SPAIN’S rising political star is a 61-year-old former socialist whose message of changing the system from within is winning over disenchanted voters.
Lacking the raucous anti-establishment appeal of Italy’s Beppe Grillo or 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 eurozone debt crisis.
She split from the socialist party six years ago and formed the centrist Union for Democracy and Progress.
Polls show she is Spain’s most highly regarded politician, at a time when a quarter of workers are out of a job and disaffection with the political class is rising, as is the caseload of judges investigating allegations of official corruption. Projections by polling firm Metroscopia show that, if elections were held now, Ms 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 their presence to 48 seats, perhaps forcing one of Spain’s two main political forces, the socialists or centre-right Popular Party (PP) of prime minister Mariano Rajoy, to form a coalition government for the first time.
Although the main players will expect to win back support before the 2015 election, the growing impact of smaller parties is bringing about a dramatic 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,” Ms Diez told one interviewer.
She cultivates a maverick image – an asymmetrical haircut and each fingernail painted a different colour – 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. She also wants to take back power from Spain’s powerful regional governments.
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 favouring two major parties.
Over the past 36 years, the PP and the socialists have 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 reflects political upheaval all over Europe, where populists and extremists have tapped into public rejection of austerity measures, immigration, recession and unemployment.
Ms Diez’s father was imprisoned for his political beliefs under Franco and she says she was “nursed on politics”. After Franco died and Spain finally held elections, in 1977, she 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 Left and 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,” said one supporter, Jose Miguel Delgado, 47.
Ms Diez has tapped into public outrage over the costly bailout for banks that loaned recklessly during the property boom. Her party is suing former board members of Bankia, which almost collapsed last year and received the biggest bailout in Spain’s history.