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

Yemen Brings US, Iran Closer to Naval Face-off

US sending two more ships to waters off coast of Yemen to take part in 'maritime security operations' More

Minorities Become Majority Across US

From 2000 to 2013, minorities became the majority in 78 counties in the United States. Here's where those demographic shifts are happening More

Japan's Maglev Train Breaks Own Speed Record

Seven-car 'magnetic levitation' train traveled at more than 600 kilometers per hour during test run Tuesday More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Paini
X
Shelley Schlender
April 20, 2015 7:03 PM
Pain has a purpose - it can stop you from touching a flame or from walking on a broken leg. As an injury heals, the pain goes away. Usually. But worldwide, one out of every five people suffers from pain that lasts for months and years, leading to lost jobs, depression, and rising despair when medical interventions fail or health experts hint that a pain sufferer is making it up. From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Italy Rescues Migrants After Separate Deadly Capsize Incident

Italy continued its massive search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Monday for the capsized boat off the coast of Libya that was carrying hundreds of migrants, while at the same time rescuing Syrian migrants from another vessel off the coast of Sicily. Thirteen children were among the 98 Syrian migrants whose boat originated from Turkey on the perilous journey to Europe.
Video

Video New Test Set to Be Game Changer in Eradicating Malaria

The World Health Organization estimates 3.4 billion people are at risk of malaria, with children under the age of five and pregnant women being the most vulnerable. As World Malaria Day approaches (April 25), mortality rates are falling, and a new test -- well into the last stage of trials -- is having positive results in Kenya. Lenny Ruvaga reports for VOA from Nairobi.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.

VOA Blogs