Incumbent Madrid premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso of the conservative Popular Party (PP) swept to a resounding victory in last week’s regional election. Not only did she win in the PP’s strongholds, but she also won in the so-called “red belt,” which has historically always supported leftist groups, in particular the Socialist Party (PSOE).
“Freedom,” or the fear of losing it, was key to how Ayuso turned the tables in the red belt, which is made up of the municipalities of Fuenlabrada, Leganés, Parla, Getafe and Alcorcón. Fear of Unidas Podemos founder Pablo Iglesias, who stepped down as a deputy prime minister to stand as a candidate, also played an important part. These factors combined created the perfect storm to lead Ayuso to a sweeping victory – albeit falling just shy of an absolute majority. Far-right Vox has already said it will lend her its votes to see her become premier once more.
Óscar Zafra from Fuenlabrada considers himself “on the left, but not the far left.” However, when the 18-year-old voted for the first time last Tuesday, he cast his ballot for Ayuso. He tells EL PAÍS that his decision was based on the conservative politician’s promise of “freedom” and a lax approach to coronavirus restrictions. “Being able to go out, go to bars, get together with friends… I don’t know, I don’t understand a lot because I’m still young, but Ayuso convinced me the most,” he says, adding that he made up his mind after watching the televised debate on April 21. His friend, Daniel Cáceres, who is too young to vote, agrees with his decision.
A total of 74.99% of residents in Fuenlabrada voted in the Madrid regional election and 35.95% made the same decision as Zafra. The PP’s success turned the political landscape of the area upside down – the party went from winning 10,810 votes in the last regional election in 2019 to 37,691 last week. The PP has gone from being the fourth-most voted group in Fuenlabrada to the most-voted, a title the PSOE had only lost previously in 2011.
Political scientist Alejandro Solís, who lives in Fuenlabrada, says “pandemic fatigue” is the main reason for the shift. Ayuso has been a staunch opponent to coronavirus restrictions, even though Madrid has one of the highest transmission rates in Spain. “People need hope. And this has been an important factor in the PP’s campaign,” says Solís. “It has played with freedom, with the idea of going back to how it was before. It has not been a purely promotional campaign, but rather one aimed at the idea of recovering our lives. Competing against that is difficult.”
Speaking to EL PAÍS at a café near his home, Solís explains that the idea of the red belt is a “myth” because left-wing and right-wing parties have been on even footing for some time now. According to him, one of the reasons for this is due to urban development in the area which “has grown very quickly in a short amount of time.” This has divided the municipality into three parts: the center, the traditional PSOE stronghold; the surrounding neighborhoods, where the leftist party Más Madrid made gains; and the new residential developments, which boast gardens and swimming pools. In the latter, the Popular Party has always held more sway – now it dominates completely.
Jesús García, a 66-year-old retired builder, is a longtime resident of Fuenlabrada and has always voted for the PSOE. “I am a man of fixed ideas and it does me good,” he explains. After making Social Security payments for 44 years, he now lives off a pension of €1,350 a month. It’s enough to go down to the bar on Castilla la Vieja street and spend the morning chatting with other locals as well as the bar’s owner, 82-year-old Marcelino Sánchez Mejías.
The bar is on the ground floor of a brick apartment building, where air-conditioning units have been added on and balconies sealed off. Just 10 meters away a new housing development is being built, complete with gardens and pools. “Who I am never going to vote for is [Santiago] Abascal or coletas,” says García, in reference to the leader of the far-right Vox and Pablo Iglesias, who is often called coletas– meaning ponytail – in a derogatory reference to his long hair. Following the PP’s devastating win at the election, Iglesias announced he was walking away from all of his roles in politics.
