UPDATE 4-Lockdown rebel wins Madrid regional election, poll shows

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MADRID, May 4 (Reuters) - The conservative leader of Spain's Madrid region, who for months defied the leftist central government by keeping bars and shops open during the COVID-19 pandemic, won a regional election on Tuesday, an opinion poll showed as voting ended.

Dozens of flag-waving, cheering supporters quickly gathered outside the People's Party (PP) headquarters after the poll indicated that regional leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso more than doubled her score to 62-65 seats from 30 in 2019.

Ayuso banked on her loose COVID strategy to appeal to voters tired of restrictions on their freedoms imposed to fight the pandemic.

She fell just shy of winning enough seats to rule the region without the support of any other party, according to the telephone poll conducted in the last few days by GAD3 for broadcasters TVE and Telemadrid.

Voters "have backed her handling of the pandemic, her love for Madrid and her defense of the freedoms of the Madrilenos," Ayuso's campaign director Alfonso Serrano told reporters.

The PP has controlled the capital region for the past 26 years and the convincing win, if confirmed, would likely 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 12-14, according to the poll, emerged as a likely candidate to support Ayuso in the 136-seat regional assembly.

The head of the Murcia region, the conservative Fernando Lopez-Miras, said Vox had proved there that they were reliable partners. The Madrid vote will have national repercussions, Lopez-Miras told TVE. "The project reunifying the right and center-right will begin to materialize," he said.

The center-right Ciudadanos, which had been running the Madrid region together with the PP, collapsed, winning no seats at all, compared with the 26 it achieved two years ago, according to the GAD3 poll.

Vox was already backing the PP/Ciudadanos coalition and the question is now whether it will ask to become part of the government.

Official results began 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 25-28, according to the GAD3 poll, not enough to allow them and other left-wing parties to challenge Ayuso.

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%.

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.

Unlike in other elections in the COVID era in recent months, turnout was high, at 69%, well up from 58% in 2019. (Reporting by Belen Carreno, Clara-Laeila Laudette, Ingrid Melander, Susana Vera, Cristina Galan, Emma Pinedo and Elena Rodriguez Writing by Ingrid Melander Editing by Giles Elgood and Mark Heinrich)

05/04/2021 19:49

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