Divisive election looms in Madrid as Spanish politics polarise

Divisive election looms in Madrid as Spanish politics polarise

Snap regional poll in May could deal decisive blow to country’s main centrist party

This was supposed to be the time when Spanish politics calmed down.

Instead the country faces one of its most divisive elections in recent years — a battle royale in Madrid — confirming the rise of polarising politics and the sharp decline in support for Spain’s main centrist party.

After a crucial contest in Catalonia last month, the Spanish electoral schedule was empty until the end of 2022 — a hiatus that could conceivably have given the country time to manage the fallout from the coronavirus crisis, during which Spain has suffered enormously in both human and economic terms.

But now the country is facing snap elections on May 4 in the Madrid region, which could finish off more than one political party and elbow moderates aside.

In one corner is Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the conservative head of the region who called the vote. In the other is Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the far left Podemos party and a man as reviled by the right as Díaz Ayuso is by the left and who this week resigned as deputy prime minister to face off against her. 

“The Madrid election is an all-or nothing gamble by conservatives, who can’t afford to lose the region, and may now need to rely on the far right for support,” said Máriam Martínez-Bascuñán, a political scientist at the autonomous university of Madrid. “It shows how the country has gone from a two-party system, to, briefly, a multi-party system, to a system of two almost monolithic blocs of left and right.” 

By calling the Madrid vote and outmanoeuvring an attempt to eject it from power in the southern region of Murcia, Spain’s centre-right People’s party has avoided a coup de grâce that would almost certainly have put paid to the career of its leader Pablo Casado and perhaps to the party’s status as the country’s main opposition force. 

The PP has ruled in both Madrid and Murcia for 26 years and could not have afforded to lose either region.

At the same time any prospect that a conservative-liberal alliance could replace the ruling Socialists appears to have expired with the travails of the liberal, right-of-centre Ciudadanos, the party which had formed coalitions with the PP in Madrid and Murcia but now appears headed to electoral oblivion.

Ciudadanos had jumped ship in Murcia, allying itself with the Socialists to put forward a vote of no confidence against the PP over accusations of corruption and a scandal involving coronavirus vaccinations for hundreds of well-connected people, including a bishop and the region’s top health official.

But within 48 hours, the PP convinced half of Ciudadanos’ Murcia representatives to stay in situ and reject the vote of no confidence — to accusations from the liberal party of buying votes and “mafia-style behaviour”.

Díaz Ayuso moved even faster to shore up her position, sacking Ciudadanos officials and calling Madrid’s May election barely 40 minutes before opposition groups put forward motions of no confidence in her rule.

Polls suggest that Ciudadanos, which was riding high during the last Madrid vote in 2019, is in danger of failing to meet the 5 per cent threshold for representation in the regional assembly, as its support is squeezed by left-right polarisation. The party lost 30 out of 36 deputies in the Catalan regional elections last month, while in the last national election, in November 2019, its tally of MPs dropped from 57 to 10.

Given the decline of Ciudadanos, if the PP is to form a national government in coming years, it may have little option other than to team up with the hard-right Vox — despite recent efforts by Casado to distance his party from what he has denounced as Vox’s intolerant approach.

Díaz Ayuso has already chosen a left versus right slogan for the May 4 vote in Madrid: “Communism or liberty” (before Iglesias’s entry into the race it was “Socialism or liberty”). Her lieutenants have praised Vox while criticising Ciudadanos.

“When people call you a fascist you know you are doing well, that you are on the right side of history,” the Madrid leader said at the weekend.

The PP says its efforts to secure an overall majority in Spain’s capital have been bolstered by Iglesias’s entry into the race, arguing that the leftist politician will scare moderate former Ciudadanos voters into its arms.

Iglesias’s move also appears to have been triggered by weaknesses of his own. Polls indicate that Podemos too was at risk of failing to clear the 5 per cent threshold, behind a rival leftist party Más Madrid, which split away from it in 2018-2019. On Tuesday, Más Madrid turned down Iglesias’s offer to run a joint far-left list.

If Ciudadanos and Podemos fail to win representation in the regional assembly, the way will be clearer for the PP to hold on to Madrid — and indeed to win an absolute majority. At present, the polls suggest that Díaz Ayuso will considerably increase her party’s support, primarily by winning over Ciudadanos support, consolidating her status as one of the most prominent opponents to Spain’s Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez.

Nevertheless, Iglesias’s exit from the national government, where he lacked a large departmental brief, could bring Sánchez some solace after escalating clashes between the Socialists, the larger party in the minority governing coalition, and Podemos. Nor have the Socialists given up all hope of causing an upset in Madrid, where they came first in the previous elections but failed to put together a government.

Martínez-Bascuñán also argued that the right faces far tougher obstacles if it is to return to power on the national stage. 

“The PP is taking advantage of this moment to do something it has wanted to do for some time, which is to eat up Ciudadanos, absorbing both its voters and its politicians,” she said. 

“But they may well need Vox’s support in Madrid and would definitely need it to form a Spanish government. And with all the regional parties in Spain dead-set against Vox . . . it will be very hard to find companions for that voyage.”

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