The sign hangs in the window of the Barca del Patio bar in the La Latina district of Madrid, advertising one of the dishes available inside: “Papas a lo Ayuso” (or “Ayuso-style potatoes”).

It’s just one of many ways that people in the Spanish capital have expressed support for their regional president, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, as she seeks re-election with an aggressive libertarianism that has made her business-friendly handling of Covid-19 a constant talking point and seen her become the most effective adversary of the leftist central government.

“Ayuso has looked out for Madrid’s hostelry industry,” the bar’s owner, Paco Garrido, told local media. “Almost all the bar and restaurant owners in Europe envy us.”

The 42 year old and her conservative Popular Party (PP) are on course to score an overwhelming victory in Tuesday’s Madrid election, with polls showing her on course to double her current number of seats.

Ayuso told The Irish Times this poll lead was vindication of the single word that has adorned her campaign posters.

“The slogan is ‘Freedom’, because that is what I defend for the people of the Madrid region: liberal policies which make us the freest and most prosperous region and where people have the most opportunities,” she said.

For Ayuso that means, among other things, lower taxes, less regulation of property development and more bullfights. Most controversially, it extends to her handling of the pandemic.

In recent months, regions have been given greater margin to introduce and withdraw restrictions, while maintaining a national curfew. Madrid has been more forthright than other regions in ensuring a return to normal life as far as is possible, including keeping restaurants and bars open.

“There’s no health study showing that contagion is specifically linked to bars – taking that into account, we have chosen to push ahead with the most advanced policies in Spain, ” Ayuso said.

But this approach has also drawn controversy.

“The self-interested negationism of the Madrid regional government is tremendously worrying,” said the virologist José Antonio López Guerrero, earlier this year. The journalist Karmele Marchante took a more personal line, calling Ayuso “a crazy nutjob” as Covid cases in the capital started to rise steeply in January.

Infection rate

Such critics point to the fact that Madrid has consistently been among the regions with the highest infection rate per 100,000 inhabitants in recent months – it is currently in second place, behind the Basque Country. It is also the region with the highest rate of ICU occupation by Covid patients, at 44 per cent. 

Ayuso cites the Madrid region’s high-density population as a reason for such statistics.

Isabel Díaz Ayuso: studied journalism and had stints in Ecuador, the UK and Ireland – where she improved her English with work experience at Spin radio in Dublin. Photograph: Isabel Infantes/Europa Press via Getty
Isabel Díaz Ayuso: studied journalism and had stints in Ecuador, the UK and Ireland – where she improved her English with work experience at Spin radio in Dublin. Photograph: Isabel Infantes/Europa Press via Getty

But there are also structural weaknesses in the healthcare system in Madrid, which has been governed by the PP for 26 years. Despite having the largest gross domestic product per capita in Spain, it spends less per capita on public health than any other region except for Andalucía.

Ayuso’s hands-off approach to the pandemic, along with her confrontational, arguably populist, style has helped make her an icon for those who oppose the leftist central government of Pedro Sánchez. Her repeated resistance to restrictions recommended by the Spanish health ministry has become a major theme of national politics.

In addition, she has amplified right-wing claims that the governing coalition of Sánchez’s social democrats and Unidas Podemos to their left is a dangerous alliance of Venezuelan-style radicalism.

Fernando Ónega, a columnist at La Vanguardia newspaper, describes Ayuso’s sudden rise as the fruit of what he calls “Madrid nationalism”.

“She has taken a leaf out of the nationalists’ book: a pinch of grievance against the central power, a touch of regional victimhood, awareness of what people want, a boldness which some would say is suicidal and an almost obscene haranguing of her adversary: Pedro Sánchez,” he noted.

“She has managed to ensure that voting for Ayuso does not mean voting for the PP, but rather voting against Sánchez.”

All of this is remarkable for a woman who only three years ago was virtually unknown in her home region.

Dublin work experience

Ayuso studied journalism and then had stints in Ecuador, the UK and Ireland – where she improved her English by doing work experience at Spin radio in Dublin. A tattoo of a rose from a Depeche Mode album cover on her left wrist is a souvenir of her more carefree days.

When she entered the Madrid wing of the Popular Party, Ayuso was not earmarked for greatness, but she did forge some crucial friendships. They included two consecutive presidents of the region, Esperanza Aguirre and Cristina Cifuentes, as well as future PP leader Pablo Casado.

Before holding any position of note, Ayuso’s communication skills were applied to managing the joke Twitter account of Pecas, Aguirre’s dog.

When Casado became party leader in 2018, Ayuso was his surprise choice to run in the next year’s election. Squeezed by a surging Ciudadanos, she led the PP to its worst result ever in the region and yet the two parties managed to keep the left out of government by forming a coalition that was supported by the far-right Vox.

It is only in the last year, as her feud with Sánchez has raged, that Ayuso has become a phenomenon. Some see in her hogging of the national limelight echoes of José María Aznar, who started as a local PP politician from León before becoming prime minister. (The chief adviser to both has been the renowned strategist Miguel Ángel Rodríguez.)

“Ayuso will be one of the most important European political figures from 2025 onwards,” says a source close to the regional president, who accepts that her rise has been somewhat fortuitous. “That strength she has is a throwback to the young Thatcher.”

She has made campaign gaffs, however, such as when she called those who queue up for food handouts “subsidised spongers”.

But she will undoubtedly benefit on Tuesday from the recent collapse of Ciudadanos. However, if Ayuso fails to clinch an absolute majority, as seems likely, she would almost certainly need the help of the far-right, either in a coalition or a less formal capacity.

“People have compared me to [Donald] Trump, they’ve called me all sorts of things, all kinds of insults and attacks,” she says. “But I govern for everyone.”

In the deeply divided politics of Madrid – and Spain – few on the left would agree with that assertion. But nobody would claim that Ayuso can be ignored.

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