With the regional elections set for May 28th, John Boyce fills us in on Madrid´s regional assembly, the current president, and the likely outcome of the vote.
How to solve a problem like Ayuso? That´s the question on the lips of the left as they take on Trump lite Madrid president, Isabel Diaz Ayuso, for the third time in less than four years.
Though often ridiculed for her tenuous grasp of policy detail and her “Ayusimos”, (random pronouncements of dubious veracity on everything from traffic jams to climate change), she has defied political gravity since she first emerged as un unlikely candidate for the Presidency in 2019.
This time round Ayuso has her sights set on the overall majority that narrowly eluded her in 2021, while the left hope to pull off an upset and oust the Popular party after almost thirty years of continuous rule in the capital.
Under the Spanish electoral system, regional presidents are not elected directly, but gain high office by commanding a majority of seats in the regional parliament.
Due to the size of its population, Madrid elects total of 136 members to its assembly, more any other region, with 69 seats required for an overall majority.
The binary centre left/centre right system of politics that emerged from the transition to democracy in the late 1970s has been upended in recent years by the emergence of more radical parties at either end of the spectrum, with five parties now represented in the assembly, three on the left and two on the right.
Back in 2019 Ayuso led her corruption mired party to its worst ever result in the capital, but ended up as president anyway, propped up by the far right Vox party.
Her controversial handling of nursing home transfers during early days of COVID would have been enough to bury most political careers, yet within a year she had parleyed the pandemic into electoral gold with a snap election in 2021, her policy light “beers and freedom” campaign resonating strongly with a restrictions weary public.
As memories of the pandemic fade, along with the “I´m with Ayuso” stickers in sun-kissed restaurant windows, affection for the president lingers. “Im not much for politics, but she has my vote” was the succinct response of a local in-keep when I broached the subject over a steaming hot bowl of cocido, Madrid´s signature dish of vegetables and chorizo. “My bar would have gone under anywhere else in Spain”, he adds.
Ayuso also won the hearts of many younger voters, not normally drawn her party´s socially conservative brand of politics, but for whom socialising is everything.
On the beers and freedom front at least, they were also “with Ayuso”.
Her resounding victory in 2021 marked her out as a future leader of the PP, and to cement that status re-election as president of the community of Madrid this month is essential. It is a task to which the former journalist has been devoting her considerable media skills.
Those unfamiliar with Madrid politics could be forgiven for thinking Ayuso a stalwart of the light entertainment industry, rather than one of Spain´s most powerful elected officials, such has been her ubiquity on popular TV programming over the last six months.
Her surprise appearances on Got Talent and the final of Spanish Masterchef, as endearing to her fans, as they were excruciating to her detractors, (not to mention bewildering for the actual participants), are of a piece with a long honed strategy to extract maximum exposure with minimum scrutiny.
Famously reluctant to engage in debates, she has adroitly used her celebrity status to carefully stage manage public appearances.
Her toughest opponent on the other side of the aisle is the formidable Monica Garcia, leader of Mass Madrid.
The largest opposition party in a fragmented assembly, Mass Madrid is dwarfed by the PP, which has more seats than all three leftist parties put together, just four short of an overall majority. It was a result achieved partly by squeezing Vox´s support base, with whose voters Ayuso is very popular.
It is likely that Ayuso will achieve a similar result this time round, and maintain the PP´s grip on power in the capital.
However, if any issue has the potential to knock her off her perch, it is the health service. In recent months the centre of Madrid has played host to massive demonstrations in defense of the collapsing public healthcare system, which opponents accuse Ayuso of deliberately underfunding, in order to prime it for further privatisation.
As Guillen de Barrio, ER nurse and public health activist, baldly puts it, “making ER an insufferable place to be is clearly in the interest of some!”. And when it comes to underfunding, the stats are indeed damning.
Madrid, the richest autonomous community in Spain, spends less on primary care, and on healthcare per person, than any other region.
The consequences of this chronic underinvestment are playing out in horrific stories of emergency department chaos, day long waits for attention, and fully operational health centres shuttered though chronic staff shortages.
The regional government´s refusal to open the purse strings has led to escalating strikes across the sector. As Ayuso intensifies attacks on the same medical staff she clapped for during the pandemic, there is nervousness in her own ranks that, in taking on the medical profession so soon after COVID, the president may have picked one fight too many.
However, Jose Castaño, an activist with the main opposition party, Mass Madrid, is not optimistic that it will do her much political damage. “This region is full of high earners (with private health insurance) whose main concern is lower taxes”.
Something which Ayuso has delivered repeatedly, and as recently as last January .
With poll after poll placing Ayuso just a few seats shy of a overall majority, the only hope for the left, is that as healthcare disfunction drags on until election day, voters start to put a face to the problem and fast.