The Defence of Madrid

By Alex Colás

Opinion polls suggest today’s regional elections in Madrid will return a coalition government in that Spanish autonomous community, formed by the conservative Popular Party and far-right Vox.  

This outcome would cement the conservative presidential incumbent Isabel Díaz Ayuso’s turn to a Trump-style reactionary libertarianism which pits ‘freedom’ against ‘communism’. It proclaims a uniquely madrileño way of life: tax-cuts for the rich and private sector boosterism, combined with a cynical negligence for the metropole’s deeply entrenched class inequalities. It also means a proactive antagonism toward any public policies that tackle this, and other gender, racial, sexual or national injustices in a region with a multicultural population of close to 7 million inhabitants.

The result of this seemingly parochial ballot may well contribute to the continuing ascendance of the far right in Europe and beyond. There are therefore good reasons for the international left to remain attentive to the developments in the Iberian peninsula since they signal the pitfalls and possibilities of progressive politics in these unpredictable times. 

Ayuso and her far-right allies embody what is known in local parlance as chulería – an attitude of entitled contempt for political opponents and social ‘others’. It is an expression of arrogance that has plenty of counterparts across the world, but it is especially popular among the loyal, well-off, and high turn-out conservative electorate concentrated in the central and northern districts of the Spanish capital. This is partly a function Madrid’s status as the perceived bastion of centralist ‘big nation’ patriotism against the ‘small nation’, peripheral nationalisms.  One can barely stroll through these neighbourhoods without being visually assaulted by Spanish flags draped over balconies in every building – something that used to happen only when the national football squad won a major competition.  

The Popular Party (PP) has governed both Madrid city and region for most of the present century, bar a brief leftist interlude between 2015 to 2019. That four-year sorority between Barcelona and Madrid under their respective progressive female mayors, Ada Colau and Manuela Carmena, was an aberration for nationalists across the land. It deprived petty-bourgeois Catalan independentists of control over their own national capital and show-cased how Madrid can reconcile a democratic municipalism that benefits its working population while also acting as seat of government for the ‘country of countries’ that is Spain. 

 The right thus sees its return to power in Madrid since 2019 as the start of a conservative restoration. Ayuso has gone further and called an early election as an act of revanchism, which plays out in a complex three-way chess game. One gambit involves reuniting the three branches of the conservative family – liberal, Christian Democratic, and fascist – under PP hegemony in Madrid, then reclaiming the national party from a dithering centre-right leadership. Ciudadanos, a party initially founded by forces of centralist liberalism in Catalonia, was after 2015 promoted as a Macron En Marche-like national option for the ‘radical centre’ against the rise of the left wing Podemos.

It propped up Ayuso’s and other PP regional governments from that centrist position and will now pass into oblivion like Change UK, its electorate absorbed by the PP. Vox, whose cadres and voters mostly stem from the PP, seeks to emulate France’s Front National or the more distant Alternative für Deutschland. But, despite a concerted effort at making electoral inroads into south Madrid’s ‘red belt’ with a nakedly xenophobic ‘Spain for Spaniards’ message, its strongholds remain concentrated among the higher-income neighbourhoods of the capital. In Madrid and elsewhere, Vox currently has influence only to act as the PP’s ideological and parliamentary praetorian guard. 

An absolute majority for the right in Madrid today will serve to prefigure the shape and content of a PP ‘government in waiting’ at the national level. This is the second dimension of the chess game. Although Madrid’s local and regional politics has delivered very few national leaders under democracy, the symbolic and institutional value of holding the capital is significant. During the pandemic, for instance, Ayuso has made much political mileage of Madrid’s laxer lockdown rules within the autonomous community, contrasting it to the more stringent approach of the national government. Physical proximity between the regional and national parliaments also plays out more elusively in the intrigue, gossip, and backroom deals that the capital’s press briefings, restaurants and company board rooms can facilitate. 

