by the centre-right (after a 17-year dominance of the centre-left). Rome has a M5S (NI) mayor and an S&D regional president. Brussels-Capital, Vienna and Lisbon all have S&D mayors. Mayors in Prague, Budapest and Amsterdam belong to G/EFA parties, and Bucharest’s mayor is part of RE. Even in Spain, Barcelona, Valencia and Sevilla, all major cities by population, have left-wing or centre-left mayors.

The reasons for this ‘Madrid factor’ go from the narrow defeat in critical junctures (2003, 2015 elections), to the sheer number of high-ranking civil servants in Madrid, as well as the great number of people benefiting from the special fiscal status of the capital region. Be that as it may, the left will need a very strong showing to put an end to PP’s dominance.