Explained: How bullfighting has suddenly found center stage in Spanish politics

Bullfighting, long a topic of debate and controversy in Spain, has now come under renewed focus as the country gears up for one of its most anticipated political contests in 2021. Next month, elections will decide the fate of the Community of Madrid — Spain’s wealthiest and third most populous region — and perhaps also the future of the bullfighting tradition, known in Spain as “la lidia”.

Madrid’s incumbent president (equivalent to chief minister), Isabel Díaz Ayuso of the conservative Popular Party (PP), has put her weight behind the bullfighting industry, promising an increase in subsidies and the opening up of arenas after the pandemic forced them to close last year. Among Ayuso’s opponents is Pablo Iglesias of the leftwing Podemos Party, who stepped down as Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister earlier this year to run in the Madrid race. Iglesias, who helped the Socialists form the national government last year, is promising to cancel “all aid” for bullfighting and allocate funds instead for animal protection.

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Why bullfighting divides Spain

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Bullfights have a long history in Spain, believed to be taking place since Roman times. Its current form — with the characteristic sword and cape — is said to have taken shape in the 18th century. Large estates in the Spanish countryside are devoted to breeding fighting bulls, called ganado bravo, which are raised free-range and with minimum human interference.

Considered by many to be a blood sport, bullfighting is banned in most parts of the world, but remains legal in most of Spain and Portugal, where its ardent supporters call it a part of their cultural heritage. Animal rights activists and left-wing politicians have been among those wanting to put an end to the custom, and local governments have cut back financial support for the fairs.

A 2019 survey by the online newspaper El Espanol, however, displayed Spain’s growing dissatisfaction with the sport with 56.4% opposing bullfighting, while 24.7% in support and 18.9% indifferent. Indeed, recent years have witnessed a dramatic decrease in the number of bullfights, falling from 2,422 in 2010 to 1,425 in 2019, according to Statista. 2020 drew a blank, thanks to the pandemic.

How ‘la lidia’ is dominating Madrid’s election

Ayuso, who already has an impressive lead in opinion polls, has sought to portray the left’s opposition to the tradition as part of a culture war, using “freedom or communism” as a slogan during her campaign.

A fierce opponent of Spain’s ruling leftwing coalition, the 42-year-old has called her regional government the “biggest defender” of bullfighting, and declared its “commitment” to the sport, as per a report in La Vanguardia. Her intention to make bullfighting a poll issue is clear from the Madrid government’s decision to hold the first bullfight of this year at Madrid’s iconic Las Ventas arena just two days before the regional polls take place on May 4. A maximum of 6,000 people, equivalent to 40% of the stadium’s capacity, will be allowed in to watch the May 2 bullfight, Reuters reported.

Ayuso has also painted her support for bullfighting as a defense of libertarian values, accusing the tradition’s opponents of presenting a “Manichean vision of Spain”.

The leftwing Iglesias, who is also 42, has staked his political capital for the Madrid election, and sees a radically different future for the sport. In 2018, his party had proposed a referendum to decide whether Spain should ban bullfighting, and after forming a coalition government with the Socialists in 2020 launched a Directorate-General for Animal Rights.

Last year, Iglesias said in a Senate speech that he was “enormously uncomfortable with the fact that bullfighting is vindicated as a cultural practice to protect,” criticizing what he called “a lot of damage to an animal in a show, for people to enjoy ” During his campaign, Iglesias has called Madrid’s Center for Bullfighting Affairs “an empty entity with no responsibilities” and asked that subsidies for the sport be withdrawn. He has also promised greater allocation for animal welfare centres.

An almost certain Ayuso win

Most opinion polls are predicting a win for Ayuso’s Popular Party, which is expected to form a government with support from the ultra-right Vox. The election for Madrid, considered the “jewel in the crown”, is expected to be a crucial factor in deciding Spain’s politics in upcoming years, when the European Union begins to recover from the pandemic.


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