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Starting shot for the elections

Rajoy and Rubalcaba dramatize their positions with an eye to bringing out the voters

The last State of the Nation debate in the run-up to the European elections saw both sides reaffirming their positions. There were no proposals for parliamentary consensus or even dialogue on matters of state such as the Catalan question or the issue of immigration. What we saw was a prime minister who says the crisis is over, and an opposition eager to cast doubt on any such analysis.

Trotting out statistics that point to a beginning of recovery, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy drew a complacent picture of the government’s successful policies — a success, he admitted, built on “sacrifices made by the Spanish people.” Aimed at mobilizing undecided voters, the speech featured mentions of “empty pockets,” reduced contributions to the Social Security system (to favor permanent job contracts), a fiscal reform which, he said, is to benefit 12 million income taxpayers, and the time-frame in which this will happen: “starting in 2015” (a year in which local, regional and general elections are due).

As was to be expected, the leader of the opposition, Socialist Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, questioned the economic recovery proclaimed by Rajoy and reproached him for having chosen options which have proven so damaging to workers and the economically disadvantaged. In this context he brought forth an argument of considerable ideological effect: Rajoy has carried out, with the pretext of the crisis, the program that the right has always desired for Spain.

Rubalcaba and the United Left’s Cayo Lara called for the withdrawal of the controversial abortion reform bill, and the prime minister said it will remain; the Socialist leader described the citizens security law as a step backward in liberties, and Rajoy denied that this was the case.

The prime minister devoted the most emphatic passage of his speech to a promise that there will be no unilateral referendum in Catalonia, defending the principle of national unity. There was one novelty: he left the door open to the possibility of a change in the Constitution — “it can be reformed” — a shift from his previous stance. Rubalcaba repeated that you cannot forever say no to dialogue. But the speaker who argued most stubbornly in favor of dialogue on the Catalan question was the spokesman for the CiU nationalist bloc, Josep Antoni Duran Lleida, who called for an agreement “that must take the people of Catalonia into account.” Rajoy went no further than to point to his concern for the people who live in Catalonia and their economic plight, before stressing once again the primacy of the Constitution and the law.

The squabble brought out one problem — apparently minor, but important from the constitutional point of view — which is the degree of proportionality in the electoral laws. The reform of the statute of Castilla-La Mancha was termed by Rubalcaba as an operation of gerrymandering, designed to favor the re-election of the Popular Party’s María Dolores de Cospedal. As the day progressed, the tone of the debate heated up, with frequent reference to newspaper headlines from the archives, and an exchange of accusation over who has told more lies and broken more electoral promises. All very pre-electoral, with dramatic emphasis on the difference of positions, and only of relative utility to a public that is already skeptical about politicians and their ability to solve their problems.

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