MADRID (Reuters) -Madrid's conservative regional leader won a landslide re-election on Tuesday, propelled to victory by her refusal to close down bars and shops during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hundreds of flag-waving supporters gathered outside the People's Party (PP) headquarters, chanting "Freedom! Freedom!" as preliminary results showed regional leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso more than doubled her score from a previous election in 2019.
"Freedom" was Ayuso's campaign motto, as she banked on her loose COVID strategy to appeal to voters tired of restrictions imposed to fight the pandemic.
"Freedom has won," PP leader Pablo Casado, beaming, told supporters. Voters "trusted (Ayuso's) handling of the pandemic." "Freedom, always, always," an emotional Ayuso said.
Critics accuse Ayuso of neglecting health services while looking after business. But she won the support of many Madrid residents by refusing to close bars and restaurants to help curb the pandemic.
The Madrid region, home to seven million of Spain's 47 million people, recorded 343 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 in the last 14 days on Tuesday against a national average of 213. Occupancy of intensive-care units is the highest in Spain, at 44%.
Ayuso fell just shy of winning enough seats to rule the region without support from any other party, according to preliminary results with 92% of votes accounted for, which showed her obtaining 65 seats, from 30 in 2019. Final results are expected later in the evening.
The PP has controlled the capital region for the past 26 years and the convincing win could give it impetus at a national level. In the national parliament, PP is the second-biggest party after the ruling Socialists.
The far-right Vox party, which went from 12 seats to around 13, according to the preliminary results, said it would back Ayuso in the 136-seat regional assembly.
"During the next two years our votes will be decisive for everything," regional leader Rocio Monasterio told supporters.
Vox was already backing the outgoing coalition between PP and the centre-right Ciudadanos. Monasterio did not say if she would this time demand that her party be part of the regional government.
Ciudadanos collapsed, winning no seats at all, compared with the 26 it achieved two years ago, according to the preliminary results.
Official results kept trickling in and confirmation of the winner should come in the next few hours.
The Socialists of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez went from 37 seats to 24, according to the preliminary results, not enough to allow them and other left-wing parties to challenge Ayuso.
Unlike in other elections in the COVID era in recent months, turnout was high, at around 74%, well up from 64% in 2019.
(Reporting by Belen Carreno, Clara-Laeila Laudette, Ingrid Melander, Susana Vera, Cristina Galan, Emma Pinedo and Elena RodriguezWriting by Ingrid MelanderEditing by Mark Heinrich and Alistair Bell)