García is drinking beer with his brother-in-law Juan Flores, a 68-year-old retired soldier, who prefers red wine. Both complain of the politicians’ broken promises, the fighting between parties and the fact that the needs of the people are going unheard. The two share a particular aversion to Iglesias, whom they blame for the Socialist Party’s poor results. The central government is formed by a coalition of the PSOE and junior partner Unidas Podemos, a fact they believe hurt PSOE candidate Ángel Gabilondo at the Madrid polls. “Gabilondo is intelligent and cultured, but very slow to move,” says Flores, who preferred not to say who he voted for. “The girl has given him a push and there you have it,” he adds, referring to the fact that Más Madrid candidate Mónica García won more votes than Gabilondo at the regional election. Neither of them, however, anticipated that the PP would win by such a large margin. On the streets where they live, the conservative party won twice as many votes as the PSOE.
Meanwhile, further down the street, Roberto López, a 56-year-old who was given early retirement from communications giant Vodafone, is parking his car. He says he voted for Ayuso due to the “lies” and “broken promises” of the political class, as well as his “fear” of Iglesias. His first option was the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens), which had been governing the Madrid region in a coalition with the PP until the early election. But, in the end, he thought that would be a “useless vote.” As it turned out, Ciudadanos failed to secure 5% of the vote, meaning it has been left without representation in the Madrid Assembly. He also decided against voting for Gabilondo on the grounds that the PSOE candidate would make a governing deal with Iglesias. He is pleased with the results of the election.
In addition to these two fears – the fear of losing freedom and the fear of a Madrid government with Iglesias – the PP was also buoyed by the growing popularity of 28-year-old Noelia Núñez, the PP’s leader in Fuenlabrada, says Solís. With more than 13,000 followers on Twitter, Núñez defines herself as a person who “defends liberalism at all costs, who defends that the state should not get involved at all in the life of the people.” The fresh-faced politician used an image of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher – who oversaw a wave of privatizations in the United Kingdom – to share her message on social media. “Social media allows you to reach many people,” she says, while adding that working with people on the ground is also important.
“Ayuso’s success has been seeing that the people want to work. The left did not understand that,” says Núñez, who will enter Madrid Assembly thanks to the PP’s strong results. “But I am not leaving Fuenlabrada, that’s my priority. I want to be mayor in 2023,” she says.
The sense of victory in the PP contrasts to the surprise of many of the locals in Fuenlabrada, who are still digesting what happened. Just 10 kilometers away in Parla, the same arguments in favor of Ayuso are repeated. “I don’t understand anything,” says David Jiménez, a 45-year-old employee of the supermarket chain Mercadona. “We have problems with schools that are not built which they have been promising us for years, we have problems with health centers, with everything,” he says angrily.
The city of Parla has a population of 130,000 and has grown in recent years due to a property boom that has made it harder to distinguish the left and right blocs. “On the street, people continue to be very much on the left,” says Vicente Guisado, a political scientist and Parla resident. But he adds that polarization is “mobilizing both blocs.” According to Guisado, the PSOE lost ground in Parla because its strategy to attract votes from Ciudadanos and Más Madrid failed. He estimates that between 5% and 10% of PSOE voters cast their ballot for Ayuso last Tuesday.
That wasn’t the case for Almudena Rodríguez, a 40-year-old physiotherapist and her husband, Daniel Guzmán, a 34-year-old Civil Guard officer, who say they have always voted for the PP. But they admit they know people who went from voting for Podemos to the PP or even Vox. “It’s an issue of castes and the revolving doors,” says Rodríguez. “They criticize and then they do the same. People are fed up.” According to Rodríguez, thanks to Ayuso’s lax approach to coronavirus restrictions she was able to keep her business open.
The physiotherapist is not the only one who supports Ayuso’s decision not to introduce tougher coronavirus restrictions. “She has defended us,” says 49-year-old Rafael Navarro, who is happy that he can still open his bar in Parla, Bar de Rafa. According to Navarro, just a few days ago members of the PSOE and Vox were having a meal together at the bar. The establishment is located in an area of Parla called La Laguna, where the PP went from being the fourth-strongest group to the first at last Tuesday’s election. Navarro, who previously voted for Ciudadanos, supports the PP’s management of the health crisis in Madrid. Not just for the sake of his business, but also “the fishmongers, fruit shops, butchers and Coca-Cola delivery person.” He says he knows the leaders of all political parties in Palara and gets along well with all of them. His only criticism is for Iglesias “who is guaranteed a salary for life, which I, as a self-employed worker, will never have.”
All Health Service Executive (HSE) staff, including those working in administrative roles, should get a financial bonus for the work done during the Covid-19 pandemic, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said.
“I want to see something done, yes, I absolutely really do. I think our healthcare teams have been incredible. We are still fighting the fight, but I definitely want to see some form of recognition for the extraordinary work that they have all put in,” he said.
Speaking after a visit to the HSE’s Limerick Covid-19 vaccination centre at Limerick Racecourse, Patrickswell, Mr Donnelly said: “We need to listen to the frustrations that they have.
“We do need to acknowledge that for nurses, doctors, allied health professionals, administrators – for everyone who has worked in the HSE over the last year and a half – that they’ve had an incredibly difficult time.
“I think they represent the very best of us and they have stepped up to the plate,” he said. “When the rest of us were told to stay at home to keep ourselves safe, they went into the hospitals, and into the Limerick hospital to keep other people safe, and we need to recognise that.”
The arrival of the Delta variant has been delayed by the use of some of the “strongest” lockdown measures in the European Union, but foreign travel now is adding to case numbers.
“We are seeing spikes in some parts of the country. There are cases linked to [international] travel, we know that. Most of the cases we are tracking are Irish people going abroad and coming home,” he said.
Some people travelled without a vaccination, or before their vaccinations had time to work. “They shouldn’t have done that. Some of them have come back and they have contracted Covid, but we will take care of them, we’ll make sure they get the care they need,” he said.
In “certain cases”, people have received a second dose of vaccine within 17 days of their first jab, as opposed to the previous advice of four weeks, and this may happen more generally, he said.
A HSE spokeswoman later said “For operational reasons and due to the pace of the rollout we are in a position to offer the second dose after 17 days in some cases. Second doses within this widow are clinically safe and effective.”
On the vaccination programme, the Minister said: “There aren’t that many people who would have thought just a few months ago that, in July, we would be vaccinating 16-year-olds.”
There will be no immediate change to rules around attendance at funerals, Masses, Confirmations or Communions, while the closure of indoor summer camps is being kept under review.
“More than half of the total population is now very well protected against the coronavirus and thus the highly contagious Delta variant thanks to the full immunisation,” Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein said on Thursday afternoon.
Burgenland has the highest percentage of vaccinated people with 66.1 percent, followed by Carinthia (55.7 percent) and Salzburg (55.2 percent).
The lowest percentage is in Upper Austria, where 54.9 percent of the population is vaccinated.
Kleinmürbisch in the Güssing district has the highest percentage of vaccinated people in Austria, with just under 80 percent of people vaccinated.
The village however only has 230 residents.
“But we are still a long way from reaching our destination,” warned the minister.
About the author: For lovers of Russian culture, folklore, and history, Kotar’s work is a treasure. The grandson of White Russian immigrants, the 34-year-old is an author of epic fantasy novels inspired by Russian fairy tales. You can see his four books here on Amazon.
He is also a deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church, a professional translator, and choir director at the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, where he lives. Here is his bio from his blog, where he writes about many aspects of Russia. We highly recommend following it and subscribing to his email list to get exclusive material.
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Stereotypes are a funny thing. On the one hand, they’re often no more than caricatures. On the other hand, there’s a surprising amount of bitter truth to some of them. Like the Russians say with their morbid humor, “In every joke, there’s a bit of a joke.”
This is especially interesting when we consider old Rus. We don’t have much to go on, historically speaking, other than chronicles, treaties, and a few bits of birch bark.
However, Russians have preserved some interesting stereotypes about the inhabitants of old Russian cities. Whether there’s any truth to them or not is almost beside the point. They’re fascinating, revealing a window to a world long gone, yet still persisting in the habits and personalities of today’s Russians. (Here’s the original Russian article that I translated)
EVERYONE IN GREAT NOVGOROD IS A REBEL
Novgorod’s rebelliousness is legendary. The image of a brawling Novgorodian is almost a calling card of the city. The reason this stereotype came about has to do with the old chronicles. They were filled with illustrations of the constant arguments at the Novgorodian Veche, a kind of popular assembly that met in the central square. (See my translation of “Martha the Mayoress” for a vivid fictionalized example).
