Opinion

Madrid’s Díaz Ayuso Is Not an Inspiration

Conservatives elsewhere would be unwise to mimic her strategy.

Pablo Casado Isabel Díaz Ayuso
Spanish People’s Party leaders Pablo Casado and Isabel Díaz Ayuso campaign in the town of Majadahonda, north of Madrid, May 1 (PP)

Ben Hall writes in the Financial Times that Isabel Díaz Ayuso’s election victory in Madrid could be a template for center-right parties elsewhere.

I doubt it. Factors unique to Spain contributed to Díaz Ayuso’s success. In other countries, conservatives will have to strike a different balance.

Unique factors

Díaz Ayuso’s People’s Party (PP) has governed Madrid since 1995, so victory wasn’t unexpected. She did avenge a dismal election result in 2019, when the PP fell to just thirty out of 132 seats in the regional assembly, the liberal-nationalist newcomer Citizens won 26 seats and the far-right Vox (Voice) twelve. Díaz Ayuso defeated the Citizens altogether, but not Vox, who went up to 24 seats.

Díaz Ayuso’s election campaign was centered on defending Madrilenian “freedoms” against a meddlesome Socialist government. She refused to close bars, concert halls and restaurants, even when Madrid saw the worst coronavirus infection rates in Spain; denounced critical media reports as fake news and her left-wing opponents as “communists”.

Pandemic exhaustion helped the PP in Madrid. Longer term, the threat to its hegemony on the Spanish right is due to Catalan nationalism. This is a totemic issue for conservatives. Even when the last PP prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, deployed national riot police to disrupt an illegal Catalan independence referendum in 2017, right-wing critics said he didn’t go far enough. The Citizens and the current PP leader, Pablo Casado, argue for criminalizing Catalan separatism. Vox would even repeal Catalonia’s autonomy and recentralize power in Madrid.

Rajoy’s center-left successor, Pedro Sánchez, is the nationalists’ perfect foe. He relies on the support of Catalan as well as Basque separatist parties in Congress and has promised to hold talks on devolution (which still haven’t happened), making him, in the words of the right, a “traitor” to Spain.

I won’t try to explain here why Spanish conservatives can’t accept separate Basque and Catalan identities even within Spain. Suffice to say that other European countries don’t have this kind of right-wing psychodrama. Even Britain’s Conservatives are lukewarm defenders of the union with Scotland at best.

Few non-Spanish conservatives, moreover, would copy Díaz Ayuso’s flirtations with COVID-19 skepticism. That makes her a poor example.

Balance

Taking a step back from the Spanish context, one could place Díaz Ayuso in a trend where conservatives have become more populist, in particular on law and order and immigration; more polarizing, by portraying their center-left opponents as radical socialists (although, to be fair to Díaz Ayuso, Spain really does have radical socialists in addition to social democrats); and less laissez-faire, by siding with workers against big businesses and reining in free trade.

Conservatives in the United Kingdom, under Boris Johnson, and Republicans in the United States, under Donald Trump, used this strategy to appeal to traditional left voters and won.

National conservatism isn’t new. Far-right parties have used it. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, and Austria’s conservative party leader, Sebastian Kurz, embraced it several years ago. The former repudiated the metro-centric liberal conservatism of David Cameron, disparaged “citizens of nowhere” and presented Brexit as an opportunity to redirect economic and social policy in favor of the left-behind. She didn’t succeed, but Johnson might.

Kurz took a hard line on immigration and formed a coalition with the radical right. He now governs with the Greens — the far right’s polar opposites — but has maintained strict immigration and integration policies as well as a mildly Euroskeptic and pro-Russian orientation abroad.

I doubted the May-Kurz strategy could be exported, given the unique circumstance of Brexit and the absence of liberal-centrist competition in the United Kingdom and Austria. (In Britain, because of the two-party system. In Austria, because it has few liberals.) If center-right voters have nowhere else to go, a conservative party can move more freely on the right side of the political spectrum.

Center-right parties in France, Germany, the Low Countries and Scandinavia don’t have that luxury. They face liberals to their left and reactionaries to their right. If they lean too far in either direction, they lose voters on the other end.

In Spain, it looked like the Citizens would fill the gap in the center, but they decided to compete with the right. Unsurprisingly, conservative Spaniards didn’t see the point in a third right-wing party, and the Citizens are likely to be wiped out in the next general election. Unless the People’s Party finds it way back to the center, liberal Spaniards will have to vote for the Socialists.

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