News / Europe

    Diez Challenging Spanish Politics

    Rosa Diez, leader of the centrist Union for Democracy and Progress, or  UPyD, smiles while posing for a photograph in Parliament in Madrid, May 21, 2013.
    Rosa Diez, leader of the centrist Union for Democracy and Progress, or UPyD, smiles while posing for a photograph in Parliament in Madrid, May 21, 2013.
    Reuters
    Spain's rising political star is a 61-year-old former Socialist whose message of changing the system from within is drawing voters in despair at economic ruin and official corruption in the euro zone's fourth biggest economy.
     
    Lacking the raucous anti-establishment appeal of Italy's Beppe Grillo and Greek leftist hero Alexis Tsipras, Rosa Diez relies on sharp debate to deliver her reform message to a country pushed to the brink by the euro zone debt crisis.
     
    Diez split from the Socialist party six years ago and formed the centrist Union for Democracy and Progress, or UPyD.
         
    Polls show she is Spain's most highly regarded politician at a time when a quarter of workers are out of a job and public disenchantment with the political class is rising, as is the caseload of judges investigating allegations of official graft.
           
    Projections by Metroscopia polling firm show that if elections were held now, Diez's party could take as many as 30 seats in the 350 seat parliament, up from five at present.
     
    The former Communists the United Left could quadruple its presence to 48 seats, perhaps forcing one of Spain's two main political forces, the socialists or the center-right People's Party, to form a coalition government for the first time.
       
    Although the bigger parties will expect to win back support during campaigning for the 2015 vote, the growing impact of smaller parties is bringing about a dramatic and permanent change in the political landscape.
          
    “The two-party system has suffocated democracy and people know that. A huge majority of Spanish citizens want a radical change in the political system,” Diez said in an interview with Reuters.
         
    She cultivates a maverick image - an asymmetrical haircut and each fingernail painted a different color - but her politics are far from revolutionary. She defines herself as a social-liberal who endorses free-market economics, progressive individual liberties and a social safety net.
          
    SPANISH EXCEPTION
     
    When Spain returned to democracy in the 1970s after Francisco Franco's dictatorship, the electoral system was set up to guarantee stability by limiting proportionality and favoring two major parties.
     
    Over the past 36 years the People's Party - which currently has an absolute majority in parliament - and the Socialists carved up power and controlled everything from savings banks to the justice system. To pass laws they counted on votes from nationalist parties from the wealthy Basque and Catalan regions, which received extensive self-governing powers in return.
     
    The challenge to that long-running status quo in Spain reflects political upheaval all over Europe, where populists and extremists have tapped into public rejection of austerity measures, immigration, recession and unemployment.
     
    In Britain, a far-right campaign to leave the European Union has gained ground; comedian-turned-activist Grillo has become a major force in Italy; and in Greece radical leftists and ultra-nationalists are growing in influence.
     
    The economic picture in Spain is among the bleakest after a construction boom turned to bust, draining the banks and pushing up corporate insolvencies.
     
    Unemployment is around 27 percent. Madrid sought 42 billion euros in international assistance last year to put the financial system on an even keel.
          
    But while the rise of smaller parties has meant destabilizing fragmentation and shaky coalitions in countries such as Italy and Greece, in Spain the recent shadow of fascism means there is little appetite for extremism.
     
    Here, the increased weight of alternative voices could be a sign of maturing democracy, some observers say.
       
    “It's going to be very difficult for the two big parties to recover legitimacy. Governing will be more difficult in the future but I'm skeptical of an Italian scenario. Spaniards are wary of extremism,” said Antonio Barroso, a London-based political analyst at Teneo Intelligence, an advisory firm.
     
    Diez's father was imprisoned for his political beliefs under Franco and she said she was “nursed on politics.”
         
    After Franco died and Spain finally held elections - in 1977 - Diez said “it was only logical” for her to run for office. She has been in politics ever since.  Still, she has managed to paint herself as an outsider and draw support from both the left and the right for her pro-European views and centrist line.
     
    “I voted for her because she's very charismatic. She's daring and different and I thought she would break barriers and do different things. I was totally disappointed with the two main parties,” said Jose Miguel Delgado, 47, an industrial technician.
     
    RECKLESS BANKS
     
    Diez has tapped into public outrage over the costly bailout for banks that loaned recklessly during the real-estate boom.
          
    “She has a great nose for social change and is able to convert that into party ideology,” said a political rival who has worked with her in parliament for many years.
     
    Diez's party has brought a lawsuit against former board members of Bankia, a major Spanish bank that almost collapsed last year and received the biggest bailout in the country's history.
     
    The rescue came just as the government was cutting spending on hospitals and schools and rising numbers of Spaniards were out of work, defaulting on their mortgages and losing their homes.
           
    The People's Party (PP) has seen its support dwindle to some 29 percent from 45 percent in the last elections as Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy takes unpopular economic measures. His credibility was also damaged by allegations that high-level executives in his party channeled cash donations from business leaders to party leaders. A judge is investigating the charges.
     
    PEOPLE'S HERO
     
    Spaniards are turning not only to alternative political leaders like Diez and Cayo Lara - the 61-year-old head of the radical United Left, who has harvested votes from disillusioned Socialists.
     
    They are also increasingly involved with social movements.
     
    A new hero too many is Ada Colau, 39, leader of an activist group called the Mortgage Victims Platform that helps jobless mortgage defaulters fight the banks. Last year 39,000 families left their homes because of mortgage problems. Of those almost 3,000 were forcibly evicted.
           
    Barcelona-based Colau, frequently seen on television at protests outside banks, said a sign of the impact her group has had is that a director at one of Spain's biggest banks consulted with the Platform on an affordable housing proposal.
          
    The Platform has an approval rating of 71 percent, according to a recent opinion poll, while politicians in general are the very lowest rated institution in all of Spain, with a disapproval rating of 93 percent.
           
    The influence of the Platform has alarmed the PP government.
     
    PP Secretary General Maria Dolores de Cospedal accused the Platform of demagoguery and said they should legitimize themselves by forming a political party, an idea Colau rejects.
          
    “People stop me on the street and ask me to run for office,” Colau told Reuters. “But if I did, the only thing I'd be able to do every now and again would be to have a tantrum in Parliament. I'd have much less influence than I have now.”
           
    LIMITED ROLE
     
    Diez, meanwhile, enjoys a high profile due to her weekly show-downs with the prime minister in televised parliamentary debates. Spaniards gave Diez a grade of 3.96 in a survey this month by Metroscopia. Premier Rajoy got a grade of 2.44, while Socialist leader Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba got a 3.00, and no politician beat Diez.
          
    While she's well-regarded now, she may find it hard to maintain a simultaneous role as rebel and political operator.
           
    Critics say Diez's rise will be limited by her focus on returning powers to the central government that have been ceded to regional governments in Catalonia and Basque Country, and by a lack of detail in her economic policy.
     
    Diez rejects the criticism, pointing to her initiatives to shut down public companies and unnecessary institutions, simplify employment contracts to make hiring and firing cheaper for corporations, and standardize business rules across Spain.
           
    She does acknowledge it will be difficult for her party to break into the big time unless Spain reforms election laws that make it hard for minority parties to get representation anywhere except the largest cities, Madrid and Barcelona.
          
    Experts are skeptical there is any political will to overhaul the electoral system and destroy the PP and Socialist power bases in local governments around the country.
     
    “If you have a society in which most people are benefiting from protectionism or favors from the political system, it's very difficult to see how that same system is going to remove those,” said Dr. Jonathan Hopkin, a politics expert at the London School of Economics.
           
    One arena where the UPyD and the United Left can both shine is in European Parliamentary elections next year, where they are expected to gain significant numbers of seats because that vote is run on a strictly proportional basis.

