For the last year, Spain’s bullrings have been mostly empty, with Covid-19 restricting the staging of bullfights and crippling the industry. But in Madrid, the tradition has suddenly taken centre stage in the campaign ahead of a local election, becoming yet another focus of conflict between left and right.
Describing bullfighting as "a centuries-old tradition which is part of our identity as a people and which brings to mind the deepest human values", the president of the Madrid region, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, has unveiled plans to jump-start the sector.
Speaking at a tribute to Víctor Barrio, a matador who was gored to death by a bull in 2016, Ayuso said her administration planned to organise 18 bullfights in small towns in the coming months. Pointing to the 12,000 jobs the industry creates in her region, she also announced €3 million in subsidies for Madrid’s bull breeders this year.
With the bullfighting season running from spring to autumn, no corridas have been held in the capital's renowned Las Ventas bullring since October 2019 and the 2020 season was virtually wiped out due to Covid. This year, events are being organised as the season gets under way, although they will depend on the development of the pandemic, which is entering a fourth wave in Spain.
The Madrid regional government is hoping to hold a bullfight on May 2nd, a local holiday, in Las Ventas, with a roster of high-profile toreros. Two days later, the people of the region will vote in an election whose result polls suggest is finely balanced. Although Ayuso and her Popular Party (PP) are clear favourites to win, her ability to secure a governing majority is uncertain.
On the same day that Ayuso outlined her plans, the candidate for Madrid president for the leftist Podemos party, Pablo Iglesias, called for all bullfighting subsidies to be withdrawn. He also said Madrid's Centre for Bullfighting Affairs should be closed down, describing it as "an empty entity which has no responsibilities".
Iglesias recently stepped down as deputy prime minister from Spain’s coalition government in order to run in the Madrid election, which is seen as reflecting left/right divisions nationwide.
Ayuso has used the slogan “freedom or communism” during the campaign, casting herself as the defender of capitalist, libertarian values against what she says is a radical left. Under her leadership, Madrid has relatively few Covid-related restrictions in place, with shops, bars and restaurants remaining open and operating almost as normal in recent months. Madrid currently has about 350 coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants, the third-highest rate in Spain, after Navarre and the Basque Country.
A 2019 poll for El Español news site showed that only a quarter of Spaniards are actively in favour of bullfighting. However, Ayuso has sought to link the tradition to her broader libertarianism.
“When you take into account how its critics often behave, the defence of bullfighting is today, more than ever, the defence of freedom,” she said, accusing its detractors of wanting “to present a Manichean vision of Spain”.
Her comments drew a withering response from José Bono, a veteran Socialist politician, who is known to be a bullfighting fan.
"I don't think you can compare the freedom of Spain to a bullring," he said, pointing to the repression that many left-leaning Spaniards suffered during the 1939-1975 dictatorship of Francisco Franco.
“To put it mildly, this shows a mental weakness on the part of the president of Madrid, who should not offend those who have defended freedom,” he added.
Parties on the right tend to voice support for bullfighting more than those on the left, such as Podemos, which openly opposes the practice, although the Socialists have a more ambivalent stance to the issue.
One of Spain’s biggest bullfighting festivals, the Feria de Abril in Seville, was scheduled to begin this Sunday. The company organising the event offered to give spectators free antigen tests before each bullfight to ensure that all those attending have either tested negative recently or have been vaccinated. However, with disagreement between the Andalucía local government and organisers over social distancing and numbers of spectators allowed, the staging of the festival has been put in doubt right up until the last moment.
The Peruvian matador Andrés Roca Rey warned that politics was to blame for the uncertainty leading up to this and other festivals.
“The discriminatory treatment of bullfighting is nothing to do with healthcare concerns,” he said, describing it as “an industry which has been forgotten and victimised by political interests”.