The political implications of all this have of course not been lost on the left. That much more is at stake than the future composition of Madrid’s regional Assembly became immediately apparent when Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias parachuted himself from a senior cabinet seat in the national left-wing coalition government into this regional contest. The third aspect of the chess game involves the future complexion of the Spanish left and, by extension, the Socialist-led Government’s relationship to the powerful nationalist and regionalist forces in the rest of the country.  

References to the ‘іNo Pasarán!’ of the Spanish civil war virtually wrote themselves as the Madrid election was called. Four bullets in a brown envelope addressed to Iglesias last week, with accompanying anonymous death threats directed at him and his immediate family, make the allusions to that dark period of the country’s history all the more real.

Vox has run a textbook polarisation campaign, claiming to be victims of mainstream media and political demonisation, while unremittingly targeting foreign immigrants and denouncing representative institutions in a classically fascist anti-political register. Its candidate for Madrid, Rocío Monasterio, daughter of a Spanish sugar baron based in Cuba and expropriated by Castro in the early 1970s, refused to condemn the death threats, claiming they were staged by the left. Ayuso has stood aloof, enabling such provocations, and only agreeing to a single televised debate in the knowledge that all she needs to do is wait for the campaign to end, and let the PP’s reliably regular electorate turn up on polling day. 

Madrid’s left, on the other hand, can cause an upset only if it mobilises the south of the capital and its surrounding working-class dormitory towns, as it did in the 2015 municipal elections. In the face of the far-right challenge, the three left parties – Socialists, eco-feminist Más Madrid, and the communist-supported Unidas Podemos – are now presenting a common electoral front.

It may, however, be too late. The personal animosities and party-political mistrust that pervades Pedro Sánchez’s national left-wing coalition between Socialists and Unidas Podemos are also recognisable at regional level. The split within Podemos in the capital during Carmena’s tenure as mayor was less about programme and political culture, than about tribal affiliation to one or other of the party’s founding members – charismatic alpha-male Pablo Iglesias or the more cerebral and pragmatic Iñigo Errejón.

One painful paradox for the left is that it has in Iglesias one of the country’s most formidable political strategist and communicators who is, nonetheless, especially unpopular among his home Madrid electorate. There is a great deal of truth in the claim that Iglesias resigned as Government Vice-President to save Podemos  – the party he has led since its foundation in 2014 – from losing its representation in the regional Assembly.

But it is equally undeniable that Iglesias combines an ideological commitment and personal self-belief that made this electoral leap into the dark a genuine act of militant self-sacrifice. That Iglesias is prone to indulging in the limelight of such ‘moments of decision’, with all the plebiscitary overtones and tinges of personality cult it can bring, is one reason why many on the Spanish left cannot abide him.  

The Socialist candidate Ángel Gabilondo – an avuncular but insipid university professor – is standing on a safe and unimaginative centre-left ticket that acknowledged possible alliances with Unidas Podemos only after Vox’s fascist threat became apparent. That leaves Más Madrid’s soft-left candidate Mónica García – a down-to-earth medical doctor who seems to be capturing some of the socialist vote that may otherwise have stayed at home – as the only head of list who may make some headway for progressive causes in these elections.  

There is still a glimmer of hope that a spectacular turn-out among Madrid’s social majority living in the capital’s southern peripheries may prevent the democratic catastrophe of a PP-Vox regional government.  However, perennial divisions on the left, many of them a consequence of personal enmity and unyielding dogmatism rather than sharp ideological or policy differences, together with the more secular decline in left-wing political organisation among those very working classes that have most to lose from a hard right administration in Madrid, are likely to add up to such a result.

Madrid is just one crucible in an international political contest where the far right and its conservative allies are making ever more ground. It is incumbent upon the left to pay attention and reflect on what we’re doing wrong for the right to be on the ascendant. 

Alex Colás is a member of Brent Central Labour Party.

Image: View from Calle de Alcalá,  in Madrid (Spain). Source: Flickr. Author: Fermín Rodríguez Fajardo from Spain, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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