How to vote in the Madrid elections on 4 May 2021

I was originally going to post this on Twitter but their web UI only lets you prepare 25 tweets in a thread before posting. I’d rather not cut this one short, so here it is as a blog post. My goal here is to explain my thought process for deciding who to vote for, starting from the basis that my main goal is to prevent the (likely) outcome of Ayuso returning to power.

Ayuso became president in 2019 despite her party, the PP (Partido Popular), only securing 30 seats in the election, out of the 132 total seats in the Asamblea de Madrid. It was the PP’s worst performance ever in Madrid in their 26 years of uninterrupted government, coming as it did after a string of corruption scandals afflicting the party. This ultimately brought to an end the presidency of the leader of the PP at the national level, Mariano Rajoy, in 2018, via a motion of no confidence.

The PSOE (socialist) party had 37 seats in comparison, having won more votes than any other party by a large margin (28.67% of the vote compared with 16.69% for the PP), but couldn’t form a majority coalition government. Together with the two other parties on the left, they had 64 seats. On the right, Ayuso was able to form a majority in conjunction with the (only nominally) centrist Ciudadanos party, and the far-right Vox, totalling 68 seats in all. Now, if you like Ayuso or tend to vote to the right, I doubt a Twitter thread or a blog post is likely to change your mind, but I’m at least going to have a shot at explaining why I want to see her and the PP out the door.

Madrid has had right-wing governments continuously since about 1991. Decades of cutbacks and privatization have left public schools and hospitals in a sorry state. On the flip side, Madrid has become somewhat of a fiscal paradise for the rich, with many forms of taxation eliminated or reduced. Inequality is significant in Spain, and Madrid is no exception. If you’re a centrist who believes that an occasional political "changing of hands" from one party to another is a useful way to prevent the excesses of either side from playing out too far, then it is clearly time for a change in Madrid.

And if you’re consistently left-leaning, you’re horrified at the effects of sustained, regressive spending cuts, and can’t figure out why so many Madrileños seem so happy voting for politicians who very obviously represent the interests of only the richest sliver of society. Voting is optional in Spain, and the wealthier, right-leaning classes tend to vote much more actively, allowing them to have an outsized impact in the election results despite their status as a privileged minority. I guess the less wealthy classes have just lost faith in politicians and political parties in general, or they don’t believe that their vote can make a difference. Making matters worse, this year, left-leaning voters face an additional obstacle: Ayuso called the election to take place on a normal working Tuesday, which means that school classes are cancelled. If you don’t have a private nanny, or an idle family member to look after your kids in order for you to vote, voting in 2021 is going to be harder than ever. Postal voting is an option, but the window for that has now closed.

I explained my overall political stance in a post a while back, but the "TL;DR" is basically that I am left-libertarian motivated by a concern for social justice and fairness, and I’ve been in that place for about 25 years now, even as the fringes of the left and the right have adopted ever more radical positions, and the political "mainstream" on both sides of the aisle has become increasingly neoliberal pretty much everywhere in the developed world that you might care to look.

And yet, as much as I am personally persuaded by leftist thinking, I can also appreciate that there are reasonable arguments to be made in defense of conservative politics. My go-to example of a conservative proponent doing the latter would be Douglas Murray (not a politician but rather a "public intellectual"). There are many things he says that I don’t agree with, but I have deep respect for the way his arguments come from a position of "good faith". Sadly, I find far too few examples of his ilk out there in the public space, and even fewer actively involved in politics or journalism.

So — out of the kindness of my heart — let me try to make the most favorable interpretation that I can of Ayuso’s politics, assuming that she is acting in good faith out of a set of sincerely held beliefs. Ayuso believes in small government. She believes the most efficient mechanism for deploying assets in service of the public good is through private enterprise. She and her predecessors in the PP have engaged in a sustained program of privatizations and cutbacks designed to transfer the management of public health into the private realm. Fundamentally, I think Ayuso (in common with her fellow party members) trusts the market, she believes in the power of individual initiative, individual responsibility. She probably considers "all men to be created equal", and attributes differential outcomes to differential levels of effort, of different moral fiber, grit, and determination.

