People’s Party stalwart Esperanza Aguirre faces close fight in Madrid mayoral election

The tough-talking politician has been compared to Margaret Thatcher

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The Independent Online

For a brief moment last year, Esperanza Aguirre was a fugitive from justice. Today the right-wing stalwart of Spain’s governing People’s Party, who has been described as a cross between Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson, could well end up being elected as Madrid’s new mayor.

Ms Aguirre, who is often at odds with her own party, has a reputation for speaking her mind. During the mayoral campaign she said the Spanish capital’s homeless should be removed, because they “upset the tourists”.

Gran Via is one of Madrid’s busiest streets. In April last year, Ms Aguirre was asked by police why she had double-parked her car. She was accused of driving off, knocking over one of their motorcycles in the process. 

For any other politician the event could have ended her career – the PP is already embroiled in a number of corruption scandals – but a judge dropped the case of fleeing the scene and Ms Aguirre had to pay a fine for the parking ticket.

The Countess of Murillo and Bornos by marriage, a Grandee of Spain, and a former president of the Madrid region, her career has spanned three decades. But that is no guarantee of success. As well as the contest in the capital, regional and local elections take place across Spain today and, for the first time since the death of the dictator Francisco Franco, 40 years ago, the PP and the left-of-centre opposition PSOE are facing serious challenges from newcomers.

 

Nationally, the PP has presided over severe austerity measures, labour reforms and cuts to services since coming to power in 2011. The party’s bet is that voters will recognise the economic recovery – Spain is one of the eurozone’s fastest growing nations. However, many of the benefits are still not being felt by ordinary people and unemployment remains stubbornly high.

The polls point to big gains by Podemos, the left-wing party formed 18 months ago; and the centrist Ciudadanos, a pro-union Catalan party which emerged as a national player only last year.

In Madrid, Ms Aguirre faces a close fight from Manuela Carmena, a left-wing former judge who is standing for Ahora Madrid, an alliance of leftist parties, including Podemos. 

Possibly because she is outspoken, right-wing and an avid Anglophile, Ms Aguirre is often compared to Margaret Thatcher. “I’m a huge admirer of Mrs Thatcher,” she says. But could the 63-year-old become prime minister, as Mrs Thatcher did in the UK?

Ms Aguirre admits that it “isn’t impossible”, and a bad showing for the PP today could put pressure on Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy as the party’s choice for premier in the general election later this year.

“The PP can only lose; the question is how much?” says Teneo Intelligence’s Antonio Barroso, of today’s polls. “Following the ruling party’s landslide victory in 2011, the PP controls a majority of regions and municipalities. Given Mr Rajoy’s current unpopularity … the extent of the erosion of the PP’s power will give an indication of whether Mr Rajoy has been able to contain the exodus of conservative voters towards parties such as Ciudadanos.”

The latest polls indicate that the PP will narrowly win the most seats in Madrid’s council, but whether Ms Aguirre or Ms Carmena eventually becomes mayor will depend on support mustered from smaller parties.

Elsewhere in Spain, it is a similar story. In Barcelona, another left-wing woman stands a good chance of winning the keys to the town hall: Ada Colau’s Barcelona en Comú is ahead in the polls.

The electorate is likely to put Ms Aguirre’s famed survival skills to the test in today’s vote. And while many in Madrid might vote against her, they wouldn’t bet against her becoming mayor of the Spanish capital.

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