Who is the communist shaking up Spanish politics?

Yolanda Diaz currently serves as Spain's Labour Minister. Now one of the most popular politicians in the country, she appears to building a new political movement in a bid to take power at the next general election.

Spain's Minister of Labor, Yolanda Diaz, takes the oath of office.
Spain's Minister of Labor, Yolanda Diaz, takes the oath of office. Could she be the country's next leader? (Photo by Emilio NARANJO / POOL / AFP)

Spain’s rising political star is Communist Labour Minister Yolanda Diaz, who has won over employers and voters and is now trying to carve out a new space on the far left before the next general election.

Little known two years ago, polls show the 50-year-old labour lawyer is Spain’s most highly regarded politician, ahead of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and the leaders of conservative parties.

Conservative daily newspaper ABC has called her Spain’s “most powerful female politician” and on Facebook fan pages her supporters dream she will become the nation’s first woman PM.

A card-carrying member of the Spanish Communist Party, Diaz entered Sanchez’s coalition government with far-left party Podemos in January 2020.

Her profile rose further in May this year after the charismatic but polarising leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, passed the reins of the far left to her after he decided to quit politics.

She was appointed to the post of second deputy prime minister in July.

With her permanent smile, she cultivates a friendly and conciliatory image that contrasts with Iglesias’ often angry tone which has been welcomed by business leaders.

READ ALSO Podemos’ Pablo Iglesias quits politics after Madrid regional elections drubbing

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit Spain, Diaz negotiated with unions and business associations the terms of the country’s furlough scheme, which offered financial aid for hundreds of thousands of workers whose jobs were hit by the health crisis.

She is also responsible for a law protecting delivery workers and is now in talks to reform the country’s labour laws which has led her to clash with Socialist cabinet members.

‘Something wonderful’

With her popularity surging, Diaz was one of the main drivers of a meeting on November 13 of leftist activists dubbed “Other Politics” in the eastern city of Valencia.

The gathering was widely seen as a first step towards creating a new far-left platform that will stand in the next general election due in two years time.

“This is the start of something that is going to be wonderful,” she said as she was surrounded by leftist women politicians.

READ ALSO A foreigner’s guide to understanding Spanish politics in five minutes

Cristina Monge, a political scientist at the University of Zaragoza, said Diaz “does not talk of parties” but instead of a “different organisational model” that puts the emphasis on civil society.

The strategy aims to “expand the space” occupied by the left with a focus on “feminism, environmentalism and social justice” at a time when Podemos has slumped in the polls.

“Diaz is aware that Podemos is no longer in its moment of glory,” Monge told AFP.

‘Watching closely’

Diaz was born into a family of trade unionists in the same region of Galicia in northwestern Spain where former right-wing dictator Francisco Franco hailed from.

Her father was a member of the Communist Party during the dictatorship when the formation was illegal and she entered municipal politics in Galicia in 2003.

Her pride in her political affiliation led her to get married decked out in red, and she likes to tell of how when she was aged four she received a kiss on her hand from the historic leader of the Spanish Communist Party, Santiago Carrillo.

As her profile has risen, Diaz has changed her style, dyeing her hair from brown to blonde and dressing more elegantly, a change that analysts say makes her more appealing to more centrist voters.

Podemos, however, will seek to position itself clearly on the far left and ensure it continues to lead this part of the political spectrum, said Monge.

Most polls currently put the main opposition conservative Popular Party on top in voting intentions, slightly ahead of the Socialists.

The Socialists are “watching closely” to see what Diaz does as they are aware that they will need the support of the far left again to continue to govern after the next election, Monge added.

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Spain’s PP is hot on the heels of PSOE, but will they need Vox to govern?

With the next general election slated for December 2023, recent polling shows Spain's Conservatives gaining ground on the Socialists. Spanish political correspondent Conor Faulkner looks at whether the PP will need far-right Vox to govern, as they now do at a regional level.

Spain's PP is hot on the heels of PSOE, but will they need Vox to govern?

Recent polling from Spain’s CIS (Centre for Sociological Research) shows the incumbent PSOE-led government with a slight, but shrinking, advantage over opposition parties.

