Spain Madrid Election

Conservative Madrid regional president Isabel Diaz Ayuso, left, and Popular party leader Pablo Casasdo wave outside the party headquarters Tuesday in Madrid, Spain. [AP PHOTO/BERNAT ARMANGUE]

MADRID — Madrid's conservative leader, a champion of relaxed measures against the coronavirus and a scourge of the left-wing central government's handling of the pandemic, looked on course for a solid victory in a regional election Tuesday.

With 70% of the ballots counted, Isabel Díaz Ayuso was backed by 44% of voters, up from 22% in the last election two years ago. Three rival left-wing parties together had 41%.

The preliminary results gave Díaz Ayuso's Popular Party 64 seats in the 136-seat regional assembly, more than double from 2019 but short of the 69-seat majority needed to form a government.

Vox, the far-right party that mixes Spanish patriotism and populism and is shaping up as Díaz Ayuso's new choice for legislative support, was set to win one more regional lawmaker, rising from 12 seats to 13.

Voters shunned the liberal center-right Citizens party that was Díaz Ayuso's junior coalition partner before she called the early election seeking to broaden her power base. The centrist party, which is trying to keep afloat also at the national level, lost all of its 26 regional lawmakers because it failed to reach the 5% vote threshold.

The preliminary results were a blow for the regional Socialists of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, losing 11 assembly seats, from 37 to 25.

Sánchez's government's junior coalition partner, the anti-austerity United We Can, obtained 10 seats, up from seven in 2019, after leader Pablo Iglesias quit his Cabinet position to run in Madrid.

More Madrid, a new upstart regional party led by a staunch defender of public health and education against the conservatives' austerity and privatization record, grew from 20 to 24 seats.

Despite a persistent high infection rate that has recently plateaued, Madrid residents voted in droves, shooting the turnout to more than 69% of the 5 million eligible voters by 7 p.m., an hour before voting ended and up from 59% in the 2019 regional election.

Long queues of socially distanced voters formed outside polling stations in schools, sports centers and even a bullring. Authorities imposed strict voting requirements to prevent the spread of infections: double masks, separate entrance and exit paths for voters and plastic screens for election workers.

Older adults were encouraged to cast their ballots during a 2-hour period mid-morning and the hour before polls close was reserved for people quarantining because of COVID-19.

The Madrid region is Spain's main economic engine and the country's busiest transportation hub. It's home to 14% of Spain's 47 million people but has recorded nearly one-fifth of the country's 3.5 million confirmed virus cases and of the national pandemic death toll of over 78,000.

The only incident reported was a brief semi-naked protest by the activist group Femen who held signs reading "It's not patriotism, it's fascism" outside where Vox's main candidate voted.

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