May Elections: Mass Madrid Or Mass PP?

With polls showing a tight contest, John Boyce previews next month’s election for Madrid´s Mayor.

2023 is shaping up to be a bumper political year across Spain. In addition to the general election scheduled for December, a whole host of autonomous communities, municipal councils and mayoralties are up for grabs, from the southern beaches of Andalusia to the lush northern grasslands of Galicia.

The jewel in the crown is the capital, where both the presidency of the Madrid region and the mayoralty of the city are up for grabs at the end of May.

Under the rules of the electoral system, Madrid’s mayor is not elected by popular vote but by securing the support of a majority of the 57 councilors elected to the municipal assembly. This makes the parties for which they run as important as the candidates themselves.

José Luis Martínez-Almeida

As with most other political bodies in Spain, the make up of the assembly has become more fragmented in recent years with new formations on both the left and right, doing away with the old two party system. The present incumbent is José Luis Martínez Almeida of the right wing Popular party (PP), currently the main opposition party at national level.

Despite leading his party to its worst performance in decades at the last election in 2019, Almeida managed to cobble together a coalition agreement with right wing rivals, Ciudadanos. Along with external support from the far right, he secured the 29 council seats required to become mayor, defeating the then incumbent, Manuela Carmena.

Her election four years previously had been something of an upset after decades of domination by the PP. Carmena, a former high court judge, came out of retirement to head a coalition of radical left groups, under the banner Ahora Madrid, coming from nowhere to win twenty seats.

With support from the centre left socialists, they secured a majority in the assembly with Carmena becoming the first radical left mayor in the city´s history. After Carmena´s defeat and departure from politics, Ahora Madrid morphed into a more formal political party, now called Mass Madrid, and is the main opposition. Its leader and candidate for mayor, Rita Maestre, a political scientist turned politician, represents the most serious threat to Almeida´s bid for a second term.

Maestra cut her teeth in the 15M anti-austerity movement in 2015, and was originally a member of Podemos, the junior coalition partner in the current national government. She served at the heart of the Carmena administration for four years, and has been extremely effective in holding Almeida to account.

 Election Issues

Though health falls within the purview of the president of the community of Madrid, rather than city council, such administrative niceties are likely to be lost on an electorate increasingly concerned by the parlous state of primary health care, and chronic overcrowding in emergency rooms across the city.

The environment will also be a hot button issue, as municipal authorities were recently reprimanded by the EU for failing to reach targets on minimum air quality. The opposition reacted with outright derision to Almeida´s attempt to place the blame on his predecessor, given his regime´s decision to effectively gut Carmena´s flagship environmental policy Madrid Central, a scheme designed to reduce contamination in the city centre by restricting the entry of traffic.

Almeida´s policy on Madrid Central also shines unwelcome light on his dependance upon the far right, whose vociferously opposed the initiative as being too financially onerous on business.

Almeida is also under attack for favouring certain areas of the city over others in terms of investment and services. The current administration has increased the gap between rich and poor neighbourhoods, according to the president of the Regional federation of neighbourhood associations of Madrid, Quique Villalobos, who claims that cleaning and security have been neglected in certain zones in the periphery. “Some have been left more than a year without a municipal cleaning contract, something which would never occur in the moneyed neighbourhoods”.

In recent weeks, Almeida has faced criticism for turning the budget surplus he inherited from his predecessor into a hefty deficit.

His defenders would, however, argue that after the trials of COVID and the energy crisis, Almeida´s is far from the only municipality to have run up debts.

Despite the importance of these issues it may be the vagaries of Spanish electoral law that ends up deciding the outcome. In this respect, the key to victory for either candidate could the performance of Almeida´s junior coalition partners, Ciudadanos. Since the last election in 2019, the party’s support has imploded, most recently in 2021 in the Madrid regional election, where the party fell below the minimum 5% support required for entry into the assembly, and so lost all their 26 seats.

In the upcoming mayoral election, much of the support the PP lost to Ciudadanos in recent years, as a result of rampant corruption in the party, looks likely to return as Ciudadanos continue their downward spiral. Falling just below the 5% minimum would mean wasted votes, potentially costing a crucial right wing seat or two, in an election likely to be decided by the tightest of margins. In Madrid, Ciudadanos is currently polling slightly ahead of its dismal national showing, at about 5 to 6%.

On the other side of the equation, the Podemos are another party hovering around the 5% mark. Their failure to enter the assembly would all but guarantee the return of Almeida as mayor.

Getting out the vote will also be key to the outcome, particularly for the left, who have struggled in past to bring lower propensity working class voters to the polls in sufficient numbers. For election watchers, the percentage turnout is a useful early indicator of how the night might go.

Higher turnouts tend to favour the left, with past trends suggesting that anything lower than 69/70% would spell trouble for Maestre and the Mass Madrid faithful.

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