The Center Cannot Hold in Spain, but Can the Left Take Advantage?

The Center Cannot Hold in Spain, but Can the Left Take Advantage?

The Center Cannot Hold in Spain, but Can the Left Take Advantage?

Madrid voters will cast their ballots on May 4, and the regional election could shape the future of Spanish politics.


One week was all it took for one of Spain’s five major national political parties to collapse. On March 10, Ciudadanos, a center-right party, thought it could shore up its flagging base with a sly move to grab power in a regional parliament. Together with the center-left Socialist Party, it presented a no-confidence vote in the coastal region of Murcia to try to oust the conservative—and deeply corrupt—Partido Popular (PP) from power. The move backfired. Within a week, the feud between the PP and Cuidadanos blew up their alliances across the country, torpedoing several regional governments, while numerous Ciudadanos deputies decamped to the PP. Seeking an opportunity to consolidate power, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the right-wing PP governor of Madrid known for refusing to impose a lockdown, called for snap elections in the region home to the Spanish capital.

Tomorrow, May 4, Madrid voters will cast their ballots in the wealthiest and one of the most unequal of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, where the PP has ruled without interruption since 1995. For the past quarter-century, politics in the Madrid region have been spectacularly corrupt. All four of Ayuso’s predecessors have been investigated or indicted on corruption charges. Meanwhile, the region has become a laboratory for neoliberal economic policies. The PP steadily lowered taxes for the wealthiest (Madrid is the only region that doesn’t tax wealth and inheritance), while cutting social services—like health care—and privatizing public goods including waste collection, elder care, higher education, and public housing.

Since August 2019, Díaz Ayuso has been governing the region with the support of Ciudadanos and the far-right party Vox, which first achieved electoral success in 2019. Her early call for elections (originally set for May 2023) is clearly an opportunistic assertion of power. Polarization over her handling of the pandemic—which the former general director of public health in Madrid called “epidemiologically absurd and socially harmful”—has allowed her to consolidate her influence on the right. Current polls put her on the verge of being able to rule without needing the support of her most immediate ideological rivals.

Nationally, the Partido Popular, led by the 40-year-old Pablo Casado, has had trouble charting a steady course, shifting rather abruptly between courting the extremism of the far-right Vox and tacking toward the center that Ciudadanos was designed to occupy. Díaz Ayuso’s government and campaign in Madrid, however, have decisively skewed to the right. Her approach has been straightforward: attempt to humiliate the parties on the left and stoke a politics of fear, mostly through conspiratorial thinking on cultural issues. Early on in the campaign, she claimed—falsely—that the left had “created second-class citizens, who depend on [government] handouts and line up for food kitchens.” During the sole debate of the campaign on April 21, she resorted to calling Unidas Podemos candidate Pablo Iglesias “small-minded,” “a pantomime,” and the “least loved” person in Madrid. How well she does in tomorrow’s Madrid elections may decide the future direction of the PP. Alongside the more centrist leader of Galicia, Alberto Núñez Feijoo, Díaz Ayuso, who is 42, is one of a select few likely to replace Casado at the helm of the party.

In early April, Pablo Iglesias, the general secretary of the leftist Unidas Podemos party, made a public return to Vallecas, the working-class, multiethnic, and left-leaning suburb of Madrid where he spent his teenage years. The general perception of Iglesias, even across the left, is of a politician who, despite his progressive rhetoric, has grown distant from his working-class roots. Bent on changing that image, Iglesias is shown in a campaign video listening to locals about their struggles during the pandemic. He wears a black sweatshirt with the word “Fariña” splashed across the chest, referencing the once-censored book turned play about the history of drug trafficking in Galicia. His mask includes the letters “VK,” in reference to the local spelling of the neighborhood as “Vallekas.” His message to locals is clear: For the past 25 years, the PP has economically mistreated them as well as those from other parts of Madrid’s traditional working-class, left-voting neighborhoods, the so-called red belt. The consensus among political commentators in Spain is that boosting turnout in these districts, where many voters have sat out recent out elections, is key if the left is to have any chance of forming a coalition that will oust Díaz Ayuso from power.

Iglesias’s decision to run in tomorrow’s elections initially came as a shock. Just days after the chaos in Murcia, Iglesias surprised many by announcing that he’d step down from his role in the national government to lead his party in Madrid. At the time, Iglesias was serving as deputy prime minister and minister of social affairs in the progressive coalition between the Socialists and Unidas Podemos, which has been governing Spain since January of last year. For many on the left, it was as though Lionel Messi had left FC Barcelona to join a second-division team. Since then, however, commentators across the political spectrum have come to see Iglesias’s decision as a risky yet canny attempt to save the regional branch of the party in Madrid, where polls suggested the party might not even make the 5 percent threshold for representation in the parliament. Observers have also noted the shrewdness of using the opportunity to pass the national party leadership torch to Yolanda Díaz, currently the minister of labor, who is more popular than Iglesias in the party and among left-leaning voters more generally. On May 1, Díaz became the first sitting labor minister to march alongside workers since Francisco Largo Caballero in 1931, during Spain’s Second Republic. The arrival of Iglesias, widely recognized as one of Spain’s most talented debaters, made an immediate difference, pushing Podemos’s poll numbers out of the danger zone. In fact, his bold moves in Madrid may yet buoy his party nationally. Founded seven years ago on an anti-austerity platform, Podemos has today become electorally vulnerable, its support eroded by a combination of breakaways and voter disenchantment—a price often paid by junior coalition partners.

