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

Koreas Mark 61st Anniversary of War Armistice

Muted observances on both sides of heavily-armed Demilitarized Zone that separates two decades-long enemies More

Judge Declares Washington DC Ban on Public Handguns Unconstitutional

Ruling overturns capital city's prohibition on carrying guns in pubic More

Pricey Hepatitis C Drug Draws Criticism

Activists are using the International AIDS Conference to criticize drug companies for charging high prices for life-saving therapies More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Students in Business for Themselvesi
X
Mike O'Sullivan
July 26, 2014 11:04 AM
They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid