The Galician-speaking communist who has become Spain’s most popular politician
When voters go to the polls in Spain’s snap general election next Sunday, right-wing parties are expected to make gains on the back of their campaign targeting the minority socialist government’s cooperation with pro-independence parties from the Basque Country and Catalonia.
And yet the single most popular politician in Spain remains a member of the communist party who speaks Galician and cooperated closely with independentists during her political ascendancy.
Yolanda Diaz, Spain’s labour minister and leader of the new Sumar coalition of left-wing parties, is bucking the trend towards the right of the political spectrum and the centralisation of power in Spain.
“In the Galician political sphere, Yolanda Díaz is seen as a savvy politician who was able to seize the opportunities created by the new Spanish left-wing party Podemos to make it into the state-wide political arena,” explained Professor Helena Miguelez-Carballeira of the Centre for Galician Studies in Wales at Bangor University.
“Since then, she has become vice-president in the current coalition government. She is Galician and is seen as a Galician in the Spanish public sphere, but Galician national politics do not determine her practice.”
The 52-year-old labour lawyer is from Ferrol in Galicia, a town on the Atlantic coast with a history of trade union militancy which grew around its shipping industry.
Her father was imprisoned for his union activism during the Franco dictatorship and she has described herself as a “child of the [communist] party”.
Diaz is still a member of the Communist Party of Spain, but says she has only kept the party card out of loyalty to her father and is independent of any party.
Instead, her ability to form a diverse range of coalitions has been central to a two decade journey from municipal councillor to vice-president of the Spanish government.
After first becoming deputy mayor of Ferrol as part of a coalition with the Spanish Socialist party, she won a seat in the Galician parliament in 2012 as part of the Galician Left Alternative (AGE) coalition which included left-wing activists who had split from the Galician Nationalist Bloc.
In 2016, she was elected to the Spanish parliament as part of En Marea, which included the Galician branch of Podemos, and this year she formed her own 14-party coalition, Sumar, to re-energise the left following disastrous local election results for Podemos in May.
“We broke a taboo which had existed, not just in Galicia, but across Spain: A nationwide party like United Left was joining forces not just with nationalists but with those who wanted independence,” Rubén Pérez, a former advisor to Diaz, told Politico of the Galician Left Alternative.
“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.”
There was no taboo for Diaz as her father’s twin brother, Xosé Díaz, was a leading member of the Galician Nationalist Bloc as well as being a trade unionist.
She speaks Galician fluently and uses it frequently on the campaign trail.
“Meetings are always done in Galician,” a Galician political insider told Nation.Cymru. “Whenever I’ve heard her speak, you can tell that she’s not a person that uses it only in politics and that her family spoke Galician to her at home.”
A ”deep wound” is still felt within her uncle’s party about the splintering of their party which helped her enter the Galician parliament, they said. But added she is still seen as the best bet by many.
“Yolanda Diaz has an idea of a [Spanish] federation,” added the source. “She recognises the existence of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia as countries within Spain. She’s not pro self-determination. She’s more of the opinion of better together but wider recognition of these nation’s rights than the socialists have.”
That stands in stark contrast to the plans of the conservative Popular Party and far-right Vox, who want to centralise power in Madrid and curb efforts to promote languages other than Spanish.
Vox also wants to make pro-independence parties in the Basque Country and Catalonia illegal and repeal the 2007 ‘historical memory’ law condemning Franco’s fascist regime and granting compensation to its victims.
Fears of a coalition between the two right-wing parties have been raised by similar arrangements put in place at local level since May’s municipal elections.
Only a week after forming a coalition with the Popular Party in the town of Borriana in Valencia, Vox announced their intention to remove Catalan language magazines from the public library.
The Popular Party is ahead in the polls but predicted to fall short of a majority, meaning Vox could become the kingmaker at state level too.
However, the success of Sumar has chipped away at the right bloc’s lead and could give Diaz the power to negotiate a new left-wing administration come Sunday.
Neck and neck
Sumar started the campaign on just 7 per cent but has doubled their support over the course of the campaign and are now neck and neck with Vox, the Europe Elects poll tracker shows.
That’s largely thanks to Diaz personally, who has topped all but one of the monthly polls on Spain’s most trusted politicians since she replaced former Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias as vice-president in May 2021 and de-facto flag bearer of the Spanish left.
But she has also put forward bold ideas which have helped to take back control of the narrative from the far-right.
After raising Spain’s minimum wage by 8% earlier this year, Diaz is promising a shorter working week without loss of pay and a £17,000 payment for all 18-year-olds to spend on study, training or starting a business.
The dividing lines between the parties couldn’t be clearer for voters.
“On July 23, Spain will decide between two kinds of government – two coalitions,” Diaz said of the election.
“The coalition of rights, freedom and progress – a coalition of us and the socialist party – and the coalition of hatred.”
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.