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

    US Lawmakers Vow to Continue Immigrant Program for Afghan Interpreters

    Congressional inaction threatens funding for effort which began in 2008 and has allowed more than 20,000 interpreters, their family members to immigrate to US

    Brexit's Impact on Russia Stirs Concern

    Some analysts see Brexit aiding Putin's plans to destabilize European politics; others note that an economically unstable Europe is not in Moscow's interests

    US to Train Cambodian Government on Combating Cybercrime

    Concerns raised over drafting of law, as critics fear cybercrime regulations could be used to restrict freedom of expression and stifle political dissent

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Baghdad Bikers Defy War with a Roari
    X
    June 28, 2016 10:33 AM
    Baghdad is a city of contradictions. War is a constant. Explosions and kidnappings are part of daily life. But the Iraqi capital remains a thriving city, even if a little beat up. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on how some in Baghdad are defying the stereotype of a nation at war by pursuing a lifestyle known for its iconic symbols of rebellion: motorbikes, leather jackets and roaring engines.
    Video

    Video Baghdad Bikers Defy War with a Roar

    Baghdad is a city of contradictions. War is a constant. Explosions and kidnappings are part of daily life. But the Iraqi capital remains a thriving city, even if a little beat up. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on how some in Baghdad are defying the stereotype of a nation at war by pursuing a lifestyle known for its iconic symbols of rebellion: motorbikes, leather jackets and roaring engines.
    Video

    Video Melting Pot of Immigrants Working to Restore US Capitol Dome

    The American Iron Works company is one of the firms working to renovate the iconic U.S. Capitol Dome. The company employs immigrants of many different cultural and national backgrounds. VOA’s Arman Tarjimanyan has more.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video New York Pride March A Celebration of Life, Mourning of Loss

    At this year’s march in New York marking the end of pride week, a record-breaking crowd of LGBT activists and allies marched down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, in what will be long remembered as a powerful display of solidarity and remembrance for the 49 victims killed two weeks ago in an Orlando gay nightclub.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora