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Spain’s right-wing Popular Party achieves solid win in Madrid’s divisive regional elections

Spain's right-wing Popular Party led by rising star Isabel Díaz Ayuso won a resounding victory in Madrid's regional elections Tuesday, handing a stinging defeat to Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's Socialists.

Spain's right-wing Popular Party achieves solid win in Madrid's divisive regional elections
Madrid regional president and People's Party (PP) candidate Isabel Diaz Ayuso (L) celebrates her victory in the Madrid regional elections with PP leader Pablo Casado. Photos: Pierre Philippe Marcou, Javier Soriano/AFP

With more than 50 percent of the votes counted, Ayuso more than doubled the PP’s showing in the 2019 ballot, winning 64 of the regional parliament’s 136 seats, while the Socialists shed 12 seats to secure just 25.

A later recount found that Ayuso and her party had won more seats than all three left-wing parties put together (PSOE, Más Madrid and Unidas Podemos), meaning they will only need far-right party Vox’s abstention to govern.

“Today is a turning point for national politics,” said PP chief Pablo Casado, hailing Ayuso as “the leader that Madrid deserves”.

At the helm of Spain’s richest region for less than two years, Ayuso, 42, has been one of the leading critics of Sanchez’s leftist government and its handling of the pandemic.

An outspoken hardliner, she has won widespread support for resisting government pressure to impose tighter restrictions on the local economy.

Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias also said Tuesday he was resigning from politics after a dire showing by his hard-left party in Madrid’s regional election which was resoundingly won by the right.

“We have failed, we have been very far from putting together a sufficient majority,” he said in a speech shortly after the result showed a solid victory for the right-wing Popular Party, handing a stinging defeat to Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s Socialists and Podemos.

Who is Isabel Díaz Ayuso?

Madrid leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso is a rising right-wing star whose Tuesday regional poll triumph cements her hold on Spain’s richest region.

Not even two years have passed since she took over as Madrid’s regional leader, but in that time she has become one of the best-known faces of Spain’s right-wing Popular Party, largely thanks to the pandemic.

Responsible for Spain’s wealthiest region with a population of 6.6 million and where the pandemic has hit hardest, Ayuso had served barely six months in office when the virus first struck.

Thrown into a historical crisis with little political experience, she has soared to prominence as the battering ram of the right for her confrontational style and blistering attacks on Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

A year into the pandemic, Ayuso abruptly called a snap poll aimed at capitalising on the support she has earned through resisting pressure to impose tighter virus restrictions on the local economy.

Although Madrid has suffered Spain’s highest numbers of infections and deaths, Ayuso has consistently defied calls to shut bars and restaurants, turning her into the heroine of the hospitality sector.

Presenting Madrid as the “capital of freedom”, she has kept restrictions to a minimum, shunning central government recommendations and even those embraced by other PP-led regions.

“We enjoy a level of freedom and rights that are not to be found anywhere else in Spain. This way of life in Madrid is unique,” she said on calling a snap election on March 10.

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POLITICS

Catalan separatists to march on national day despite divisions

Catalan separatists hold their annual march in Barcelona on Sunday, but won't be joined this year by their leader, whose support for dialogue with Madrid has divided the movement.

Catalan separatists to march on national day despite divisions

The annual “Diada” on September 11 marks the fall of Barcelona to Spain in 1714 and has traditionally drawn vast crowds.

Under the slogan, “We’re back to win: independence!” organisers hope to mark the comeback for a movement still reeling from the failed 2017 independence bid and then the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Our reliance on political parties is over, only the people and civil society can achieve independence,” said the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), an influential association which, over the past decade, transformed this once-minor anniversary into a massive annual event.

READ MORE: Why does Catalonia have its own ‘embassies’ abroad? 

But the ANC, the region’s biggest grassroots separatist movement, has been very critical of dialogue started between the Catalan government of Pere Aragones, a moderate separatist, and Madrid.

It said the “October 1 victory,” when separatists organised a 2017 independence referendum despite a ban by Madrid, and the pro-independence majority in the Catalan parliament “must not be wasted in dialogue with the Spanish state and on internal squabbles”.

This year, Aragones has decided not to attend the march.

Last year, his presence drew derisive whistles from some of the 108,000 people who turned out to demonstrate at what was one of the smallest turnouts in a decade, police figures showed.

“It wouldn’t make much sense if my presence there was used against the government I run,” he told regional public television on Wednesday, referring to his separatist coalition which groups the left-wing ERC and hardline JxC.

Aragones belongs to ERC, which favours a negotiated strategy to achieve independence via dialogue with Madrid, while JxC wants to maintain a confrontational approach.

Other ERC government members won’t attend Sunday’s march, while JxC representatives will.

A movement in crisis

Gone are the years when vast crowds would paralyse the streets of Barcelona, when the Diada drew more than a million participants in the run-up to the 2017 independence bid. 

Five years on from that frenetic autumn, when the Catalan government made a short-lived declaration of independence, triggering Spain’s worst political crisis in decades, the context is very different.

Those behind the bid were arrested, tried and sentenced to long jail terms by Spain’s top court, although they were later pardoned.

READ MORE: Spanish intelligence did spy on Catalan separatists with court approval: report

Others fled abroad to avoid prosecution, leaving the separatists sharply at odds over how to move forward.

ERC — a small player in Spain’s national parliament, but which has offered crucial support to Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s minority government — says it is fully committed to dialogue.

That hasn’t changed despite recent revelations that the Spanish intelligence service had spied on separatist politicians. But the hardliners are running out of patience, disappointed with politicians whom they see as reneging on their promises.

“We at the ANC don’t understand how the Catalan leader is happy to pose for photos with the leadership in Madrid but doesn’t want to do the same with hundreds of thousands of Catalans who want independence,” the group said.

Sunday’s march will be a delicate moment for a very weakened movement.

“The context has changed radically following the pandemic and now with the war in Ukraine,” said Ana Sofia Cardenal, a political scientist at Catalonia’s Open University, suggesting people have more immediate preoccupations.

“The mood among the people is different now, even among those who back Catalan independence,” she said. They want “the politicians to resolve the problems” that people are facing in daily life.

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