The battle for Madrid

The result of the early Madrid election on 4 May is likely to be determined by jaded Ciudadanos voters, over 83% of whom told a recent survey that they'd be supporting another party this time around. The same poll revealed that 28% are considering shifting their allegiance to the Popular Party (PP), meaning that the Conservatives might crush their leftist opponents; but in order to attract these wavering, centrist voters, the PP's Madrid candidate and former regional premier, Isabel Ayuso, will have to get her rhetoric just right.

According to her election slogan, Ayuso sees the stark choice facing Madrileños as being between "Communism and liberty". She's right to point out that these two ideologies are incompatible, of course, but what kind of freedom is she promising for residents of the Spanish capital?

Ayuso has repeatedly criticised Pedro Sánchez's response to Covid, arguing that Spain's regions weren't given sufficient self-control, and that Madrid shouldn't be subject to blanket lockdowns because of its economic importance. But in order to win over Ciudadanos voters looking for a new home, she has to perform a delicate balancing act: if she goes too far in her criticism of central government or with economic libertarianism, she might send some running to the PSOE (although only 5.9% of former Ciudadanos voters said they'd consider going Socialist on 4 May). Having said that, a more explicitly anti-central government, anti-lockdown approach might attract the 6.2% of ex-Ciudadanos voters thinking of switching to Vox.

The "communism" with which the Spanish capital is threatened, says Ayuso, is represented by Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias. But by leaving his position as deputy prime minister to run as a Madrid candidate this week, Iglesias might actually have increased his enemy's chances of success.

Ciudadanos voters, especially the younger ones, don't like the PP - indeed, the party's early victories were won with a promise to clean up the corrupt old-timers, represented by the PSOE and the Conservatives. But if there's one party they dislike even more, it's Podemos, whose big-state, collectivist ideology is fundamentally at odds with any brand of libertarianism. Ironically, the further Ayuso's opposition tacks to the left, the harder it will be for them to attract centrist voters intent on abandoning Ciudadanos.

As a footnote, one wonders why Iglesias was so quick to forfeit his role in the Spanish government. For years, Podemos worked to achieve the transition from rebellious outsiders to national governors, finally succeeding in late 2019. Now, just over a year later, the party's founder is forsaking this once-coveted power in the (probably vain) hope of stopping a centre-right avalanche in Madrid. Two possibilities arise: either he didn't like co-governing, or he wasn't given enough to do by a distrustful Sánchez. Either way, Spain's unprecedented coalition experiment now enters a second phase.