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FOCUS: Why Madrid’s regional elections are so important to Spanish politics

The leadership of Spain’s wealthiest region is at stake but the vote could also have national ramifications. Here's why the experts believe that “more than a just region is at stake" with Madrid's upcoming elections.

FOCUS: Why Madrid's regional elections are so important to Spanish politics
Four of the six candidates of Madrid's regional elections: PSOE's Ángel Gabilondo, PP's Isabel Díaz Ayuso, Unidas Podemos's Pablo Iglesias and Vox's Rocío Monasterio. Photos: AFP

The snap election in the Madrid region, which will take place on May 4th, was called last month by regional leader Isabel Díaz Ayuso, a rising star of the right-wing Popular Party (PP), after breaking up her ruling coalition with the centrist Ciudadanos.

Ever since, the battle for Madrid has been dominating Spanish headlines for weeks before the campaign formally opened on April 18th.

In a sign of the ballot’s importance, Pablo Iglesias, leader of far-left Podemos, stepped down as a deputy prime minister in Sanchez’s coalition government to run as the party’s candidate.

“More than a just region is at stake,” said University of Zaragoza political scientist Cristina Monge.

“It’s also the party leaders taking part, the issues and the media coverage all of which evokes a national election campaign.”

Ever since the poll was announced, Sanchez has joined a weekly rally in Madrid alongside Socialist candidate Angel Gabilondo, a dour former education minister.

With the Socialists unlikely to oust the PP from power, Sánchez has focused on warning voters against the “threat” posed by Vox, the far-right faction which propped up Ayuso’s previous government and looking to make further inroads next week.

Polls show the PP, which has run the region for over 25 years, winning most seats but falling short of an absolute majority, meaning it will likely fall back on the support of Vox to govern.

A man attends a far-right party VOX campaign meeting at the bullring in San Sebastian de los Reyes, near Madrid,  ahead of regional elections in Madrid. Photo: OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP

‘Freedom’ 

Pablo Simon, a political analyst at Madrid’s Carlos III University, said Sánchez’s involvement could be “a double-edged sword” in that it “doesn’t necessarily mobilise the left but definitely mobilises voters on the right” who fiercely oppose his leftist government.

And Ayuso has made criticism of Sánchez’s handling of the pandemic a focus of her campaign, prompting Gabilondo to remind her last week that he was actually the party’s candidate.

Adopting “freedom” as her slogan, she has consistently fought the Sanchez government’s instructions, instead imposing one of Spain’s loosest curfews and defying recommendations to shut bars and restaurants.

“Ayuso benefits from her strong opposition to the Spanish government over the coronavirus issue, which favours the PP” in this vote, said Antonio Barroso of Teneo consultants.

But Sánchez will have to pay the price for getting personally involved in the campaign, analysts warn.

If the PP gains further ground in Madrid, it will take advantage of that on the national political scene where it serves as Spain’s main opposition — and will “hold him responsible”, Simon said.

But Barroso said a victory for Ayuso after running such a hardline campaign could open an “internal fracture” within the PP which has become more centrist in recent months under current leader Pablo Casado.

Such a fracture “could favour Sánchez”, making him appear like “a moderate” to centrist voters, Barroso said.

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POLITICS

Why Madrid has become a haven for Latin American dissidents

Well-known faces of Cuba's protest have in recent years gone into exile in Madrid, which is rivalling Miami as a haven for Latin American political opponents.

Why Madrid has become a haven for Latin American dissidents

“Miami has always been the destination of those who suffered from Latin American dictatorships,” Cuban dissident and playwright Yunior García, who went into self-imposed exile in Madrid in November, told AFP.

But now “many Latin Americans are choosing to come to Spain,” added García, one of the organisers of a failed mass protest last year in the Communist-ruled island.

The Spanish capital is especially attractive for an artist and dissident fleeing a dictatorship because of its “bohemian” atmosphere, García said.

Spain has long drawn migrants from its former colonies in Latin America who have often sought work in low-wage jobs as cleaners or waiters — but in recent years prominent exiles have joined the influx.

Award-winning Nicaraguan writer and former vice president Sergio Ramírez and Venezuelan opposition politician Leopoldo López, a former mayor of Chacao, an upmarket district of Caracas, are among those who have moved to Madrid.

“Madrid is the new Miami, the new place where so many hispanics come fleeing dictatorship,” said Toni Cantó, the head of a Madrid regional government body charged with promoting the region as the “European capital of Spanish”.

Many Latin Americans are able to establish themselves easily in Spain because they have double citizenship, in many cases because their ancestors came from the country.

Others like García arrive on a tourist visa and then request asylum.

Sometimes, especially in the case of prominent Venezuelan opposition leaders, the government has rolled out the welcome mat and granted them Spanish citizenship.

Cuban political dissident Carolina Barrero is pictured during an AFP interview in Madrid. Spain has long drawn migrants from its former colonies in Latin America who have often sought work in low-wage jobs, but in recent years prominent exilees have joined the influx. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

‘Good option’

Contacted by AFP, Spain’s central government declined to comment.

But shortly after García arrived in Spain, Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares told parliament that Latin Americans “share our values, they look naturally to Europe”.

For Cubans, getting a visa to enter the United States has been even more complicated in recent years since Washington closed its consulate in Havana in 2017. It only partially reopened in May.

“Spain is a very good option,” said Cuban journalist Abraham Jiménez, who fled to Spain in January when he finally was able to obtain a passport after years of being denied one.

Spain has received previous waves of Cuban dissidents in the past.

Under an agreement between Cuba, Spain and the Catholic Church, in 2010 and 2011, more than 110 Cuban political prisoners arrived in Madrid, accompanied by dozens of relatives.

There are now about 62,000 Cubans officially registered in Spain, with Madrid home to the largest community.

Cuba is “a pressure cooker, and ever time pressure builds” Havana eases it by forcing dissidents into exile, said Alejandro Gonzalez Raga, the head of the Madrid-based Cuban Observatory for Human Rights who fled to Spain in 2008.

Cuban journalist Mónica Baró is pictured at her home in Madrid. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

‘Lost everything’

Cuban independent journalist Mónica Baró said she left Cuba for Madrid in 2021 because she said she could no longer bear the “harassment” of Cuban state security forces.

Madrid shares the same language and has a “shared culture”, as well as a well-established network of Cubans, that has helped her overcome the “traumas” she brought with her, Baro added.

But not knowing if she will ever see her parents, who remained in Cuba, again saddens her.

“When you leave like I did, you have the feeling that you buried your parents,” said Baró, who faces arrest if she returns to Cuba.

García said he welcomed the absence in Madrid of the deep “resentment” and “rage” towards the Cuban regime found in Miami among its much larger community of Cuban exiles, which he said was “natural”.

These are people “who had to leave on a raft, who lost everything they had in Cuba, whose family suffered jail time and sometimes death,” he said.

Madrid on the other hand, provides “tranquility to think things through,” he added.

“I don’t want anger, resentment, to win me over,” García said.

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