WCHICKEN OWNERS of cafes and bars in Madrid wanted to honor the regional boss, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, after the hardest months of the pandemic ended, several offered dishes a lo Ayuso, asshole dos huevos, or with two eggs; a reference to the other meaning of the expression: “with a pair of balls”.
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Ms. Ayuso is riding a wave. In 2019, she was elected president of the Madrid region (including the city and surrounding municipalities, with 6.6 million inhabitants), representing the center-right People’s Party (PP). A year later, she faced a brutal first wave of coronavirus and heavy criticism for her Madrid record. Nonetheless, over the next year, she fought to keep businesses in the region open, deserving the gratitude of madrilenians like those bar owners. Today, her face adorns signs in stores (“We Are All Ayuso”), and even socks representing her as a Catholic saint.
More importantly, in a snap election in May (after falling out with her coalition partner), she won a second victory. The Socialists, who run the national government, come in third with a limp. Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, a radical left-wing party that rules with the Socialists at the national level, took a risk and left the cabinet to fight in the Madrid elections. His fifth place led him to quit politics.
Ms. Ayuso’s victory was accompanied by a simple slogan to the point of rudeness: “Freedom or Communism”. But freedom is a note that it resounds over and over again. “Madrid is freedom, otherwise it is not Madrid”, she said The Economist, coming back to the theme, no matter what you ask. Madrid thrives when people are left alone to run businesses, do their property as they see fit, and live as they see fit. When asked what the government can do besides stepping aside, his response is to give people more freedom of choice, for example in working hours.
This is reflected in its economic policy. Its chief economic adviser, Javier Fernández-Lasquetty, awards 53 billion euros ($ 62 billion) in tax cuts since 2004 for helping bring Madrid’s once slow growth rate above the national average . Madrid now has the largest regional economy in Spain, ahead of Catalonia. In early September, it removed the region’s last independent tax, making it the only region under Spain’s usual fiscal arrangements not to have such levies. She praises the economic rivalry between the Spanish regions: “When has competition ever been a bad thing?
This led to the carping. Ximo Puig, the socialist president of Valencia, complained recently that Madrid’s position as the capital provided jobs that his government had won little, allowing it to engage in “fiscal dumping”. Ms. Ayuso retorts that “it is the speech of politicians who fold their arms and do nothing”. Neutral observers note that Madrid has been the capital since the 16th century; its economic boom is much more recent.
The party seems not to know how to deal with its rising star. When she said she would show up for the PP presidency in Madrid, the leadership acted with surprise, saying the regional party should be led by someone who doesn’t also run a government. Ms. Ayuso joked, “I am a woman and I can do two things at the same time.” (In all other regions, the PP governs, the posts are held by the same person.) The press opposed her to Pablo Casado, the PPnational leader of, in a trivial feud that lasted for weeks.
Mr. Casado’s attacks on Pedro Sánchez, the Prime Minister, are extremely predictable. His party leads in many polls (see graph), but Mr Casado’s own scores are poor. In contrast, Ms. Ayuso is spontaneous and genuine, which means she makes headlines and even blunders. When asked if she supports Mr Sánchez’s proposal to ban prostitution, her criticism of the government included the phrase “They only want to destroy jobs”. But his moment in the spotlight has led to speculation about a national future. For a while, she didn’t do much to discourage him. She opened an office in Madrid tasked with harnessing Spanish’s global position to boost business, something more appropriate for the national government. His repeated wanderings in issues beyond the remit of a regional leader – and a trip to Washington and New York to meet with politicians and think tanks at the height of the PP‘s internally-fueled spat about his ambitions.
At the recent party conference in Valencia, however, she thanked Mr Casado for helping his career and said: “My place is Madrid”. This will not end the speculation. Unlike some party barons, she comes from the middle class and has risen far. Critics who say she is not intellectual nevertheless concede her skill. Others say she was lucky, rather than brilliant, to share madrilenian desire not to be ordered to stay at home during the pandemic. Barely 43 years old, childless, church-less, single (so “you can tell the market is bare,” she joked) and even wearing a tattoo on her forearm, she’s no big deal. obvious leader of the traditional conservative Spanish party. But she proudly declares herself liberal and not conservative, saying that the PP has room for both. Madrid is his place for the moment. But the Spanish are watching to see if his style has room to grow. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “La dame de la liberté”