In Spain, two women are challenging the status quo of political center-right with brash statements and bold strategies that have either launched them into the political spotlight, gotten them in trouble with their party, or a bit of both. But if the Partido Popular (PP) hopes to reconsolidate the Right and return it back under its centrally placed umbrella, it might be advised to follow the leads of Isabel Díaz Ayuso and Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo.
Madrid and the free state of Isabel Díaz Ayuso
Isabel Díaz Ayuso, 43, stepped into the presidency of the autonomous community of Madrid in 2019. Though only a regional politician, she has garnered international attention. A column in the Washington Post late last year praised her as the “hero” that free market conservatives were looking for in a Trumpian age. The Madrid native jettisoned, the column lauded, to political stardom through her handling of the pandemic.
Following the harsh lockdown initially imposed by the leftist national government, she rejected measures used in other regions, even those governed by her own party, that limited citizens’ mobility and forced local shops and restaurants to remain closed. Madrid would stay “open for business,” she decided, and strategically went after the virus, not public activity. She wagered that Madrileños preferred to work rather than wait out the pandemic on ruinous government subsidies. To manage contagion levels, her government tracked the virus through the waste-water system and employed mass testing and short-term neighborhood-level restrictions only as a last resort. In just three months, she constructed a 1,000-bed hospital in the capital, to avoid having to use the capital’s convention center as a field hospital again in future waves. When the Omicron variant surged heading into Christmas 2021, she distributed millions of free antigen tests at pharmacies so people could self-test before holiday gatherings.
Since the end of the first wave in 2020, Madrid’s infection rates have consistently been in the middle of the pack, relative to the rest of Spain. Still, her moderate measures made her the target of sharp criticism by the left, and occasionally even from within her own party, but she never backed down. Her reward has been the loyalty of Madrid’s citizenry, particularly business owners and those in the arts sectors. In 2021, she dared to call snap elections, hoping to consolidate a PP-only regional government in place of the then-coalition government with Ciudadanos. Running under the slogan, “Liberty or Communism,” just as she had calculated, Madrid rallied around her. Restaurants were among her biggest supporters, one even renaming a dish in her honor during the campaign, ”Potatoes Ayuso: a bit of potatoes and a lot of eggs,” a crude Spanish reference to courage.
Though she supports legal abortion, she has brought very pro-life policies to the table. She publicly accuses the left of “selling abortion as a party,” instead of calling the procedure a “failure” and stating that no woman is happy about having an abortion. In January, she rolled out a plan to promote fertility and motherhood, with 80 measures designed to make it easier for women to have more children. It includes a monthly 500 euro check per child for mothers under the age of 30 earning up to 30, 000 euros a year. It also allows the unborn to count as family members. The “baby checks” start in the fifth month of pregnancy.
Plotting her own political course, she has made it clear that, though she is loyal to her party, she governs Madrid as she sees fit and will not be subject to totalitarian-tight party politics. Fortune, as they say, favors the bold. In a recent poll, Ayuso surpassed PP President Pablo Casado in a popularity ranking 7.9 to 7.2. She was also the best regarded PP politician among further-right VOX voters. She has repeatedly stated that she has no national ambitions, but many Spaniards would be happy to see her take the helm of the center-right
Moral politics with a sharp tongue: Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo
If Díaz Ayuso stands out among her male peers as an astute, capable leader, Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, 47, challenges her party with her intelligence and fearlessly sharp tongue. According to her memoir published in November 2021, Politically Undesirable, Álvarez de Toledo, an Oxford-credentialed doctor of history, was enticed back into politics in 2019 by PP President Pablo Casado on the promise that the party wanted what she would bring—a strident and vocal stance against Catalan and Basque separatism and both left and right populism. She won a seat in the Congress of Deputies in 2019, and then Casado made her the party’s congressional spokesperson.
She captured increased media attention during the pandemic first by protesting the closure of the parliament–except for closed sessions–during the strict lockdown in spring 2020. On the day the Congress of Deputies would have normally held session, she strode into the parliamentary building alone, telling reporters that democracy would not be put in confinement. In subsequent sessions, she went head-to-head with prominent government ministers, holding their feet to the fire on their inaction in the face of warnings about the pandemic.
Her sharpest verbal sparring was with Pablo Iglesias, head of neo-communist Unidas Podemos party and then vice-president. In May 2020, after he had repeatedly and pointedly addressed her as “la señora marquesa” an aristocratic title she had inherited from her father, she responded that no one is responsible for who their parents are. But two can play the parentage game:
“You are the son of a terrorist,” she said. “That is the aristocracy to which you belong—that of political crimes.” Iglesais’ father had been a member of the Frente Revolucionario Antifascista y Patriótico, an anti-Franco group that killed five police officers.
She wrote in her memoir that she considered that statement a political triumph, a moment “to end the left’s presumption of moral superiority and the right’s Stockholm Syndrome.”
When the president of the Congress of Deputies told her to retract her comments, she refused. She anticipated that the PP leadership would back down from her challenge, which they did, and in August 2020, she was removed from the position of spokesperson. As further reprimand, her party is now also fining her for dissenting from the party vote on nominations for the Spanish constitutional court, a contentious issue that had been stuck in months of negotiations. She has challenged the fine as unlawful, citing constitutional guarantees of freedom in voting for deputies. She wants to end what she considers the totalitarian inner functioning of Spanish political parties.
Her political vision also includes moral renewal. “Only when politicians say in public the same things they affirm in private, only when we recognize how degraded our profession has become, only when we see our portrait drawn in the mirror of our acts, only then Will we be capable of rescuing democracy from the hands of populists,” she wrote in her memoir. Getting into a political office qualifies as a “technical question,” but running a government involves a “moral component,” an aspect she believes the current PP leadership lacks.
Whatever happens she plans to hang on to the end and may also be in the process of forming a new political party with others of her brand. Either way, she’s not backing down now.