MADRID — A little more than half a decade after Podemos caused a political earthquake in Spain, a new left-wing phenomenon has arrived in the shape of Yolanda Díaz.
The labor minister’s stock has soared as she has cultivated a personal brand away from existing political parties, making her a hotly tipped contender to become the country’s first female prime minister.
Polls show Díaz, who also holds one of three deputy prime ministerial posts, has the best approval ratings of any national political leader, marginally ahead of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.
“I’m a woman of the Atlantic coast,” Díaz, who is from the northwestern region of Galicia, told POLITICO. “Those of us who are from the coast tend to be more open, but it’s also true that Galicia is a land of calm and of careful people and also that the most important thing about politics for us is dialogue. This is very much true for me, it’s something I use every day.”
Díaz, 50, is a labor lawyer who made a name for herself in the Galician wing of the communist-led United Left (IU) before winning a seat in the Spanish congress.
In 2020, she was appointed to Sánchez’s Cabinet, one of five ministers representing Unidas Podemos (UP), the junior partner in the new coalition. However, Díaz is an independent: She holds membership of the Spanish Communist Party but only, she says, in tribute to her father, a union leader who was jailed during the Franco dictatorship.
“I don’t have a party, I’m not a militant, but I come from that culture of people who brought democracy to this country,” she said. “I’m a progressive woman and I think my policies are social democratic.”
Her profile had been rising throughout the pandemic due to her close involvement in the government’s furlough scheme and an increase in the minimum wage earlier this year. The spotlight turned firmly on her in May, when UP’s founder and leader Pablo Iglesias resigned from national politics and declared his friend Díaz an ideal candidate for UP in the next general election.
However, she is keeping her distance from Iglesias’s hard-left party, which has been losing voters ever since its heady early success.
“She has an image as a deal-maker, an image that is not at all confrontational, that is pleasant and agreeable and that contrasts starkly with the classic image of Podemos and Pablo Iglesias,” said Pablo Simón, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III University. “She knows that she is an electoral asset, whereas Podemos is an obstacle for her popularity.”
That awareness was made clear in November, when Díaz led a group of left-leaning female leaders — Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, Valencian regional vice-president Mónica Oltra and Fátima Hamed Hossain of the Ceuta municipal assembly, but nobody from Podemos — in unveiling a new initiative called Otras Políticas (a play on words meaning both “other female politicians” and “other policies”).
Díaz insists the still rather vague project seeks to gather views from voters around the country rather than establishing an electoral platform. But it has fed speculation that the labor minister is preparing to run for prime minister on a broad ticket untainted by existing parties.
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“I’ve always worked across different parties and have been involved in political mergers with a diverse range of people. I’ve always said that success lies in combinations,” she said.
Rubén Pérez, who worked directly under Díaz when she led the Galician wing of IU, said her willingness to form alliances was crucial.
“We broke a taboo which had existed, not just in Galicia, but across Spain: A nationwide party like IU was joining forces not just with [Galician] nationalists but with those who wanted independence,” he said. “One of the big problems of the Spanish left in the past has been internal party tensions. She has been able to look beyond that and see the bigger picture.”
On December 11, she visited Pope Francis in the Vatican, a move seen as broadening the electoral appeal of Díaz, who does not practice any religion, in a country where the left has often had a difficult relationship with the Catholic Church.
But in a polarized Spain, not everyone buys her moderate image.
Pedro J. Rodríguez, editor of the right-leaning El Español news site, warned the country “does not deserve the terrible destiny that having a communist like Yolanda Díaz as prime minister would mean, however nice, friendly and flexible she may be.”
She so far hasn’t drawn the kind of fierce hostility from the right that Iglesias did, but within Podemos there is unease at her insistence on keeping the party at arm’s length.
Meanwhile, Díaz’s much-vaunted consensus-building powers have been put to the test during negotiations with fellow ministers and business leaders over labor reform. Her determination to replace existing legislation, which she believes foments precariousness in the labor market, has clashed with the less drastic approach of Sánchez’s Socialists, who preferred to revise the current law. Díaz has invested much of her own political capital in the bill, which is due to be unveiled before the end of the year.
“She represents expectations of what the ‘new left’ might have been but was not able to achieve,” said Simón the political scientist in reference to Podemos.
“But when the electoral machine gets going,” he added, “we’ll see how she does. Because right now her party is hypothetical, it still doesn’t exist.”
Iván Redondo, who until recently was a senior advisor to PM Sánchez, believes Díaz is a genuine political force who could soon overshadow his old boss.
“Yolanda Díaz has a good chance of becoming Spain’s first woman prime minister,” he noted. “And make no mistake: The longer this legislature lasts, the better her chances get.”
“I’m not thinking about that,” Díaz said when asked if she planned to run in the next general election, which is slated for 2023 but could feasibly come earlier. Once the labor reform is behind her, however, she could start to look a lot more like an electoral candidate.