Madrid’s Diaz Ayuso: rising star of the Spanish right
An outspoken hardliner and scathing critic of Spain’s leftist government, Madrid leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso is a rising right-wing star who looks set to win Tuesday’s regional poll and cement her hold on Spain’s richest region.
Not even two years have passed since she took over as Madrid’s regional leader, but in that time she has become one of the best-known faces of Spain’s right-wing Popular Party, largely thanks to the pandemic.
Responsible for Spain’s wealthiest region with a population of 6.6 million and where the pandemic has hit hardest, Ayuso had served barely six months in office when the virus first struck.
Thrown into a historical crisis with little political experience, she has soared to prominence as the battering ram of the right for her confrontational style and blistering attacks on Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.
A year into the pandemic, Ayuso abruptly called a snap poll aimed at capitalising on the support she has earned through resisting pressure to impose tighter virus restrictions on the local economy.
Although Madrid has suffered Spain’s highest numbers of infections and deaths, Ayuso has consistently defied calls to shut bars and restaurants, turning her into the heroine of the hospitality sector.
Presenting Madrid as the “capital of freedom”, she has kept restrictions to a minimum, shunning central government recommendations and even those embraced by other PP-led regions.
“We enjoy a level of freedom and rights that are not to be found anywhere else in Spain. This way of life in Madrid is unique,” she said on calling a snap election on March 10.
– A tribute in pizza –
And polls show the gamble is likely to pay off, with the PP set to nearly double its seats in Tuesday’s election, earning an easy victory for Ayuso, although she will fall short of an absolute majority.
And many are eternally grateful.
“Thanks to her, we have been able to survive,” said Marina Padila of the Pizzart restaurant chain, which has created a pistachio-and-mortadella studded pizza in her honour called the “Madonna Ayuso”.
But critics say her refusal to impose restrictions has fuelled rising virus cases which has ultimately cost lives in a region where almost 15,000 lives have been lost, accounting for one in five of Spain’s 78,000 dead.
Telegenic with a wavy chestnut bob, she has become the poster-child of a hardline faction of the PP, savaging plans to relocate dictator Francisco Franco’s remains from a vast opulent mausoleum as a leftwing plot to undermine national unity.
“What next? Are you going to start burning down churches like in 1936?” she asked at the start of her term, referring to Spain’s 1936-1939 civil war.
Although divisive, she has won valuable exposure, said Pablo Simon, political science professor at Madrid’s Carlos III University.
“In opposing the government, she’s setting her own pace and many people already see her as the true leader of the opposition.”
– Tweeting the dog –
It’s been an interesting trajectory for a woman who once ran the Twitter account of Pecas, the city’s “first dog”, who belonged to then Madrid leader Esperanza Aguirre.
“Uncontrollable. Liberal. Seductive,” reads the profile of the Jack Russell terrier whose canine contemplations were conveyed by Diaz Ayuso, who holds a master degree in political communications.
Born in Madrid in October 1978, she studied journalism at the city’s Complutense University.
After several years dabbling in sports journalism and stays in Ireland and Ecuador, she joined the PP’s youth wing under Pablo Casado, now the party leader.
She became a regional deputy in 2011 and rose through the ranks until Casado chose her as the surprise head of the party list for the May 2019 regional election.
“Her strategy is divisive and the political style she has embraced is not something everyone agrees with,” Simon told AFP.