Recent polls in Madrid point to an overwhelming victory for Díaz Ayuso, with the latest estimates giving the PP upwards of 58 of the 136 seats in the regional parliament. Meanwhile, Ciudadanos’s ill-fated power grab will likely leave the party with no representatives, coming in under the 5 percent threshold. Vox, the far-right party, has been polling at around 9 percent and is expected to gain around 13 expected representatives, while Unidas Podemos is at 7 percent and 9 seats. One of the breakaways that has undercut Podemos is Más Madrid, a progressive party founded by Podemos cofounder Íñigo Errejón after he had a falling-out with Iglesias. Más Madrid, which is polling at around 17 percent, good for 24 seats, owes its strong foothold in the region, in part, to former mayor Manuela Carmena, who was ushered into power on a municipalist platform in 2015. If Díaz Ayuso’s continuation in power seemed a foregone conclusion last month, the rise in popularity of Más Madrid over the past couple weeks opens the possibility of a left-wing upset. The probability that the right will fall short of a majority “is as rare or as common as missing a penalty kick,” Kiko Llaneras, Spain’s Nate Silver, recently wrote in El País—something that, as soccer fans know, happens about 25 percent of the time.

One candidate on the left who may be key for such an upset is Más Madrid’s Mónica García. A 47-year-old anesthesiologist who has regularly done rotations in a Madrid ICU during the pandemic, García has become perhaps Ayuso’s fiercest critic in the regional parliament. “From day one, [Ayuso] has lied about the amount of medical resources we had, about the trajectory of the pandemic, about the measures she was taking,” García said in a recent interview. “She continues lying about being the champion of the hospitality industry when she has provided zero support.” García’s electoral program includes more than 800 specific proposals to boost access to public health care and affordable housing, build a green economy, and fight poverty. Although the programmatic overlap with Unidas Podemos is significant, Iglesias’s party includes more tax hikes for the wealthy. The Socialists, by contrast, whose candidate, Ángel Gabilondo, is a 72-year-old professor of metaphysics who has tried to turn his notorious lack of charisma into a mark of authenticity, have been more moderate in their fiscal ambitions, calling for a “government without extremisms” and a rapid return to post-pandemic normalcy.

Days after Iglesias made his return to Vallecas, Vox leader Santiago Abascal did the same. On April 7, Abascal held a campaign rally for candidate Rocío Monasterio, a provocation in enemy territory. Videos showed Abascal stepping down from the podium and crossing the police cordon to face the protesters; moments later, the police charged at the local crowd, leading to an exchange of bottles and stones between protesters and Vox supporters that  left 35 people injured. The clash is one of several violent incidents over the past several weeks that have plagued the election campaign. On the morning of April 2, Podemos’s regional office in Murcia was attacked with a petrol bomb. According to regional Podemos representatives, this is the sixth time their headquarters has been targeted. On April 23, it came to light that Iglesias as well as Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska and Civil Guard chief María Gámez had each received an envelope containing death threats and bullets. The following day, when Vox suggested the envelopes were a hoax, the three left-of-center parties—Podemos, the Socialist Party, and Más Madrid—all decided to boycott the remaining debates. Díaz Ayuso, in contrast, rejected the cordon sanitaire around Vox and implied that she is comfortable with their support.

Rather than being coy about that comfort level, Díaz Ayuso has flaunted it. When daytime talk show host Ana Rosa asked her this spring whether she had ever been called a fascist, Díaz Ayuso replied, “When they call you fascist, you know you’re doing a good job…[and] you’re on the right side of history.” Yet when the left pounced, as if she had revealed her underlying ideology, Díaz Ayuso tellingly resorted to slogans such as “socialism or liberty”—which she changed to “communism or liberty” as soon as Iglesias announced his candidacy. One of the bitter political ironies of the pandemic, which has in many ways been handled poorly by the coalition government, is that it has allowed the right to claim the banner of freedom against a backdrop of Covid-19 restrictions. Rather than returning serve by focusing on economic issues, however, Podemos leaders responded with rallying cries from the Spanish Civil War, referring to the election as the “Battle for Madrid.”

Framing the electoral fight against Díaz Ayuso and her allies on the far-right in Civil War terms may appear sensible. The Trumpian provocations of Vox, whose political platform is nationalist, anti-feminist, and anti-LGBTQ, have demonized immigrants who arrived as unaccompanied minors, labeling them a security threat and a financial drain (even though there are only 269 of them in the entire region). Yet recently cultural and historical framings such as democracy’s fight against fascism have rarely worked electorally in favor of left-of-center parties. In fact, the opposite may be true: The culture wars have long been the right’s preferred terrain, and the specter of “red hordes” taking over the region may instead mobilize conservatives.

Six years ago, Podemos and Ciudadanos transformed Spain from a two-party system dominated by the Socialists and the PP into a multiparty system that more closely resembled other European social democracies. Today, however, Ciudadanos has dwindled almost to the point of electoral irrelevance and will likely lose all of its regional coalition governments over the next few years. Podemos is also trending downward. Its current role in the joint government appears to be more of a last-ditch effort to save face than an expression of its popular support.

Still, the departure of the charismatic but divisive Iglesias from the central government will likely improve the relationship between the two progressive coalition partners. Tensions between Unidas Podemos and the Socialists have been constant, especially around economic issues like labor reform and the housing market—two areas in which the Socialists are tempted to renege on electoral promises. With the all-important question of the European recovery funds on the table, it’s no secret that the economic establishment, which once had high hopes for Ciudadanos, would much prefer a German-style grand coalition between the PP and the Socialist party. But Díaz Ayuso is no Angela Merkel. If she wins the battle over the PP and seals her party’s far-right drift toward Trumpism, such a coalition would be a long way off.

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