The dark side of all this is that there is an implied (and sometimes explicitly stated) set of complementary beliefs. That the poor are somehow responsible for their own fate, just as how the wealthy and successful must be enjoying the well-earned rewards of their effort and personal merits. Not just that a large public sector is a sign of waste, but that the people who rely on it present a parasitic drain on society, on the fruits of the hard-working and morally superior ruling classes. Ayuso is on the record saying that people in desperate need of food hand-outs are "mantenidos", a word with distinctly negative connotations and implications of being a unproductive drain on the rest of society. Her campaign message is an emotional appeal to the value of "getting up at the crack of dawn" (implying hard work), traditional values and customs (going to church mass and bull fighting), and personal freedom.

She has very little to say about what she plans to do if she gets her wish of being able to govern "alone", with out the bothersome impediment of having to cooperate with Cuidadanos. Incredibly, the letter she sent to all registered voters in Madrid consisted of a single portrait photo accompanied by the word "Liberty" in large type on an otherwise blank page. Even the far-right party, Vox, whose program is more about drumming up fear of "communism" than elaborating policy, spelled out a list of things they wanted to do and why in their letter. At first I thought this was an insult to the intelligence of her supporters, to think that they should be so easily manipulated by such an obviously content-free, emotional appeal (I mean, who doesn’t like "freedom"?). You might think that Ayuso’s advisers have told her that it’s best if she keeps her mouth shut (perhaps that’s why she agreed to appear in only one debate), because she’s in a good position and there’s only one way to go from here (down); but the real truth is that most of the people who vote for the PP already have their mind made up — it’s quite simply unnecessary for Ayuso to persuade them. They know they subscribe to the same ideological beliefs as Ayuso’s party. The details simply don’t matter.

If all of this weren’t concerning enough, the polls suggest that, if Ayuso wins, it will be via a coalition with the far-right Vox, something that the vast majority of PP supporters are apparently perfectly happy with (basically, they don’t care who’s in power, as long as it isn’t those nasty "communists" who are going to raise taxes, strip people of their freedom, and rack up a mountain of economy-destroying public debt).

At this point I’ve established some basis for why I don’t want to see Ayuso getting reelected. Like I said earlier, I don’t really know if a post like this is going to change anybody’s mind, but I still feel compelled to share it. The way I see it, the reason why the left sometimes wins and the right sometimes wins (in general, not in Madrid) is that the answers aren’t actually indisputably clear. If there weren’t any grounds for dispute, we wouldn’t have well over a century of modern political struggle played out in this subtle and changing thing we call "the political spectrum". While it is easy to find the unthinking and uninformed almost anywhere in that landscape, there are also examples of intelligent, well-intentioned human beings who can articulate their positions in a reasonable form all over the place. In short, it’s complicated. It’s all well and good to have an opinion, but you have to admit that their must be at least a seed of truth in a wide variety of political positions, even if they’re not right all the time. And a corollary to that is that, whatever your beliefs are, they’re probably not reflective or reality 100% of the time. I just know that, if I’m going to be wrong, I’d rather be wrong in the direction of trying too hard to defend fairness, to protect the disadvantaged, and to combat structural inequality, even if it isn’t all that we think it might be.

So with that out the way, let’s get into the details of how elections actually work in Madrid.

Madrid uses a proportional voting system. You vote for parties, and each party has a list of candidates. The more votes a party gets, the more seats they win, which means more people from their party go in to occupy places in the assembly. These electoral lists that the parties have are effectively ordered choices. The presidential candidate is at the top of the list, the list itself contains more than enough names to cover even the best-case scenarios that might occur in landslide wins. Often, as a symbolic gesture, the final person on the list (who will never actually enter the assembly in any kind of realistic scenario) is chosen on the basis of propaganda value. For example, it might be an influential person already in government at another level. This year, the PP announced that its list would be closed out by José Luis Martínez-Almeida, the current Mayor of Madrid. Obviously, he’s busy being Mayor and has no intention of leaving that role. His presence on the list is a symbolic gesture of solidarity and support.

