The ambition of Isabel Díaz Ayuso (Madrid, 1978) goes beyond the Community of Madrid, the region centred on the Spanish capital, which she has presided over since 2019. She was the risky bet of Pablo Casado - whom she got to know in the youth wing of the People's Party (PP) - and, along the way, she became the undisputed leader of the regional government, put herself at the head of the party in Madrid, shoved Casado aside at the first opportunity and now has her sights set on the government palace, the Moncloa. For this reason, Casado's replacement Alberto Núñez Feijóo moves with great caution with respect to the Madrid politician, whom some voices assert will substitute the current PP head if the Galician messes up in the upcoming electoral dates. In the Madrid regional elections of May 28th, Ayuso is aiming for an absolute majority after ruling alone for two years.
Díaz Ayuso's popularity multiplied exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic. During those tough months, she opted for a health policy that avoided closures of businesses and activities. In fact, she forged her victory in the 2021 snap election on bars and restaurants, which he allowed to remain open at all times except for the most restrictive lockdowns of the first few weeks of the pandemic. "Freedom" to open businesses and to have a beer was the main slogan that she popularized. Thus, she used the policy of "staying open" that she championed to contrast with the restrictive lockdown measures that the Pedro Sánchez government was promoting from the Moncloa.
That momentum, which resulted in an unmitigated electoral triumph in the election of 2021, turned her into the de facto opposition to the central government executive. Since then, Isabel Díaz Ayuso has stood out by expressing her opinion on issues that go beyond the geographical limits of her community and leading political debates at state level, anticipating, first, Pablo Casado, and later, Alberto Núñez Feijóo. The latest example was the recent clash when she excluded Spanish minister Félix Bolaños from entering the official area on the Madrid festive day of May 2nd.
The strange electoral coexistence with Núñez Feijóo
Once Pablo Casado was removed from the party after the direct confrontation with the woman he helped promote, Alberto Núnez Feijóo assumed the leadership of the Spain's main party of the right, but took the reins always keeping an eye on Madrid. In the first year of a strange coexistence, the Galician treated her with a respect and distance, avoiding any clash despite the fact that she made more than one outburst that has distorted the party discourse. The internal balance has been maintained even though they represent two very different styles in substance and form. But as the elections have approached, Feijóo has ended up adopting Ayuso's narrative to stand up to far-right Vox, promoting the "battle of ideas".
Ayuso's approach, taking a conservative line but with populist and identitarian tics, allows Feijóo to maintain the image of a moderate and focused leader that he has promoted since he won the leadership of the party. The more forceful style of the Madrid "baroness" also serves as an electoral barrier against Vox, over whom the Galician still doesn't have a clear and defined position. This style is evident in the Assembly of Madrid, where she continues to let fly at times. "Go for Txapote's vote", was one notorious taunt to the Socialists during a question session. She was referring to the ETA terrorist who murdered Miguel Ángel Blanco in order to send a blunt reminder that one of the coalition's great allies is the Basque pro-independence party EH Bildu. It is worth noting here that the controversial reference to the Basque terrorist was first popularized by Vox. Thus, with these provocations and identitarian messages, Díaz Ayuso believes she has found the formula to stop the rise of the far-right party in her region.
In turn, there are those who pressure Feijóo to get tougher on Pedro Sánchez, and Casado's substitute is able to use Ayuso as an ideal battering ram to please the different souls that coexist within the PP. In fact, Feijóo has rewarded the Madrid leader by making her the star of meetings and joint events, unlike with the other party barons, who have a more discreet public exposure. In any case, the Galician and the Madrileña form a tandem that has been self-reinforcing in the run-up to the May 28th elections.
But aside from this ticket that they collectively compose, there is a very vibrant fear at PP headquarters of the threat represented by Isabel Díaz Ayuso's ambition for power. Despite the fact that she has always denied that she wants to oust Feijóo from his role or wants to lead the PP at Spanish level, her popularity and electoral solvency suggest that if the Galician gets a fail grade in the electoral exams, she will not hesitate to throw her hat into the ring as candidate to lead the Spanish right. On her journey so far she has already left a few cadavers.
The fratricidal clash with Pablo Casado
The most famous victim was Pablo Casado, whom she defenestrated after taking him on in a very public and deadly duel. Up till then, Ayuso's popularity had been interpreted as a threat, but the relationship blew up as soon as she learned, in the summer of 2021, that her party was investigating her over a controversial contract for the sale of health equipment that benefited her brother. The Madrid leader used an alleged espionage plot published by El Mundo and El Confidencial to unleash the ultimate challenge against those she believed wanted to decapitate her to curb her aspirations at that time to add the party role of head of the Madrid PP to her elected leadership of the Madrid region.
Under the very close guidance of her chief of staff, Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, Ayuso went out into the arena with the knife between her teeth. "I never imagined that the national leadership of my party would act in such a cruel and unfair way against me (...) The statements that are being published by the media, which come from Pablo Casado's environment and that he does not deny, are the worst thing you could expect from politicians", she said from the headquarters of the regional government at Puerta del Sol. Díaz Ayuso got what she wanted after agreeing with the other barons to rub out Casado and anoint Feijóo.