IN the space of two years, Isabel Diaz Ayuso has gone from neo-liberal rookie to saint and saviour; an icon of freedom with the kind of rock star undertones previously attributed to her nemesis, former United Podemos frontman and left-wing warrior, Pablo Iglesias.
As if to prove her headliner credentials, the conservative leader of the Madrid regional government strolled onto the stage of the Hormiguero chat show last month dressed in a black leather jacket to be met with a standing ovation and a prolonged chant of Presidenta! Presidenta!
Antena 3 presenter Pablo Motos hardly knew where to put himself as the chanting persisted. After all, this is the woman who only six years ago was managing the Twitter account of her predecessor’s dog Pecas – Freckles. No matter. The people of Madrid appear to not just love her, but idolize her.
This adoration is, of course, due in no small part to the fact she went out on a limb during the pandemic and turned the capital into an economic and social oasis, with bars and restaurants remaining open even when the region was besieged by the country’s highest infection rate.
Her defiance of the mainstream lockdown line coupled with her ‘freedom’ slogan has put her on the map abroad and turned her into the face of Spain, with The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Economist, The Times, The Guardian and The Telegraph all running features on the massive populist appeal that won her a landslide victory at the polls in May.
She may have been ridiculed in the past for managing a dog’s Twitter account but not many of her opponents are laughing now. She has capitalised so successfully on the pandemic and the Spanish devotion to cañas and tapas that she is increasingly being considered “the new hope of the Spanish right,” as The Economist suggests.
So, who is this pretty, newly svelte middle-aged woman who flirts with the far-right Vox party, yet still pulls in votes from across the board; has a beer named after her and even a pair of socks, known as Our Lady of Ayusox, depicting her as a saint and selling out six hours after coming on the market?
Divorced but romantically active with partners including hairstylist Jairo Alonso and now healthcare worker Alberto Gonzalez, Ayuso is a self-confessed party girl, one of the gang who likes to present herself as everywoman with claims that, “Bars put everyone on an equal footing.”
But she also likes to show she’s in with the artistic elite, holidaying with close friend 90s pop star and Mecano lead, Nacho Cano, in Ibiza and posing on the set of US director Wes Anderson’s latest movie, shot in Chinchón in the south of Madrid over the summer.
Whoever she’s with, she rarely misses a beat, exuding the kind of cast-iron confidence that has earned her the moniker, the Thatcher of Primark as well as comparisons with Donald Trump.
Both Twitter pros, she and Trump are – or were – experts at personalised, polarised politics, winning over an electorate in the age of social media with manoeuvres such as labelling United Podemos a “cancer” and remarks like, “Respect, freedom, future and progress; it’s what people want and what the socialists have abandoned,” all delivered with more than a pinch of caustic humour.
An early developer, Ayuso was writing letters to former Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzalez aged eight. “I am more childish now than I was when I was small,” she has said.
Her education was religious but by age nine she was questioning her faith. Then came a course in journalism at Madrid’s Complutense University that brought her face to face with Pablo Iglesias, the man she believes that she was put on this earth to put right. “I knew the Podemitas at university,” she has commented. “And they were just the same then as they are now, paralysing everything.”
Born on the same day, Iglesias apparently wished Ayuso happy birthday one year, but Ayuso refused to respond in kind. Underestimating the extent of her dislike, right-wing TV personality Bertin Osborne said during an interview, “Of course, you wished him a happy birthday back,” to which Ayuso replied, “No, no, no, no, no, no!”
After graduating, Ayuso took a break from dabbling in politics with a four-month spell in Ecuador “on an adventure” working with a TV producer. That youthful escapade was followed by nine months in Ireland where she answered calls for Spin radio, despite her English being confined to “How are you?”
Sociable and ambitious, Ayuso is a born networker and when she signed up to the Popular Party on her return from her travels in 2003, it didn’t take her long to single out who to schmooze, namely the current leader Pablo Casado who was former president, Jose María Aznar’s protege.
Casado and Ayuso became close and, in 2006, it was he who gave Ayuso her first real political gig with a position in Madrid’s Justice and Interior department, though she had also caught the eye of Aznar and was soon to be mentored by former Madrid president, Esperanza Aguirre.
The crowning stroke, however, was the hiring of spin doctor Miguel Angel Rodríguez during the pandemic, a sort of Spanish Dominic Cummings who has, in her detractors’ words, “created a monster.”
For long enough, Ayuso claimed she considered Casado “her brother,” though it is not hard to imagine the strain Ayuso’s popularity and protagonism have put on the relationship.
As The Economist points out, she is riding a wave and clearly revelling in her meteoric rise, one that has put the cat amongst the pigeons in her own party, though whether she ends up the candidate to the conservatives into the next elections is anyone’s guess. As Harold Wilson said way back in the 60s, “A week is a long time in politics.”