President of the Madrid Region Isabel Díaz Ayuso tastes a Manchego cheese when visiting a sheep cheese farm, November 2021.Image ANP / Zuma Press

    Suspicions of corruption, espionage and a bloody reckoning. The fratricidal struggle that has been unleashed within the Partido Popular (PP, People’s Party) has all the ingredients for a well-selling thriller. The main character is Isabel Díaz Ayuso (43), the popular regional president of Madrid. Nothing seemed to stop Ayuso in her pursuit of power – until the face mask scandal came to light that has now left her with great embarrassment.

    The seeds of the scandal were sown in Sotillo de la Adrada, 80 kilometers west of Madrid. As a child, Isabel spent her summers in this village, her father’s homeland. An entrepreneur from the village, according to Spanish media a friend of the Ayuso family, turns out to have sold 1.5 million euros worth of mouth caps to Madrid in April 2020. Like the rest of the world, in that initial phase of the corona crisis, the Spanish capital was desperate for face masks, a gold mine for savvy traders.

    On Thursday it came out that Ayuso’s older brother, Tomás, received a commission on the mouth mask deal, possibly for mediation between the entrepreneur and Madrid. According to its own Partido Popular, the main right-wing party in Spain for decades, it is 286 thousand euros. Ayuso contradicts that amount, but acknowledged her brother’s ‘commercial relations’ at a press conference. She denied any involvement in the deal; everything would have gone perfectly legal.

    Artwork in Barcelona by the Italian street artist TvBoy depicts Pablo Casado, the leader of the PP, and Isabel Díaz Ayuso.  Image AFP

    Artwork in Barcelona by the Italian street artist TvBoy depicts Pablo Casado, the leader of the PP, and Isabel Díaz Ayuso.Image AFP

    Immediately Ayuso counterattacked. That Thursday morning newspapers had also written about attempts at ‘espionage’, undertaken by the PP against Ayuso. ‘Handymen’ from the party are said to have contacted a detective to search Tomás Díaz Ayuso’s hallways and find tangible evidence of the commission earned. The PP says that there has never been an assignment for a detective, but according to several media, the party has indeed explored that possibility.

    “I could never have imagined that my party leadership would treat me so cruelly and unfairly,” Ayuso lashed out at the press conference, after taking a minute to look deeply into the lenses of the swarm of photographers in front of her. Is the party leadership indeed out to destroy a potential internal challenger before it’s too late, as her fans say, or is Ayuso putting up a smokescreen here to hide corruption? The result in both cases is a crisis that threatens to tear the Partido Popular apart.

    Communism or freedom

    The party should have known that Ayuso would not go down without fighting a battle. She knows better than anyone how to play the media and how to shape the image to your liking. Studies in journalism and political communication lead Madrid-born Ayuso in 2006 to the PP’s regional press branch, which she joined a year earlier. Within five years she will be a member of the regional parliament. Her strategic eye is recognised: in 2015 she will lead the online campaign for the Madrid presidency.

    In the regional parliament she is meanwhile sharpening her profile as a politician on the right wing of the right-wing conservative PP. It is exactly what the new national party leader Pablo Casado is looking for when he needs a leader for the regional elections in the capital in early 2019. The radical right Vox party is on the rise across Spain; Casado wants a candidate who can keep voters who are threatening to switch to the PP. He thinks he knows Ayuso through and through: both are products from the Madrilenian training college.

    She is unknown to the general public, but that will soon change. She has made headlines in her campaign: she detests ‘the dictatorship of radical feminism’, as well as the ‘culture of death’ that is said to exist on the left. “All this talk about euthanasia, abortion and the Civil War is over now.”

    Despite a mediocre election result – and thanks to the support of Vox – Ayuso will become regional president in August 2019. Six months later, the corona crisis breaks out. Amid the rubble of the virus, Ayuso grows into a political star. While other regions of the country are shutting down life, it is taking great risks by keeping bars and restaurants open for extended periods of time. The Madrid hospitality industry declares her a saint; beers and potato dishes bear Ayuso’s name. The fact that the excess mortality is relatively high is given much less attention.

    It sets the tone for the early regional elections in May 2021, which Ayuso is deregistering to cash in on her star status. Her Madrid stands for libertad, freedom, drop them in every second sentence, and the left opposition is out to take that libertad away. ‘We have to choose: do we want communism or freedom?’

    Scorn from the left is her share, but also an overwhelming victory. Ayuso begins to outflank party leader Casado: more and more often the suggestion is made that not Casado, but the woman he long regarded as a confidant, should compete against the left-wing government in the next national elections. According to her supporters, this is the reason that the party leadership is now coming out with the corruption case, which Casado and Ayuso already discussed internally in September. The Queen of Madrid seems to be winning the battle for public opinion: the conservative newspaper ABC demanded the departure of Casado on Sunday for his actions in the party crisis.

    3 times Isabel Ayuso

    – At the age of 8, Ayuso sent a letter to the then Spanish President Felipe González to express her concerns about environmental pollution and other world problems. González wrote back that she could breathe easy: his government was doing its best to solve everything.

    – Ayuso is a big fan of bullfighting. In December, she expressed her love for this ‘art form’, which she says is known for its ‘love for the animals’.

    – Ayuso has a rose tattoo on her left arm. It’s the rose that adorns the cover of the album Violator from Depeche Mode, the band she loved as a teenager. The design is by Anton Corbijn.

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