Madrid’s divisive leader Ayuso quits and calls early regional election

Madrid's divisive leader Ayuso quits and calls early regional election
Madrid's regional president Isabel Diaz Ayuso (C) poses with the mayor of Madrid Jose Luis Martinez-Almeida (R) and the leader of the People's Party (PP) Pablo Casado. Photo: Oscar del Pozo/Gabriel Bouys/AFP
The rightwing leader of Madrid's regional government, Isabel Diaz Ayuso, resigned Wednesday and called a snap election on May 4th in Spain's wealthiest region.

In a surprise move, Diaz Ayuso said she had decided to end the coalition between her Popular Party (PP) and the smaller centre-right Ciudadanos that has governed the region since May 2019.

A rising star of the PP, Diaz Ayuso said the snap polls were needed to prevent Ciudadanos and the Socialists, who serve in opposition in the Madrid government, from tabling a no-confidence motion.

Her announcement came just hours after Ciudadanos broke its coalition agreement with the PP in the southeastern Murcia region, chosing instead to back a no-confidence motion filed by the Socialists, who dominate Spain’s central government.

“I was forced to take this decision for the good of Madrid and Spain and against my repeated desire to complete my term in office,” she said in a televised address.

“Madrid needs a stable government, clear ideas, ambitious solutions, stability… and this is not possible in the current circumstances.”

Diaz Ayuso has made headlines for her vociferous opposition to Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s government, especially her refusal to impose strict virus restrictions to protect the local economy.

Aside from Madrid and Murcia, the PP and Ciudadanos have coalition agreements in two more of Spain’s 17 regions and in several municipalities, raising questions as to whether these alliances will survive.

Ignacio Aguado, who heads Ciudadanos in the Madrid region, called Diaz Ayuso’s move “irresponsible” at a time when the region’s hospitals are full of coronavirus patients.

Who is Diaz Ayuso? 

An outspoken hardliner and scathing critic of Spain’s leftwing government, Isabel Diaz Ayuso is a rising right-wing star owing in large part to the coronavirus pandemic.

At 42, she has often made headlines for acting as the right’s attack dog, with vociferous tirades against Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

In resigning Wednesday as Madrid’s leader and triggering an early regional election, she played an opening gambit to shore up political capital she has earned through resisting pressure to impose tighter virus restrictions on the local economy.

A member of the opposition Popular Party (PP), she took office in summer 2019 with the epidemic taking hold just over six months into her term as head of a coalition government with the centre-right Ciudadanos.

Her sudden decision to end the coalition caught political allies and rivals by surprise — and was typical of her confrontational style.

Responsible for Spain’s wealthiest region with a population of 6.6 million and where the pandemic has hit hardest, Diaz Ayuso — who has little political experience — was thrown into the deep end last year.

As the virus spread like wildfire through Madrid, she came under fire for struggling to contain the epidemic and refusing to impose tight restrictions despite soaring case numbers.

Unlike many other Spanish regions, she kept bars and restaurants open to protect the local economy, while lobbing insults at the Sanchez government.

“We are suffering under the most authoritarian government in the history of (Spain’s) democracy,” she told El Mundo newspaper, denouncing Sanchez’s administration as “the indisputable champion of liars”.

A divisive strategy

Telegenic with a wavy chestnut bob, she has become the poster-child of a hardline faction of the PP, savaging plans to relocate dictator Francisco Franco’s remains from a vast opulent mausoleum as a leftwing plot to undermine national unity.

“What next? Are you going to start burning down churches like in 1936?” she asked after barely six weeks in office, in reference to Spain’s 1936-1939 civil war.

Although divisive, she has won valuable exposure, said Pablo Simon, political science professor at Madrid’s Carlos III University.

“In opposing the government, she’s setting her own pace and many people already see her as the true leader of the opposition.”

It’s been an interesting trajectory for a woman who once ran the Twitter account of Pecas, the city’s “first dog”, who belonged to then Madrid leader Esperanza Aguirre.

“Uncontrollable. Liberal. Seductive,” reads the profile of the Jack Russell terrier whose canine contemplations were conveyed via Twitter by Diaz Ayuso, who holds a master degree in political communications.

Born in Madrid in October 1978, she studied journalism at the city’s Complutense University.

After several years dabbling in sports journalism and stays in Ireland and Ecuador, she joined the PP’s youth wing under Pablo Casado, now the party leader.

She became a regional deputy in 2011 and rose through the ranks until Casado chose her as the surprise head of the party list for the May 2019 regional election.

“Her strategy is divisive and the political style she has embraced is not something everyone agrees with,” Simon told AFP.


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