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Dark horse Díez races into the limelight

Rosa Díez's UPyD seems to be making gains as Spain’s two main parties struggle to maintain their credibility. But is this new arrival on the scene a viable political alternative or simply a novelty act?


UPyD's leader is enjoying a popularity surge on the back of other politicians' lack of support. Photo: ukberri net.

It’s a good time to be an outsider in politics. With the world economy still recovering from recession and politicians struggling to assert their moral credentials, the conditions are ripe for the self-proclaimed rebels to hog the spotlight.

In the United States the right-wing Tea Party movement is gathering steam on the back of anger at traditional politicians’ lack of dynamism. In Britain, where an expenses scandal has undermined MPs, neither Labour nor the Conservatives were able to win a majority in the general election. In Spain, Rosa Díez, leader of Unión Progreso y Democracia (UPyD), must be rubbing her hands with glee as she looks at a similarly disgruntled electorate.

She founded UPyD in 2008, after abandoning the Socialist Party in protest at its policy on ETA and Basque nationalism – although critics say she was in fact irritated at losing out on the leadership of the Basque arm of the Socialist Party.

UPyD is one of the smallest parties in Congress, with Díez holding its only seat in the 350-deputy chamber, having captured 1.2 percent of the popular vote in the 2008 elections. But while senior Socialists and members of the main opposition Popular Party insist this new force is not a threat to them, there are indications that UPyD is gathering momentum.

The party performed surprisingly well in the 2009 European elections, winning a seat in the European Parliament and a recent survey by El País showed Díez to be Spain’s third most popular politician (behind Madrid Mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón and Basque premier Patxi López). Another poll has suggested that UPyD could have a substantial impact on elections for the Madrid region’s assembly in a year’s time.

With José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s Socialists haemorrhaging economic credibility and introducing an unpopular austerity package, and Mariano Rajoy struggling to offer his corruption-tainted Popular Party strong leadership, the self-described centrist Díez is profiting.

“There are Socialists who are fed up with Zapatero because of his lack of coherent policies, so there could be a kind of punishment vote there against the government,” Javier del Rey, an expert in political communication at Madrid’s Ortega y Gasset institute, told Iberosphere. “Meanwhile, UPyD could also pick up voters on the right who are unimpressed by Rajoy.”

Díez, 58, made the leap to public consciousness in large part due to her participation in Telemadrid’s late-night political TV debates, and she is the articulate, media-friendly face of her party.  But that is where part of its problem lies. Among Spaniards, UPyD is still known as “Rosa Díez’s party.” While a handful of well-known figures are backing it, such as philosopher Fernando Savater, there seems to be a lack of recognisable faces at the top of the party to counterbalance Díez.

Moreover, while UPyD has made clear its distaste for the “politics-as-usual” of the Socialists and PP, it’s not entirely clear what it stands for. Columnist Moncho Alpuente has an idea when he writes: “Those who claim that left and right don’t exist are usually on the right.” But Madrid regional deputy premier Ignacio González, of the right-wing PP, doesn’t agree. “(UPyD) has a platform we all share, that of territorial unity and the fight against terrorism, but then their ideas go further left than the left.”

Alienating the north

Alpuente, rather than González, seems to be right here. In terms of policy, Díez is probably most closely associated with the kind of anti-nationalist rhetoric employed by the PP. A Basque herself, Díez disapproved of Zapatero’s attempts at negotiating a peaceful end to ETA in 2006 and she is a virulent opponent of efforts to increase the speaking of Euskera and Catalan in the northern regions. This hostility to regional nationalism – bordering at times on outright Spanish nationalism – bolsters her support in Madrid, but it risks alienating moderate voters in the north, as do comments such as: “Zapatero is Galician, in the worst sense of the word,” a reference to the old-fashioned use of the term gallego to mean “stupid” (the prime minister is in fact from León).

In many other areas, it is similarly hard to find much trace of Díez’s Socialist past. She has labelled the government’s stance on Cuba soft and met with dissidents on the island. She also abstained on a recent congressional motion to facilitate the exhumation of Civil War mass graves. Díez has spoken out against the use of the Islamic veil in public places – on feminist grounds, she says – and perhaps more progressively, she campaigns for greater separation of Church and State.

With an eye on the 2011 Madrid elections, party coordinator Javier García Nuñez recently seemed to confuse the savvy soundbite with banality when he outlined UPyD’s vision for the region as: “environment, economic activity and public transport”.

Javier del Rey sees a failure to present a coherent vision of important policy areas.

“They need to focus on issues that concern ordinary Spaniards – like unemployment,” he says, adding that the lack of a proper party structure is also holding UPyD back.

When voting against the government’s €15-billion cost-cutting package that squeezed through Congress on May 27, Díez reiterated her demand for general elections to be brought forward. Whether or not the elections slated for 2010 are held early – as several parties are now requesting – neither Zapatero nor Rajoy looks likely to go into them in the rudest of political health.

The stage should therefore be set for UPyD to make major gains at the next general elections and establish itself as a third party with a nationwide appeal that could look one day to unsettle the PP-Socialist duopoly. But to ensure it has a lasting impact, “Unión Progreso y Díez” as critics of Díez’s party only half-jokingly call it, needs to present a coherent economic plan and shake off the notion that it is simply a one-woman band that knows what it opposes but not quite what it stands for.

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Published: May 31 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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1 Comment for “Dark horse Díez races into the limelight”

  1. I love your articles, they are clear, informative and even funny! well done

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