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The unexpected rise of Spain’s Trumpista

Isabel Díaz Ayuso could cause a political earthquake if she takes on the leader of her centre-right party

Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the president of the Community of Madrid, alongside Partido Popular leader Alberto Nuñez Feijóo. Photo: Carlos Lujan/Europa Press/Getty

Madrid’s regional president Isabel Díaz Ayuso describes herself as a fighter. Others have variously called her a Trumpista, a straight-talking champion of ordinary people, and a lockdown sceptic whose policies during the Covid pandemic may have cost lives.

For Alberto Nuñez Feijóo, the leader of the centre-right Partido Popular (PP) to which Ayuso belongs, the best description might be that she is a problem: his feisty colleague could present the biggest challenge to his attempt to oust prime minister Pablo Sánchez of the PSOE socialist party in elections in November or December 2023. If Ayuso decides to take on Feijóo or challenge his policies, she could fracture the centre-right vote, or even boost the fortunes of the far-right Vox party.

Sánchez, who has been carving out a more prominent role for Spain on the European and global stage, has governed in a coalition with the left-wing Unidas Podemos and other left-wing regionalist parties since 2019. But, like Feijóo, he too will be worried about internal divisions ahead of the vote.

Yolanda Díaz, the popular labour minister and an influential member of Podemos, said in July that she was setting up a new political movement called Sumar and embarking on a nationwide tour to gather policy ideas before deciding on her next move. It is not yet clear if or how Sumar, which means “to add”, will influence the election, but Díaz could, potentially, divide the left-wing vote, presenting a threat to Sánchez.

As things stand, polls show the PP with around 33% of the vote, compared to around 26% for PSOE, 15% for Vox and around 10% for Podemos.

“Things are currently not looking good for the Socialists,” wrote Antonio Barroso, managing director of consultancy firm Teneo, in late November. “Whether Sánchez can make a comeback in the next 12 months will likely be contingent on two factors: a) the future of the far left and b) the PP’s internal dynamics.”

Regional elections in May will set the tone. Barroso says that if the PP makes gains in key regions like Valencia, Castilla-La Mancha or Extremadura, they could be well placed to defeat PSOE in the general poll. For now, it does look like one of the two main parties – PP or PSOE – will dominate even if they do have to eventually rely on smaller parties like Vox or Podemos to govern.

Vox burst on to the political scene in 2018 when it entered the regional government in Andalucía, Spain’s most populous region, after running on an ultra-nationalist, anti-immigrant platform. It then won 52 seats in the national congress in the 2019 general election, becoming Spain’s third-largest party. After regional elections in 2022, it formed a coalition government with the PP in Castilla y León.

Notably, Ayuso campaigned for PP in that north-western region, and encouraged her party’s local representatives to come to a power-sharing deal with Vox. It’s the first time the far right has been in power in a regional government since the end of the Franco regime.

But since then, Vox’s progress seems to have stalled; after a poor performance in Andalucía this year, the party’s lead candidate, Macarena Olona, stepped down and has since said she plans to form a rival party.

Vox has taken heart from the rise of a vocal ally – far-right leader Giorgia Meloni – in Italy, hoping the electoral triumph of her Brothers of Italy party can be replicated at home. Vox leader Santiago Abascal has praised Meloni for “showing the way to a Europe that is proud, free and of sovereign nations, capable of cooperating for the security and prosperity of all”.

Piotr Zagórski, a political science researcher at the Autonomous University of Madrid, said Vox hoped Meloni’s win would expand their own possibilities in the eyes of Spain’s voters. “They can sell themselves as a force that is not strange or radical but similar to a force that is in government in Italy. It is a kind of normalisation of radical stances.”

One problem for Vox, though, is that its anti-immigration rhetoric does not play so well with the majority of Spanish voters, who tend to be more tolerant on this issue. And its other defining characteristic – its opposition to regional nationalism – is no longer the hot-button issue it was when Catalan separatism was at its peak around 2017.

The most Vox could realistically hope for in the next election is to win enough seats to enter government in coalition with PP. However, it could see support surge again if the economic outlook – already weakened by the energy crisis, spiralling prices and sluggish growth – worsens. Analysts note that it would be best placed to harness any resulting social unrest or anger.

As for PP’s Feijóo, who became leader in April, he will be hoping to benefit from any fall-off in Vox’s support. The former president of the regional government of Galicia, he is portrayed by supporters as an experienced moderate who will restore some stability to his scandal-hit party. Critics wonder, however, if his low-key style can resonate in an increasingly polarized political landscape.

Feijóo will have been cheered by PP’s huge success in Andalucía in June, when the party more than doubled its seats to secure an absolute majority in the regional government. As well as marking a low point for Vox, and triggering the departure of Olona, that result dealt a blow to PSOE, traditionally strong in the region.

Zagórski says that Sánchez will seek to portray PSOE as the party of experience and influence, the party that convinced the EU to change their policy on gas and negotiated the Iberian exception to allow Spain and Portugal to cap electricity prices. But he may face an uphill battle winning over some of the more traditional PSOE voters.

“Sánchez is not that well thought of among the voters of PSOE. Many are more moderate and cannot get over the coalition with Podemos. They would like a more centre-left PSOE,” Zagórski said.

Whatever the breakdown of the next congress, it seems clear that the two main parties – PSOE and PP – will continue to dominate Spanish politics, Barroso said.

“The two alternative (and unlikely) scenarios in which radical parties would be more influential would be one in which all far-left movements would be able to coalesce around a single popular leader, and another in which support for the PP would collapse, leading far-right Vox to become the hegemonic force on the right.”

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