By Florine Lips
Another round of elections in Spain, this time in the region of Madrid – but what could the outcome mean for the national government? And what does it say about the polarisation of left and right in Spain?
This March, Spanish politics went into turmoil as the unity between two main centre-right parties collapsed. Relations between the People’s Party (Partido Popular; PP) and Citizens (Ciudadanos; Cs), two parties who form coalition governments in several of Spain’s autonomous communities, quickly soured as the ripple effect of a vote of no confidence in Murcia spread north to the regions of Castilla y León and Madrid. In Murcia, on 10th March, Cs announced a vote of no confidence in the region’s PP President, for reasons involving a controversy surrounding unequal vaccine distribution. Within hours, the regional government in Castilla y León followed suit, and in Madrid, President Isabel Díaz Ayuso (PP) announced a snap election to break her coalition with Cs and try to win a majority big enough to be able to govern without them.
Power struggle between left and right
Since then, 4M has become – in the eyes of many – a key battleground in the fight for the political heart of the country. The political sphere in Spain has polarised in recent years, following decades of partisanship between the PP and Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). The current government, under Pedro Sánchez (PSOE), is formed of a coalition between PSOE and Unidas Podemos, itself a coalition of left-wing parties. Recent years have seen the splintering of the left and the rise of Vox, the far-right party whose aims include defending what they see as the country’s traditional values and combatting the “stifling” spread of political correctness.
Vox was voted into the Congress of Deputies for the first time in 2019, and has been gaining ground ever since, defeating the long-held assumption that Spain was immune to the far-right as a consequence of the Franco regime (1939-1975). Madrid, the country’s wealthiest region, home to its capital and some of its most prominent politicians, is a high-profile site for this tension to play out once again.
What has the campaign been like?
Almost from its inception, the campaign for 4M has been tense. The Vice President of Madrid, Ignacio Aguado (Cs), described the snap election as “irresponsible” and a “personal and electoral whim” on the part of Díaz Ayuso. The decision to let Madrileniansgo to the polls yet again (the last election was in 2019, and the 2023 election will still go ahead), in the middle of the pandemic, has been viewed with criticism. Margarita Robles (PP), Minister of Defence, said of the elections that “citizens ask for stability, not new elections”, describing them as a response to “political needs” rather than those of the people.
As it progressed, the campaign got soon got ugly; it was reported recently that eight death threats had been sent to candidates of various parties, some of which had included CETME bullets. When Rocío Monasterio, candidate for Vox, cast doubt on the sincerity of the death threats sent to Pablo Iglesias (Podemos), and subsequently refused to condemn them during a debate, tensions reached an all-time high as Iglesias walked out. Left-wing candidates Ángel Gabilondo (PSOE) and Mónica García (Más Madrid) also left the debate, in an act of solidarity against Vox. All three have since refused to resume discussions with the party.
A fight between “democracy and fascism”
For both the left and the right, 4M has become almost an essential win. Pablo Iglesias, candidate for the left-wing party Podemos, signified its importance early on when he resigned from his position as deputy Prime Minister in Sánchez’s government to be able to stand in the election. Already, candidates of the three left-leaning parties (PSOE, Podemos, Más Madrid) have shown themselves to be willing to work together to prevent their right-wing counterparts from clinching a victory.
“Pablo, we have 12 days to win the election”, PSOE candidate Ángel Gabilondo told Pablo Iglesias of Podemos during the first debate, despite initially seeming hesitant to align himself with the former deputy Prime Minister or any other “extremisms”. For the right, namely the PP, the election presents a crucial chance to strengthen their hold on Madrid and consolidate their position ahead of the 2023 general election. The PP’s strategy has been to focus on Ayuso and the popularity of her decision to prioritise the hospitality industry during the pandemic, as is demonstrated by a recent campaign video that shows her running through an open city. Ayuso is a highly-charged name in Spanish media and politics, due to her highly-documented clashes with Sánchez and controversial Covid-19 measures; whether this will work in the favour of the PP, or against them, is less certain.
A chance to reject Vox?
Stakes were raised once again on 25th April, when Prime Minister Sánchez called on citizens to prevent Vox from gaining seats, calling them a “threat to [Spanish] democracy”. Referring to the party’s refusal to condemn the death threats against Pablo Iglesias, and the latter’s subsequent debate walk-out, Sánchez said the party had “crossed a red line” and should be “stopped” at the polls.
Sánchez’s decision to comment on the 4M campaign is significant in itself; his repudiation of Vox, on top of this, makes clear what the government’s attitude to the party would be if they were to form part of the regional government. Whether or not this could happen remains to be seen; it would only become a reality if the PP didn’t win a clear majority and needed the participation of Vox to govern. So far, most of the parties running for election have said they will not govern alongside Vox, except the PP. When asked if she would consider an alliance with the PP to prevent Vox from gaining seats, Mónica García of Más Madrid responded that Ayuso’s openness towards working with the far-right was something her party couldn’t condone – “to isolate Vox, you can’t support their favourite candidate. It will have to be [Ayuso] who says no.”
New governance in Madrid could mean a completely different approach to Covid-19 relief in Spain’s wealthiest autonomous community, where relaxed measures have seen the region through the second wave of the virus and beyond. With 6.8 million inhabitants, and the economic significance held by the country’s capital, Madrid’s political makeup is significant not just in relation to Sánchez and the national government, but also symbolically.
Ayuso recently described her region as “Spain within Spain” – “what is Madrid if not Spain?”– and 4M will give her the chance to recentre herself as a key politician representing the opposition to Sánchez. For other candidates, 4M is a chance to assert their viability as prominent Spanish politicians, boosting their own profiles as well as that of their parties, ahead of the 2023 general election. Ideological victory in Madrid could be key towards shifting the power balance on a national level for years to come.