By Belén Carreño
MADRID (Reuters) - The conservative leader of Spain's Madrid region has for months defied the leftist central government and health authorities by keeping bars and shops open during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now Isabel Diaz Ayuso is betting on a snap election in May, which she called in a surprise move last week, to vindicate her policy and win more sway over the country's wealthiest region, whose economic mainstay is trade and services.
Madrid has been the only major European capital to maintain social life practically unrestricted since a nationwide lockdown ended in mid-2020. Its open bars and cultural venues have attracted visitors from a locked-down neighbouring France.
Other regions have shut non-essential activities as advised by health experts. The central government had let regional authorities manage the pandemic response after the end of a devastating first wave.
Madrid's infection rates have been higher than elsewhere in mainland Spain lately, but Ayuso, 42, argues they were never out of control and are a tolerable risk. She says "health is not just about not getting infected", but also about preserving social interaction and keeping the economy afloat.
Madrid still has an 11 p.m. curfew and a ban on members of different households gathering under the same roof as part of Ayuso's "balanced response".
While some epidemiologists are critical of her loose stance, they say infection rates have lately been kept in check by the fact a large part of Madrid's population have antibodies because of previous infection. In the first wave, the region was hit hard and thousands died, even with the general lockdown in place.
Opinion polls give Ayuso and the conservative People's Party (PP) she represents 40% support among likely voters, about double the result in the previous election in May 2019, and well ahead of Spain's main ruling Socialist Party, on 28%.
"It is very likely that we will see a group of progressive but also entrepreneurial voters back Ayuso because she has left businesses open," said Maria Jose Canel, a political scientist at Complutense University.
That would contrast with conservative governments losing support in countries like Germany, where disappointment over a muddled coronavirus response despite a months-long lockdown contributed to Chancellor Angela Merkel's party suffering historic defeats in Sunday's two regional ballots.
"I think it's very good that the bars have not closed, there is hardly any contagion here ... Ayuso is one of the best politicians there is, she's lived up to her promises," said Antonio Sanchez, 55, a bar manager who voted for Ayuso in 2019.
A SPANISH TRUMP?
Analysts such as Ignacio Jurado of Carlos III University say Ayuso's frequent clashes with the leftist government have likely boosted her popularity as much, if not more, than her pandemic management.
Opponents label her a populist in the mould of former U.S. President Donald Trump.
The election is seen as a mid-term test for Spain's fragmented political class that could point to new trends.
To win re-election, career politician Ayuso, whose campaign slogan is "Socialism or freedom", would still need the support of the far-right Vox party, whose backing in the regional assembly brought her to power in 2019 in a coalition with the centrist Ciudadanos.
"If I have to make a pact, I have no problem with Vox", Ayuso said in a recent television interview, veering from the official PP position that keeps a distance so as not to be labelled as ultra-right. Ayuso's pact with Ciudadanos fell apart after her unilateral decision to call the May ballot.
Meanwhile, any greater economic benefit of her COVID-19 policies is yet to be seen.
While Spain's economy tanked 11% in 2020, think-tank Funcas calculates Madrid's contraction was 13.6%. Employment in the region fell 3% in the fourth quarter from a year earlier, in line with the national average.
In fact pandemic management and the economy may end up as secondary issues in the election campaign, especially after hard-left Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias resigned on Monday to run in the Madrid election against what he called the "fascist threat" posed by Ayuso and Vox.
"Sometimes I think she occasionally did the right thing (on COVID)...But I'm not going to vote for her because of ideology, she's right-wing," said 50-year-old economist Diego Iribarren, while enjoying a coffee on a popular terrace in downtown Madrid.
(Reporting by Belén Carreño; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Frances Kerry)