INTERNATIONAL NEWS - Madrid voted Tuesday in a regional election in which the incumbent right-wing leader, who has made a name for herself by resisting tighter virus restrictions, is expected to win comfortably in a blow to Spain's socialist prime minister.
Isabel Diaz Ayuso, a rising star in the conservative Popular Party (PP), has been one of the leading critics of the handling of the pandemic by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's leftist government.
On her watch, Madrid has had Spain's lightest virus restrictions. It has been the only major European capital to keep bars, restaurants and theatres open with few restrictions since a nationwide lockdown imposed by Sanchez ended in mid-2020.
She has resisted central government pressure to impose tighter virus restrictions, arguing that keeping the economy afloat and preserving social interaction is also important for health.
"Having beers is important," Ayuso, 42, told Cadena Ser radio station last month. "After a bad day a beer cheers you up." She has been campaigning under the slogan "Freedom".
Critics however say her lax restrictions have come at too high a price.
They point out that Madrid has the highest percentage of intensive care beds occupied by Covid-19 patients in the country, at nearly 45 percent - and one of the country's highest infection rates.
Just over 5.1 million people are eligible to vote in the election in Spain's richest region, which has been governed by the PP since 1995.
Long lines formed at polling stations which will close at 8:00 pm, with results expected several hours later.
Virus voting measures
Due to the pandemic social distancing measures are in place at polling stations, which will be disinfected every three hours.
Voters who have Covid-19, or suspect they do, have been encouraged to cast their ballots during the final hour of voting to avoid mixing with others.
Ayuso encouraged people to vote, saying casting ballots was "safe".
"All the necessary health measures have been put in place," she told reporters after casting her ballot in Madrid.
Final opinion polls give her PP around 40-percent support, almost double their result in the May 2019 election.
That would put them well ahead of the Socialists, whose backing in the opinion poll had dropped to 20 percent from just over 27 percent in 2019.
Depending on the scale of her victory Ayuso may yet still need the support of far-right Vox party to govern. That would not be "the end of the world", she has said.
Leftist parties have sought to rally their voters by warning of the dangers of the PP governing with anti-immigrant Vox.
During the Socialist party final campaign rally on Sunday night, Sanchez repeated his warning that "our democracy" was at stake in the elections.
The campaign has also seen anonymous death threat letters with bullets sent to top politicians, including Ayuso and the leader of far-left party Podemos, Pablo Iglesias.
Podemos is the junior partner in Sanchez's minority coalition government, and Iglesias stepped down as a deputy prime minister in the government to run as the party's candidate.
Asked what impact the poll could have on the national government, Iglesias said the coalition between Podemos and the Socialists would continue to govern Spain for "many, many years."
Analysts said a solid victory for Ayuso would likely lead to more antagonism between the Socialist-led national government and Spain's main opposition PP.
It would also be a rebuke of the recent strategy of the PP's national leader, Pablo Casado, who has tried to move the party to the centre and it could open internal tensions within the party.
The early election was called by Ayuso in March after she broke up her ruling coalition with the centrist Ciudadanos party, which is expected to struggle to win any seats in this election.