There are two big gotchas to this system of proportional representation using electoral lists. The first is that there is a "5% rule"; any party that doesn’t get at least 5% of the vote is excluded from consideration. This is presumably to stop the Assembly from splintering into an ineffective mess of tiny parties or individuals incapable of making legislative progress. But there is a real risk for voters and for parties here. A voter voting for a party that does not make the threshold is effectively throwing away their vote. And for parties which suffer this fate, it is basically a death knell. They are unlikely ever to make a comeback from this kind of electoral ignominy. At the time of writing, it seems like Ciudadanos is going to suffer this fate, as the electorate effectively punishes them for their perceived political opportunism (wherein they seem willing to switch their "bets" and arbitrarily cross ideological boundaries in the name of accessing power).

The second big gotcha with this system is that there are rounding errors. It’s nigh on impossible that the distribution of votes will line up in such a way as to allow integral allocation of seats. The mechanism used in Madrid is "the D’Hondt system". The direction of rounding tends to favor large parties and coalitions. That is to say, voting for a smaller party may bring the downside risk that your vote is somehow less powerful than the vote of a citizen voting for a larger party. The algorithm is described as "the least proportional of all proportional voting systems, but also the most stable one". Whatever, it is what it is, and its parameters are the ones we have to work within.

In practical terms as a voter on the left, you have three options. These are the PSOE (socialists), Unidas Podemos (a newer party, and much farther left), and Más Madrid (newer still, a spin-off of Podemos with a more pragmatic/green tilt). All else being equal, given the nature of the D’Hondt system, a vote for the PSOE is "safer". Safer in the sense that the distortion in the D’Hondt system is likely to make a vote for the PSOE weigh ever so slightly more than a vote for Podemos or Más Madrid. Given that the overall tendency of Madrid is to vote for the right, you don’t want to dilute your left vote. We’re kind of tired of losing here! You might not like the PSOE’s policies, but if your goal is to maximize your chances of getting rid of Ayuso, it makes sense to vote for the PSOE.

But things got weird before and after the election was called. It’s not quite so simple as all that.

First of all, the election was called with great haste to preempt an incoming motion of no confidence. It seems that Ciudadanos was on the brink of teaming up with the PSOE to throw Ayuso out before her term ended, but it backfired on them tremendously when she beat them to it by calling the election first. All the polls indicate that Ciudadanos is going to get punished in the elections as a result of this perceived betrayal and act of opportunistic politicking. It seems likely that they’ll basically get wiped out. Many who voted for them will switch their vote to Ayuso.

As much as I would have loved to see Ayuso thrown out in the middle of her term, I think that these hijinks seldom achieve any useful effect. They often do more harm than good, serving only to further polarize and radicalize the debate. (Just look at all the good not one but two Trump impeachments did.) Unless the leader in question did something scandalously bad, and you have a bullet-proof case for it, a motion of no confidence is probably a bad idea. A rare counterexample in which it actually worked is the already cited motion of no confidence that put an end to Rajoy’s national government in 2018.

The next thing that happened was that the leader of Unidas Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, announced that he was — no shit — quitting the vice-presidency which he held in the national government in order to take the fight to Madrid. Geez. In general, I find him to be articulate, and his arguments to be intelligent and persuasive, but I don’t think I could ever cast a vote to somebody who quits an elected position a little after year into the job. It simply doesn’t matter how important he might allege that the fight for Madrid may be. It seems transparently clear that the real reason he’s getting out of the federal government is that he has been frustrated and disappointed by the amount of power that Podemos has been able to wield as a minority partner in the coalition government. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy.

In response to this, Ángel Gabilondo says, "con este Iglesias, no" ("not with this Iglesias"). Obviously overplaying his hand there. Just because he might want to keep all the power for the PSOE doesn’t mean that he can turn his back on a necessary ally. The only way the left is going to end two-and-a-half decades of conservative rule is going to be by acting in unison. Of course, things change quickly in politics, and he has since softened his posture, but it’s really disappointing that he made an unforced error like that.

So, D’Hondt tells me I should be voting for the PSOE, but I’ve just seen their candidate make a royal fuck-up before the campaign has even started, and furthermore, he is focusing his message on the notion of "serious government" and continuity (ie. a promise to make no changes to the tax system after until the next election, if he wins it, two years from now). I find this utterly lukewarm, like tepid bath water. Of course, I’d be thrilled to see Gabilondo as president if it meant getting rid of Ayuso, but I cannot be excited about him, and at 72 years of age and with the measured tones of the university professor that he is, I can’t see the rest of the public getting all that excited either. (In comparison, Ayuso and Iglesias are both 42 years old, while Mónica García — the Más Madrid candidate — and Rocío Monasterio — the Vox candidate — are both 47.)

Gabilando has since changed his posture about teaming up with Iglesias, which unfortunately just makes him weak in the eyes of his opponents, even if it is a necessary and good thing for the left. And such an easily avoided error. Sigh… He could easily have done exactly what Íñigo Errejón, spokesperson for Más País (the sibling party of Más Madrid, but operating at the national level), did, which is to say that he was open to dialog with anybody at all "with no red-lines and no vetoes", in the name of forming a government that avoided a right-plus-far-right coalition. Simple pragmatism! That’s what I want to see in my political representatives: a get-it-done attitude and a commitment to multi-party dialog in the name of benefiting the people; a refreshing change from the ultimatums, the hostage-taking, the rage-quitting, and the threats.

I start listening to more things from Errejón, of whom I already knew a bit from his time in the national congress. And I start learning more about Mónica García, the candidate in Madrid. It soon becomes clear to me that the party farthest to the left (that of Iglesias) is spending its time hurling accusations of "fascism" against the right, and the parties on the right are hurling back accusations of "communism" in return. And just about everybody is engaged in a vacuous debate about how their side is the guardian of "democracy" or "liberty", or any of a number of abstract words with strong emotive connotations. Meanwhile, the PSOE is really closer to being a centrist party than anything else (in contrast to Ciudadanos, which is "centrist" in name only, and really more like a watered-down version of the PP; let’s call it "PP Light"). Among the entire political spectrum, Más Madrid is the only one that is consistently talking about concrete issues that will make a difference in people’s lives. It’s the only one not spending most of its time engaged in political circus.

Now, you’re probably never going to find a party whose platform you agree with 100% in every aspect, and Más Madrid is no exception. I think in some senses they may be trying to do too much. Their program, for example, includes no fewer than 876 proposed measures(!), ranging from improvements to universal public health care and education, environmental initiatives, investments in research and investigation, and many, many others, in 13 categories. I honestly don’t have time to review them all, but as I scan through the ones that matter most to me, and sample others, I get a sense that this party comes about as close as I could reasonably expect to embodying my political preferences, even though there are surely things in there somewhere that I don’t consider to be optimal.

As such, even though D’Hondt tells me I should vote for the PSOE, I figure it’s also important to use your vote to send a message to the others parties on the left. In this case, a vote for Más Madrid is telling the PSOE that its offer of continuity and "seriousness" just doesn’t cut it. We want more. And it’s telling Podemos that their fervent commitment to an intellectually pure form of leftism isn’t compelling either, because they spend more time getting into fights with their political enemies than making a case for why their policies would benefit the majority. So, Más Madrid it is.

And I made this decision before it was cool to like Más Madrid. Just sayin’. Mónica did pretty well in the debates and the polls now show clear movement towards her party as people get to know her and hear more about the program. Meanwhile, the PSOE’s share of the voting pie continues to shrink. Whatever happens, I have a feeling that this election will be Gabilondo’s last as presidential candidate, unless, by some kind of miracle, he actually wins. Next time around, he’ll be 74.

Now, the left has a long uphill battle to fight if they’re going to win against the right in a community that seems to vote so consistently for Ayuso’s party, but we mustn’t give up hope. It’s easy to say "the right always wins in Madrid", but that would be a mistake. It’s the kind of statement that seems like an inevitable truth until one day the sun rises and it ceases to be true. I don’t know if 2021 is the year that it is going to happen, but I sure hope it is, and I’m going to do my best to make it happen. Obviously, I only get one vote (shame, that, isn’t it?) but I’m volunteering for Más Madrid in a small way, and one of the things I’m doing will be to represent Más Madrid as an "apoderado" (ie. somebody who monitors the voting process at a voting station on election day).

I hope this was helpful, and if you want to talk about any of this, come find me on Twitter; it seems like a lovely place to have a chat.