    You May Like

    Hope Remains for Rio Olympic Games

    Facing a host of problems, Rio prepares for holding the games but experts say some risks, like Zika, may not be as grave as initially thought

    IS Use of Social Media to Recruit, Radicalize Still a Top Threat to US

    Despite military gains against IS in Iraq and Syria, their internet propaganda still commands an audience; US officials see 'the most complex challenge that the federal government and industry face'

    ‘Time Is Now’ to Save Africa’s Animals From Poachers, Activist Says

    During Zimbabwe visit, African Wildlife Foundation President Kaddu Sebunya says poaching hurts Africa as slave trade once did

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Ivorian Chocolate Makers Promote Locally-made Chocolatei
    X
    July 29, 2016 4:02 PM
    Ivory Coast is the world's top producer of cocoa but hardly any of it is processed into chocolate there. Instead, the cocoa is sent abroad to chocolate makers in Europe and elsewhere. This is a general problem throughout Africa – massive exports of raw materials but few finished goods. As Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, several Ivorian entrepreneurs are working to change that formula - 100 percent Ivorian chocolate bar at a time.
    Video

    Video Ivorian Chocolate Makers Promote Locally-made Chocolate

    Ivory Coast is the world's top producer of cocoa but hardly any of it is processed into chocolate there. Instead, the cocoa is sent abroad to chocolate makers in Europe and elsewhere. This is a general problem throughout Africa – massive exports of raw materials but few finished goods. As Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, several Ivorian entrepreneurs are working to change that formula - 100 percent Ivorian chocolate bar at a time.
    Video

    Video Tesla Opens Battery-Producing Gigafactory

    Two years after starting to produce electric cars, U.S. car maker Tesla Motors has opened the first part of its huge battery manufacturing plant, which will eventually cover more than a square kilometer. Situated close to Reno, Nevada, the so-called Gigafactory will eventually produce more lithium-ion batteries than were made worldwide in 2013. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Polio-affected Afghan Student Fulfilling Her Dreams in America

    Afghanistan is one of only two countries in the world where children still get infected by polio. The other is Pakistan. Mahbooba Akhtarzada who is from Afghanistan, was disabled by polio, but has managed to overcome the obstacles caused by this crippling disease. VOA's Zheela Nasari caught up with Akhtarzada and brings us this report narrated by Bronwyn Benito.
    Video

    Video Hillary Clinton Promises to Build a 'Better Tomorrow'

    Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton urged voters Thursday not to give in to the politics of fear. She vowed to unite the country and move it forward if elected in November. Clinton formally accepted the Democratic Party's nomination at its national convention in Philadelphia. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more.
    Video

    Video Trump Tones Down Praise for Russia

    Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is toning down his compliments for Russia and Vladimir Putin as such rhetoric got him in trouble recently. After calling on Russia to find 30.000 missing emails from rival Hillary Clinton, Trump told reporters he doesn't know Putin and never called him a great leader, just one who's better than President Barack Obama. Putin has welcomed Trump's overtures, but, as Zlatica Hoke reports, ordinary Russians say they are not putting much faith in Trump.
    Video

    Video Uganda Unveils its First Solar-powered Bus

    A solar-powered bus described by its Ugandan makers as the first in Africa has made its public debut. Kiira Motors' electric bus, Kayoola, displayed recently at a stadium in Uganda's capital. From Kampala, Maurice Magorane filed this report narrated by Salem Solomon.
    Video

    Video Silicon Valley: More Than A Place, It's a Culture

    Silicon Valley is a technology powerhouse and a place that companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple call home. It is a region in northern California that stretches from San Francisco to San Jose. But, more than that, it's known for its startup culture. VOA's Elizabeth Lee went inside one company to find out what it's like to work in a startup.
    Video

    Video Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Process

    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video Dutch Entrepreneurs Turn Rainwater Into Beer

    June has been recorded as one of the wettest months in more than a century in many parts of Europe. To a group of entrepreneurs in Amsterdam the rain came as a blessing, as they used the extra water to brew beer. Serginho Roosblad has more to the story.
    Video

    Video Commerce Thrives on US-Mexico Border

    At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this week, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is expected to attack proposals made by her opponent, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last Friday, President Barack Obama hosted his Mexican counterpart, President Enrique Peña Nieto, to underscore the good relations between the two countries. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Tucson.
    Video

    Video Film Helps Save Ethiopian Children Thought to be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at effort of African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora