A group stands in the doorway of a just-opened sushi restaurant in downtown Malasaña chatting loudly while they smoke cigarettes, their masks resting on their chins, as they wait for space to open up within.

In the plaza outside, a waiter frantically clears a table to seat a young French couple who are already perusing the menu via an app on their mobile phones.

Further up the street on Calle Espiritu Santo, traffic has been diverted so that bars can place tables on the cobbles to cater for the crowds of Madrileños meeting their friends for an aperitivo in the warm spring sunshine.

This is Madrid, a city in the grip of the fourth wave where the COVID-19 infection rate consistently ranks as the highest across Spain’s regions but where over the last six months, restrictions have been at the most lax.

Smiling down from lamposts that line the city streets and on platform billboards across the capital’s metro station, is the face of the woman who has made this all possible, the self-styled patron saint of the hospitality industry, Isabel Diaz Ayuso, who on Tuesday proved her gamble paid off, at least politically, when she secured a landslide win for her conservative Popular Party (PP).

Ayuso election poster vandalised on the Madrid metro
Ayuso election poster vandalised on the platform of Madrid metro. Photo by Fiona Govan

Under a state of emergency imposed last October by socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, regional authorities were given the power under broad national guidelines to determine their own health policies and impose their own restrictions.

Although Madrid counts 15,015 of the total 78,293 deaths officially blamed on Covid in Spain since the pandemic struck, Ayuso has steadfastly stuck to a rhetoric that there was no need to kill the economy too.

While regions including Catalonia, Andalucia and the Balearic Islands shut down all non-essential businesses including shops, bars and restaurants when infection rates hit a dangerous threshold, Madrid was determined to keep them open, defying Sanchez, health chiefs, and quite often common sense.  

With Ayuso at the helm, for Madrileños the fun, though curbed, didn’t stop.

On the evening that England went back into lockdown, I commiserated with my mother over the phone before rushing out to go to the opera, then joined friends for a glass of wine and tapas just in time to get home for the 11pm curfew, an admittedly early end to an evening by Madrid standards.

Traumatised by the strictest lockdown in western Europe, when for six weeks Spaniards were confined to their homes, unable to go outside even to exercise as the coronavirus ravaged through the population, Ayuso’s determination to keep things open won support even from those who wouldn’t traditionally buy into her right-wing political ideology.

The well chosen word “libertad” (Freedom) for her campaign slogan hit a chord and on Tuesday the 42-year-old increased her party’s share of the vote by 20 percentage points, doubling the number of seats in the regional assembly from the last election in 2019.

Although the PP still fell short of a majority and will  need the support of far-right party Vox to govern, this isn’t likely to prove a problem for Ayuso, a woman who started her political career tweeting on behalf of a predecessor’s dog.

In a defiant response to left-wing critics during campaigning in March she said: “When they call you a fascist, you know you’re doing it right … and you’re on the right side of history.”

A version of this article appeared on the comment pages of The Daily Telegraph on May 6, 2021

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