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Thursday May 6th, 2021 12:46PM

Madrid's champion of soft virus restrictions wins election

By The Associated Press
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MADRID (AP) — Madrid’s conservative leader, a champion of relaxed measures against the coronavirus and a scourge of the left-wing central government’s handling of the pandemic, scored a solid win in a regional election Tuesday.

Isabel Díaz Ayuso, who had campaigned under the slogan of “Freedom,” was backed by 44% of voters, up from 22% in the last election two years ago, with 99% of the ballot counted. Three rival left-wing parties together had 41%.

The biggest blow was to Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez's Socialists and the national leader's coalition's junior partner, the anti-austerity United We Can whose leader, Pablo Iglesias, announced an end to a political career that in many ways shaped Spain's politics for much of the past decade.

Díaz Ayuso said that results backed her policies of keeping bars, restaurants and other businesses opened even in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic to keep the economy up and running.

Speaking to hundreds of supporters waving Spanish flags outside of her Popular Party’s headquarters in central Madrid, the incumbent also said the result was a rebuke of Sánchez’s left-wing coalition.

“The way of governing, with opulence and hypocrisy from Moncloa, has its days counted,” the winner said referring by name to the palace that hosts the prime minister’s office.

The preliminary results gave the Popular Party 65 seats in the 136-seat regional assembly, more than double from 2019 but short of the 69-seat majority needed to form a government.

Vox, the far-right party that mixes Spanish patriotism and populism and is shaping up as Díaz Ayuso’s new choice for legislative support, won one more regional lawmaker, rising from 12 seats to 13.

Referring to the upcoming term, Vox’s regional leader Rocío Monasterio said that “our votes will be decisive for absolutely everything during the next two years.”

In a sign that Díaz Ayuso’s popularity traveled beyond Spanish borders, the leader of Italy’s right-wing League Matteo Salvini praised the Madrid regional chief.

“Congratulations and good work to President Isabel Díaz Ayuso, winner of the Madrid elections, a woman of common sense and courage, who has combined protection of health, right to work and freedom,” the tweet read.

Voters shunned the liberal center-right Citizens party that was Díaz Ayuso’s junior coalition partner before she called the early election seeking to broaden her power base. The centrist party, which is trying to keep afloat also at the national level, lost all of its 26 regional lawmakers because it failed to reach the 5% vote threshold.

The preliminary results were a blow for Sánchez's regional Socialists, losing 13 assembly seats, from 37 to 24. Candidate Ángel Gabilondo conceded having failed in pushing for a “calm debate.”

“We will continue working to avoid confrontation and tension. Madrid does not need it, it needs to be united because we have a very great challenge in the midst of the pandemic,” Gabilondo said.

United We Can's charismatic founder, Pablo Iglesias, had quit his position in Sánchez's Cabinet to run in Madrid. Although his candidacy helped expand the number of the group's lawmakers from 7 to 10, Iglesias announced he was resigning from all positions in the far-left party born as a response to the 2008 financial crisis that dogged Spain's economy for years.

Naming Yolanda Díaz, the Labour Minister who replaced him as deputy prime minister, as the successor in charge of United We Can, Iglesias said he was “proud of having led a political project that has changed the history of our country.”

“Nobody could have imagined what we have achieved in seven years,” the 42-year-old politician said.

More Madrid, a new upstart regional party led by a staunch defender of public health and education against the conservatives’ austerity and privatization record, grew from 20 to 24 seats.

Despite a persistent high infection rate that has recently plateaued, Madrid residents voted in droves, shooting the turnout to more than 69% of the 5 million eligible voters by 7 p.m., an hour before voting ended and up from 59% in the 2019 regional election.

Long queues of socially distanced voters formed outside polling stations in schools, sports centers and even a bullring. Authorities imposed strict voting requirements to prevent the spread of infections: double masks, separate entrance and exit paths for voters and plastic screens for election workers.

Older adults were encouraged to cast their ballots during a 2-hour period mid-morning and the hour before polls close was reserved for people quarantining because of COVID-19.

The Madrid region is Spain’s main economic engine and the country’s busiest transportation hub. It’s home to 14% of Spain’s 47 million people but has recorded nearly one-fifth of the country’s 3.5 million confirmed virus cases and of the national pandemic death toll of over 78,000.

The only incident reported was a brief semi-naked protest by the activist group Femen who held signs reading “It’s not patriotism, it’s fascism” outside where Vox’s main candidate voted.

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