The conservative leader of Spain's Madrid region, who for months defied the leftist central government by keeping bars and shops open during the COVID-19 pandemic, won a regional election on Tuesday.
Hundreds of flag-waving supporters gathered outside the People's Party (PP) headquarters, chanting "Freedom! Freedom!" as preliminary results showed regional leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso more than doubled her score from a previous election in 2019.
"Freedom" was Ayuso's campaign motto, as she banked on her loose COVID strategy to appeal to voters tired of restrictions imposed to fight the pandemic.
"Freedom has won," PP leader Pablo Casado, beaming, told supporters. Voters "trusted (Ayuso's) handling of the pandemic." "Freedom, always, always," an emotional Ayuso said.
Critics accuse Ayuso of neglecting health services while looking after business. But she won the support of many Madrid residents by refusing to close bars and restaurants to help curb the pandemic.
The Madrid region, home to seven million of Spain's 47 million people, recorded 343 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 in the last 14 days on Tuesday against a national average of 213. Occupancy of intensive-care units is the highest in Spain, at 44%.
Ayuso fell just shy of winning enough seats to rule the region without support from any other party, according to preliminary results with 74% of votes accounted for, which showed her obtaining 64 seats, from 30 in 2019. Final results are expected later in the evening.
The PP has controlled the capital region for the past 26 years and the convincing win could give it impetus at a national level. In the national parliament, PP is the second-biggest party after the ruling Socialists.
The far-right Vox party, which went from 12 seats to around 13, according to the preliminary results, emerged as a likely candidate to support Ayuso in the 136-seat regional assembly.
The head of the Murcia region, the conservative Fernando Lopez-Miras, said Vox had proved there that they were reliable partners. The Madrid vote will have national repercussions, Lopez-Miras told TVE. "The project reunifying the right and centre-right will begin to materialise," he said.
The centre-right Ciudadanos, which had been running the Madrid region together with the PP, collapsed, winning no seats at all, compared with the 26 it achieved two years ago, according to the GAD3 poll and the preliminary results.
Vox was already backing the PP/Ciudadanos coalition and the question is now whether it will ask to become part of the government.
Official results began trickling in and confirmation of the winner should come in the next few hours.
The Socialists of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez went from 37 seats to 25, according to the preliminary results, not enough to allow them and other left-wing parties to challenge Ayuso.
Unlike in other elections in the COVID era in recent months, turnout was high, at around 74%, well up from 64% in 2019.© Thomson Reuters 2021.