- - Sunday, July 21, 2019

MADRID — Few big cities have conservative mayors. Liberals dominate in city halls across the U.S., often to the frustration of the Trump administration. London is run by a leftist Muslim, and the mayor of Paris has elevated the fight against climate change to a virtual state religion.

And then there’s Madrid.

Jose Luis Martinez-Almeida, a lifelong member of Spain’s conservative Popular Party, took over from the incumbent leftist mayor a month ago to the consternation of the center-left federal government also in the Spanish capital. Backed in part by Spain’s fledgling far-right Vox party, the relatively little-known Mr. Martinez-Almeida, 44, wasted no time challenging the status quo.

“From tomorrow, I will start working to lead this much-needed change in Madrid,” he said as his path to victory became clear on election night.

In one of his first acts in office, Mr. Martinez-Almeida suspended until further notice the previous government’s 7-month-old “congestion pricing” program, designed to ease traffic jams and lower automobile emissions in the central city. Cities across Europe and the U.S. have adopted the pricing program, but Mr. Martinez-Almeida argued during his campaign that the green initiative hurt businesses and merely pushed congestion to other parts of the capital.

Madrid became the first major European city to drop the clean air plan, and thousands took to the streets last month to protest the move.

Many said the reversal reflected the influence of Vox.

“You’re going to hear us lament as much as is necessary the fact that you decided to grant a force like Vox the capacity to decide and condition the government of the most important city in Spain, one of the most important in the world,” Pepu Hernandez, the Socialist Party’s candidate for mayor, told reporters.

Winning control of Madrid provided a much-needed boost for the reeling Popular Party, which lost half of its parliamentary representation in national elections in April. Analysts say divisions among Spain’s conservatives, including the Popular Party, the more centrist Ciudadanos Party and Vox, helped produce the poor result nationwide.

Mr. Martinez-Almeida makes no apologies for pursuing the agenda he promised voters in his mayoral campaign. He argues that there is an urgent need to unite the right to effectively turn back the socialist policies of the central government.

“The people of Madrid don’t want to hear about a leftist government in their community,” he tweeted recently. “They ask for generosity, responsibility and high-mindedness. They would not understand it if we didn’t reach an agreement among parties of the center right.”

Bickering among conservative groups led to the loss of several regional governments, even though the conservative vote as a bloc won a majority.

Displaying a hands-on negotiating style while presiding at important meetings, Mr. Martinez-Almeida secured support for his campaign from Ciudadanos and Vox in the Madrid City Council.

Whether the inside maneuvering will lead to conservative victories in the capital will be closely watched in Spanish politics.

Unpopular programs

Political science professor William Ogilvie of the Francisco Marroquin University in Madrid said Mr. Martinez-Almeida benefited from the unpopularity of the traffic restrictions, which would have allowed in many cases only electric or low-carbon-emissions vehicles to use the streets of the central city during peak hours.

Mr. Martinez-Almeida’s leftist predecessor, Manuela Carmena, ruled with a coalition of Socialists and Communists, and her pricing program conformed with plans of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to eliminate gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles from circulation in Spain within two decades.

Mr. Sanchez said he was following European Union guidelines set by the Paris climate agreement. President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement early in his term.

Some business and union leaders denounced the government plan as an environmentalist “inquisition,” and the attempt to implement it in the heart of Madrid — encompassing the congressional building, the royal palace, main shopping streets and Madrid’s theater district — angered many longtime residents. Shop owners were hit particularly hard as the delivery of goods became unmanageable. Some businesses reported sales declines by as much as two-thirds.

Mr. Martinez-Almeida lifted the ban immediately upon taking office. After protests by Greenpeace and the former mayor’s communist supporters, a Spanish court ruled to reimpose the ban. An EU directive issued last week called for reducing CO2 emissions in Madrid and Barcelona.

But hundreds of cameras set up to trace license plates of vehicles entering the Madrid central area have been disconnected, and the city has all but stopped issuing fines. Authorities say the mayor’s office is considering ways to reduce contamination without “prohibitive measures.”

David Alvaro, an adviser to the new administration, said in an interview that there better ways to tackle the emissions problem without a top-down government ban on private drivers on public streets. The administration might start by replacing Madrid’s aging fleet of 600 diesel-powered buses with electrical vehicles, he said.

“It’s unfair to expect the average driver to assume the expense of switching to less-contaminating cars while leaving public transport as the largest contaminant,” Mr. Alvaro said.

The city government has also announced plans to unblock a project for expanding Madrid northward through joint development enterprises with private investors. The move would generate much-needed housing and jobs for the city’s growing population.

An “anti-capitalist” group in the City Council aligned with Mr. Carmena had been delaying the project, said officials in the new administration. They say the previous administration’s approach fed a lack of public initiative that has contributed to a relatively high unemployment rate in what is Spain’s most dynamic metropolis.

A conservative-run Madrid may also have a better shot at attracting the thousands of companies seeking to relocate from conflict-ridden Barcelona. Long Spain’s main business hub, Barcelona is now beset by separatist politics and rising crime.

While focusing on a technocratic, business-friendly approach, Mr. Martinez-Almeida hasn’t hesitated to venture into Spain’s culture wars. Conservatives accuse Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of stoking divisions on social issues to shore up his base among feminists and gay voters.

Mr. Martinez-Almeida denounced the violent expulsions of members of Ciudadanos from a gay pride march in Madrid this month. “Gay pride has become a celebration of exclusion against those who do not think like certain people,” he said.

Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska, who led the march, said the centrists brought on the abuse by negotiating with Vox.

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