On 30.3 percent, Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE would form the government if elections were held today, but that score is unimproved since April and, crucially, the centre-right party Popular Party is gaining, polling at 28.7 percent in May, with the difference between the two now only 1.6 percent.

In fact, PP have been on a steady rise since a turbulent start to 2022 in which former leader Pablo Casado was forced to resign after becoming entangled in intra-party infighting with PP’s regional President in Madrid, Isabel Ayuso.

Casado was replaced by Galician Alberto Núñez Feijóo, considered to be a more traditional centre-right candidate in the mould of Rajoy, who served as President of Galicia between 2009-2022.

PROFILE: Feijóo, steady hand on the tiller for Spain’s opposition party

Whereas Casado was often drawn into scandal and outflanked on cultural issues by far-right Vox, Feijóo is considered a more conventional conservative less prone to populism, and his short tenure as leader has put the PP back on the road to electoral respectability. 

PP were polling around 21 percent in February, amid the public infighting, but since then have steadily risen to the 28.7 percent that they would get if an election were held today, according to recent CIS numbers.

Yet, while many view Feijóo as more centrist than his predecessor, at the regional level far-right Vox have entered into a regional government coalition with PP in Castilla y León.

With important regional elections looming in Andalusia in June, and a general election further down the line in December 2023, it remains unclear if PP would be forced to rely on Vox to overcome PSOE’s thin polling advantage and form a national government.

Crucially, PP’s recent rise has not chipped away at Vox’s polling numbers. According to the CIS, Vox’s polling numbers grew from 14.8 percent in April to 16.6 percent in May, and with centrist Cuidadanos all but electorally wiped out, hovering around 2 or 3 percent all year, and the far-left, junior coalition partner Podemos falling further in the polls, to below 10 percent, the CIS estimate a higher probability of a right-wing PP-Vox (45 percent) than they do a PSOE-Podemos (39.9 percent) government.

With Vox now firmly established as Spain’s third political party and already on the offensive in Castilla y Leon’s regional government – including its Minister of Industry, Commerce and Employment in the assembly recently declaring war against “the virus of communism” – all eyes will be on the upcoming Andalusian regional elections to see if PP is again forced to rely on Vox members to form a government.

Vox’s anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, climate-sceptic populist policy programme is controversial, and the prospect of them as junior coalition partner in a national government would be an abrupt change from a government that wants to introduce menstrual leave and provide financial aid to renters.

Their entry into government at the regional level in Castilla y León was the first time they have officially entered into an executive, at any level, although PP have relied on Vox votes in regional assemblies in both Murcia and Andalusia in the past.

READ ALSO: Spanish cabinet approves paid ‘menstrual leave’

Whereas under Casado’s leadership PP were often forced rightward on cultural issues in an effort to stop Vox shaving away at their core electoral base, under Feijóo the future is less clear. Although Feijóo is considered more centrist than his predecessor, Vox’s steady rise since its emergence into Spanish politics since 2014 worries many on the left and centre, particularly as it has now officially entered into government at the regional level.

Yet, Feijóo seems keen to draw some distinction between the two parties. “The leaders of Vox cannot prove experience in management [of the country] because they do not have it, [and] it seems that they do not like the European Union… the State of Autonomies does not satisfy them either,” he said this week, but did recognise their electoral gains as “obvious.”

“The difference between Vox and the PP,” he continued, “is that a good part of Vox leaders came from the PP and left the common home.”

“We are very interested in those votes that those leaders have because they were votes that the PP had. And, as you will understand, we are here to win,” he added.

What exactly that means for the future political makeup of La Moncloa – whether Feijóo intends to win back those votes for PP or keep them in the ‘common home’ and work with Vox in coalition – remains unclear.

With the Sánchez-led coalition having had almost its entire term swallowed up by the global pandemic, then war in Europe, and now a cost of living and inflation crisis, it seems likely the left could lose the next general election and the Spanish right will return to power.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether that means a PP government or a PP-Vox coalition and the prospect of the far-right in government. All eyes will be on Andalusia in June to see how Feijóo pivots his party as it looks ahead to general elections next year. 

READ ALSO: What a Vox government could mean for foreigners in Spain