An outspoken right-wing hardliner who makes no secret of her national ambitions, Spain's Isabel Diaz Ayuso is seeking re-election as Madrid's regional leader through blistering attacks on Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.
With Spaniards set to vote in local and municipal polls on Sunday, Ayuso has directed much of her campaign remarks at Sanchez, deriding his time in office as a "disaster" -- and setting the tone for a year-end general election battle.
Known for her acerbic and polarising comments, Ayuso shot to prominence as one of the best-known faces of Spain's right-wing Popular Party during the Covid pandemic.
Her remarks have drawn comparisons with those of Donald Trump or Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro.
"Sanchez hates Madrid," she said during a televised debate with candidates hoping to replace her on May 28.
"It's Sanchez or Spain," she said this week.
Last year, she accused Sanchez of wanting to keep himself in power and "put the opposition in jail, like in Nicaragua".
A year into the pandemic, Ayuso abruptly called a snap poll aimed at capitalising on the support she had earned among some residents by minimising restrictions on the local economy, presenting Madrid as the "capital of freedom."
It worked: In May 2021, she won a resounding victory, doubling the PP's results in Madrid, barely two years after taking power as a virtual unknown.
On Sunday, she could go even further, with opinion polls suggesting she could secure an absolute majority in the regional parliament, which would let her govern Spain's richest region of 6.7 million people without support from the far-right Vox party.
A telegenic journalism graduate with a penchant for brightly coloured suits, Ayuso's decision to stick the knife in Sanchez is effective, analysts say.
On the one hand, it serves as a "smokescreen" to avoid "issues that are awkward for her", such as Madrid's troubled health system or its housing shortages, said Paloma Roman, a political scientist at the city's Complutense University.
On the other hand, "she wants to set the party line", even if it means going over the head of its more moderate leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo, making clear "that her ambitions are national", said Ana Sofia Cardenal of Catalonia's Open University.
She is "the incarnation of a right-wing Madrid" that believes the PP "must strengthen itself ideologically on the right and engage in a polarised fight" with the left in order to "keep Vox at a distance", said Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
Danger for Feijoo
Polls suggest that while PP would win the year-end general election, it would need the support of Vox to form a government.
And in this context, Ayuso could pose "a real danger" to Feijoo if she wins an absolute majority on Sunday and other PP candidates who are closer to him obtain a less impressive result, Bartomeus said.
Such a scenario brings to mind the bitter public confrontation in February 2022 between Ayuso and the PP's former leader Pablo Casado, which he lost and resulted in his ouster from the party.
But analysts said Ayuso would struggle to apply what has been a winning approach in Madrid, where voters are increasingly leaning to the right, to the rest of the country.
"This strategy wouldn't work in the rest of Spain as it does in Madrid," said Cardenal, pointing to the wealthy Catalonia region, where the PP -- which has only three of the 135 regional deputies -- practically "doesn't exist".