A very important Spanish election
By Alberto Mingardi
Today the Madrid region in Spain is going to the ballot to elect a new regional government. The incumbent president is Isabel Díaz Ayuso, who represents the Partido Popular. The PP is the Spanish “traditional” right of center party, whose roots are in the tradition of so-called Christian democracy and that elected prime ministers José Maria Aznar and Mariano Rajoy. The party has been tainted with charges of corruption which involved a good chunk of the old guard and, subsequently, it had to face competition both from the center and the right: on the one hand, it was challenged by Vox, an anti-immigration party which has a broadly free market agenda in economic policy, and on the other by Ciudadanos, which was born as a anti-secession party in Catalunya but quickly became a national force.
Though it is a younger democracy than Italy (fascism ended in 1945, the Franco regime thirty years later), the Spanish party system has proven more resilient than the Italian one. After the “clean hands” investigations in the early 1990s, a good chunk of the party system was swept away and the parties which succeeded proved to be an easy target for anti-establishment insurgencies. Beppe Grillo, the comedian turned political leader, began as an enemy of Mr Berlusconi and of what he regarded as an insufficiently hard-nosed left. His party went on to get 30% of the vote and to have a lasting impact on Italian politics. Something similar happened with Podemos and the socialist left in Spain. The PP was challenged but resisted. A new secretary took over, the young Pablo Casado, and he endeavoured to reshape the identity of his party. In Madrid, some circumstances, including the fact that unlike in other European countries, in Spain the capital is also the business capital, conspired to emphasize the free market element. Then COVID came.
Ayuso was at first accused of mismanaging the pandemic; even now her opponents are trying to prove that her government’s management of nursing homes was worse than she claims. Even if they were right and she was wrong, she would be in good company: almost no government understood the specific dangers of nursing homes in the early stages of the pandemic. Some of the criticism appeared, with the benefit of hindsight, ridiculous: Ayuso was criticized for delivering FFP2 and FFP3 protective masks to the citizens of the Community of Madrid for free. Her opponents maintained that those masks were far more needed in hospitals (which were supplied with this equipment, too).
Later on, Ayuso went for a different solution than the one favoured by most European governments, including the Spanish left-leaning one.
In the “second wave” of Covid19 after the summer 2020, Madrid kept restaurants and shops open, and even museums and theatres. While the opera theatre in Milan was closed in April 2021, in Madrid they were staging Wagner’s Siegfried, a five hour-long monumental opera. Madrid’s COVID numbers were not particularly worse than others: if they were, they would have been savagely attacked and shred to pieces by the Spanish left. Ayuso is no darling of the international press: she is a “lockdown sceptic”. Well, she is not the only one but perhaps she is the only one that really had skin in the game. It is one thing to write and petition governments to consider the overall costs of lockdowns. It is quite another to choose to consider all such costs, once in government, and to contrive a viable way to contain the virus without locking people down.
I think that the key factor in the Ayuso administration is that they decided to fight the virus with two weapons: rules and “localism”. Instead of closing and banning activities, they defined rules to keep them open. Instead of going for a lockdown in the whole region, or even in the city of Madrid, they went neighbourhood by neighbourhood, deploying massively quick tests for COVID and imposing restrictions only on areas where the contagion was spreading at an alarming rate.
The result is that Madrid and her citizens enjoyed more personal freedom and had a “normal” life more than anybody else in Europe. In a sense, this election is about that: are the people in Madrid people fine with having preserved their liberty, or would have happily traded it for a bit more sense of security?
Center-right parties in Europe are a basket case from a classical liberal standpoint. Ayuso and the PP are hardly perfect, but they have been sceptics of using Covid19 to curtail individual rights and they have been among the less enthusiastic for the new wave of public spending coming as a result of the pandemic, and with the EU’s blessing. If Ayuso wins today’s elections (she is leading in the polls, but it all depends on her prospective allies’ (Ciudadanos and Vox) performance, as she’ll need to form a coalition), somebody else in Europe may begin to consider this an interesting policy mix to offer to voters.