After declining to participate in two previous debates involving multiple candidates – including one organized by EL PAÍS – Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy finally faced off with one of his election challengers on Monday night.
With six days to go before voters go to the polls in a general election that will likely break Spain’s two-party hegemony, the Popular Party (PP) incumbent and his Socialist (PSOE) rival, Pedro Sánchez, took part in a bitter exchange that included numerous accusations of corruption and lies.
I am an honest politician, at least as much as yourself. Nobody has ever accused me of appropriating anything” Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy
The Socialist candidate went as far as to tell Rajoy that “you are not a decent person.”
The tone of the debate was such that Albert Rivera, leader of emerging party Ciudadanos, later compared it to mud-wrestling.
“Pedro Sánchez has taken it down to the mud, and mud is where he feels comfortable,” said Rivera, whose party could win around 18 percent of the vote, according to the latest voting intention poll. “You win when you are right, not when you insult others. We have seen the prime minister of another era, of an era that is running out of time.”
Pablo Iglesias, leader of the other new challenger, Podemos, spoke in similar terms.
“I think we have seen an epilogue, a debate trapped in the past. Let the people be the judge,” said Iglesias, whose party ranks third in voting intention in the latest poll. “Albert and I may have significant ideological differences, but I don’t think anybody has seen us insulting each other this way.”
Organized by the Spanish Television Academy and moderated by veteran broadcast journalist Manuel Campo Vidal, the debate opened with both candidates being asked to sum up their idea of Spain in one minute.
Instead, Sánchez went on at length about Rajoy’s absence at the previous debates. Eight minutes into the program, he began attacking the prime minister over his party’s numerous cases of graft, and accused him of “lying” to Spaniards.
The Socialist candidate also claimed that Spain received a bailout, in reference to a 2012 European credit line for the Spanish banking sector, which was struggling from the effects of the economic crisis.
Rajoy retorted that his party, which won a landslide victory in November 2011 after eight years of Socialist government, saved a financial system that the PSOE had left “on the brink of bankruptcy.”
Spain’s pensions system was another major subject of dispute between the 60-year-old incumbent and his 43-year-old challenger.
“You are going to slash retired people’s pensions by half,” claimed the Socialist.
Rajoy replied that “in order to maintain them, there is no choice but to create jobs and make people contribute [to the Social Security system].”
The debate got even more heated when Sánchez accused the prime minister of “cutting back women’s right to motherhood.”
Rajoy called this statement “intolerable” and demanded an explanation, but Sánchez failed to provide one.
Pedro Sánchez has taken it down to the mud, and mud is where he feels comfortable” Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera
When talk turned to taxes, things got personal again. “Do you know whose taxes you’ve lowered? Your PP friends’ taxes, that’s who,” said Sánchez. “That is false,” replied Rajoy.
And then the conservative leader decided that he had taken as much as he was willing to take on the subject of corruption.
“I am an honest politician, at least as much as yourself. Nobody has ever accused me of appropriating anything,” he said, calling Sánchez’s words “contemptible, petty and mean-spirited.”
Rajoy used his last on-screen minute to insist on the idea that Spain is on its way to an economic recovery thanks to his government’s action.
“We are a great nation and we must persevere,” he said, promising renewed efforts to create jobs, maintain pensions and welfare, fight against terrorism and guarantee the unity of Spain – a reference to the Catalan independence bid.
For his part, Sánchez used his last minute to posit that “Spain needs a change” to ensure social integration, achieve a fair economic recovery and put an end to corruption. “The PSOE is the only alternative for real change.”
English version by Susana Urra.
Sánchez crowned debate winner by EL PAÍS readers
Readers of the EL PAÍS website voted Socialist candidate Pedro Sánchez the winner of the televised debate with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Monday night.
Sánchez was crowned the victor by 48.73 percent of respondents, compared with 46.23 percent who felt that Rajoy performed better.
A total of 46,501 people participated in the online survey, which was available between 10pm and a few minutes before midnight on Monday. The survey blocked the IP address of each voter once they had cast their ballots to prevent double voting.
Although the informal poll lacks scientific rigor, it provides a good sense of the early impression made on viewers by both candidates.
The televised debate attracted much comment on social media. One related hashtag – #CaraACaraL6 – was the biggest trending topic in Spain during the program.