In show of unity, the left zeroes in on the pandemic at televised Madrid election debate

Six candidates clashed ahead of the May 4 poll, evidencing the polarization of politics in a country dealing with ongoing health and economic crises

From left to right: Pablo Iglesias, Rocío Monasterio, Mónica García, Isabel Díaz-Ayuso, Ángel Gabilondo and Edmundo Bal during Wednesday's debate.
From left to right: Pablo Iglesias, Rocío Monasterio, Mónica García, Isabel Díaz-Ayuso, Ángel Gabilondo and Edmundo Bal during Wednesday's debate.Juanjo Martín

Spain’s health and economic crises figured prominently at a televised debate on Wednesday at which the six candidates to lead the powerful Madrid region clashed ahead of an early election scheduled for May 4.

In an uncommon display of unity, the leftist nominees sought to present a common front against the incumbent, Isabel Díaz-Ayuso of the conservative Popular Party (PP), who was leading the polls going into the debate. Her most high-profile rival is Pablo Iglesias, leader of the Unidas Podemos party and a deputy prime minister of Spain until he stepped down to run against Ayuso.

The left’s combined attack focused on Ayuso’s management of the coronavirus pandemic and on her social policies, while the regional premier hit back with accusations against Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, of the Socialist Party (PSOE), in a bid to bring a national dimension to the Madrid election. “They are destroying Spain and now they want to destroy Madrid,” she said in reference to the PSOE-Unidas Podemos coalition government, ending the two-hour debate with her well-known phrase about having to choose between “communism or freedom.”

PSOE candidate Ángel Gabilondo at the debate.
PSOE candidate Ángel Gabilondo at the debate.Juanjo Martín (EFE)

Moments earlier, the PSOE candidate – the veteran politician Ángel Gabilondo – had turned to Iglesias and said: “Pablo, we have 12 days to win this election.” The gesture by a nominee who had previously written off the Podemos candidate as “this Iglesias guy” illustrates how the race is being viewed as a battle between the left and the right, with very little space left for centrist proposals.

And that was the main problem for Ciudadanos candidate Edmundo Bal, who was ultimately unconvincing according to analysts who watched him on the stage. Ciudadanos, which has alternately sided with the PSOE and the PP at different times since it made the jump to national politics in 2015, has been the PP’s partner in Madrid’s coalition government, but both parties had a recent falling-out over a failed no-confidence vote in the southeastern region of Murcia.

“The Ciudadanos candidate was left out of the game as he attempted to square the circle: claiming the political center is mission impossible when you have bloc politics and you are seeking moderation under Ayuso’s umbrella,” said the political scientist Máriam Martínez-Bascuñán.

Vox nominee Rocío Monasterio minutes before the start of the debate.
Vox nominee Rocío Monasterio minutes before the start of the debate.EUROPA PRESS/J. Hellín. POOL (Europa Press)

At the other end of the spectrum, the candidate for the far-right party Vox, Rocío Monasterio, avoided criticizing the conservative premier and instead sought confrontation with Iglesias. The tension reached a high point when Monasterio pulled out one of the controversial campaign posters that her party has been distributing about the cost to the state of unaccompanied underage migrants, and which is under investigation by prosecutors for alleged hate crimes. Everyone except Ayuso immediately censured the Vox contender, whose party has made immigration a central message of its campaign.

Most of the analysts consulted by this newspaper agreed that Iglesias demonstrated his ample experience with televised debates. “You can tell that he is very comfortable with this medium, and this lets him act with ease and keep a balanced tone,” said the historian Pilar Mera. “He managed to get his message across in a calm way, with figures and solid arguments, but above all he managed to make Isabel Díaz-Ayuso nervous.”

Mera was alluding to the moment when Iglesias asked Díaz-Ayuso how many Madrid residents had died in the pandemic, quickly adding: “Stop smiling.” The regional leader’s expression changed, and she replied: “20,000... and how many in the government of Spain? I am smiling because you are embarrassing.”

The sixth candidate at the debate, the only one that will be held before the election, was Mónica García of Más Madrid, a small leftist party founded in 2019 with ties to Podemos co-founder Iñigo Errejón, who now leads Más País. A physician by trade, García’s performance has been praised by analysts despite her low chances at the election. It was García who provided the exact official pandemic death figure for Madrid: 23,623.

English version by Susana Urra.

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