Of course, there were arguments and even fights during the Veche. However, they did not constantly devolve into fist-fights, as the legends suggest. Naturally, the chroniclers would choose the most vivid and bloody examples from history to illustrate their point. After all, Novgorod was often an opponent of Kiev and, later, Moscow. But in actual fact, the inhabitants of Great Novgorod were fiercely loyal to their government and loved their city. Compromise was the order of the day, not broken heads. Plus, they were more than usually literate.
EVERYONE IN PSKOV IS A THIEF OR A MORON
Even in modern times, Pskovians have had to endure countless jokes about their crudeness, stupidity, and their lack of good manners. This may or may not be true. As for their lack of manners, that is entirely a matter of hats. The inhabitants of Pskov, no matter what their social standing, hardly ever doffed their cap before anyone (which is extremely bad form in old Rus). However, this wasn’t crudity or bad breeding.
The painful topic of Russian alcoholism became especially relevant in Nizhni Novgorod at the end of the 17th century. A kind of epidemic of alcoholism rose up, and it was normal to see women as well as men lying in the streets in a drunken stupor. Foreign travelers recounted after their visits to Nizhni Novgorod that “Russians don’t do anything but feast.”
Of course, they did more than feast. But on holidays, Russians have always allowed themselves some excesses. It’s not entirely fair to single out Nizhni Novgorod, when alcoholism still is the gravest problem facing Russia today, as in olden times.
EVERYONE IN VLADIMIR IS A CRIMINAL
This stereotype appeared very early. It’s easy to understand. Vladimir itself had five prisons, including the famous “Vladimir Central Prison.” From the beginning, Vladimirians have been considered con artists who like a dangerous life. It didn’t help that the path to Siberia for exiled convicts went through Vladimir. It was even called the “Vladimirka.”
Exiled convicts stopped in Vladimir to have half their heads shaved (a scene vividly recounted in the excellent Russian film The Siberian Barber). Then they’d be branded as exiles or thieves, clapped in irons, and set upon the road to Siberia. In old times, the path could take as long as two years, and those two years were not counted as part of their allotted time.
Vladimir itself, for all that, was a typical enough provincial town.
EVERYONE IN ROSTOV IS AN ARTISAN
When a Russian hears the word “finift’” (enameling), he immediately thinks of Rostov. Nothing could change the old stereotype that every inhabitant of ancient Rostov worked in the enameling guild. That’s complete nonsense, of course. First of all, the best enamellists in old Rus were as a rule in Kiev, the capital city. There were also some famous artisans in Pskov, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, and Great Novgorod.
The only difference is that Rostov alone has preserved the traditional techniques of enameling since ancient times. Even today, there is a factory producing enameled work. Perhaps for this reason alone, tourists still visit Rostov exclusively to see enameled boxes.
THE INDUSTRIOUS YARSOLAVIAN
The industrious muzhik from Yaroslavl is an image that we even find in Gogol. From the times of Rus, Yaroslavians were known as people who were never apathetic, lazy, or prone to tiredness. Instead, they’re known to be active to a manic degree. This may have something to do with the odd tradition that Yaroslav is a city of buried treasure.
Apparently, wherever you turn, you see someone uncovering a jewelry box or trying to break into an ancient chest of drawers. Perhaps a little more seriously, Yaroslavians have long been known as “chicks of the cuckoo.” In other words, they’re more than usually capable of leaving their homeland without much regret. This quality has a clear historical origin.
Yaroslav was built on the crossroads of ancient roads—a path used by merchants from Scandinavia all the way to the Arab lands. From the middle of the 16th century, Yarsolavl became the most important center for trade in all of Rus. This constant movement often inspired young Yaroslavians to try out their luck in foreign lands.
True or not, such stereotypes make for fascinating stories. For myself, the “myth” of the boisterous Novgorodian comes to life in my third novel, The Heart of the World, in a semi-fictionalized setting of the Veche that goes fabulously wrong for all concerned.