Pedro Sánchez, the main challenger to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in this weekend’s Spanish general election, has no regrets about the words or tone he employed in a televised debate with his rival on Monday.
“I had to dismantle Mariano Rajoy’s lies and give a voice to the millions of Spaniards who feel he should have resigned,” says the Socialist Party (PSOE) leader, who has been criticized for saying to Rajoy that he is “not a decent person,” among other barbs.
My future will be decided by Spaniards and by party members. Wherever I may be, I will always serve my country and my party”
The 43-year-old prime ministerial hopeful’s party was lying second in the last voting intention poll to be released before the Sunday ballot, but he faces tough competition from emerging parties Podemos and Ciudadanos, whose leaders have described Monday’s debate as an example of outdated politics and mutual mudslinging.
The two newcomers are taking votes away from both the Popular Party (PP) and the PSOE with a message of institutional regeneration. According to the polls, the Socialists stand to lose the most votes to these new parties.
Question. Was it necessary to adopt that quarrelsome, aggressive tone in the debate with Mariano Rajoy?
Answer. I don’t share that view. It was not a quarrelsome debate. I think it was vibrant, and I needed to dismantle Rajoy’s lies. My statements were direct and issued a very tough judgment on the serious political responsibilities that fall to the prime minister after six years plagued by corruption cases, each more severe than the next, all involving the Popular Party.
Q. Did you weigh up the consequences of saying that the prime minister is not a decent person?
A. Yes, and I thought about an article by the philosopher Emilio Lledó, who wrote that decency has to return to the institutions. I found inspiration in that sentence when I said that the prime minister had to be a decent person... and Rajoy is not. I gave a voice to what millions of Spaniards think: that he should have resigned two years ago, when the Bárcenas papers emerged.
Q. Over at the PP, they say you’re ill-mannered.
A. Turning the prime minister into a victim is not the smartest thing to do, but maybe they know what they’re doing. It’s not the Socialist candidate who is the problem, it’s the PP candidate. I simply told him what a majority of Spaniards think. I couldn’t just tiptoe around the kind of serious matters that have affected and soiled Spain’s public life. I had the obligation to demand accountability. That is how I view political leadership.
Q. Were you speaking out to voters with sympathies for Podemos?
A. I can imagine what a lot of people who accuse me of being tough must be saying about me today. […] But let’s not make simple things complicated. My only campaign strategy is to tell citizens the truth, whether or not that is to the taste of Rajoy, Podemos or Ciudadanos. And I am certain that Spaniards appreciate that, and they are ultimately the ones who decide.
I had to dismantle Mariano Rajoy’s lies and give a voice to the millions of Spaniards who feel he should have resigned”
Q. But surveys show the PP winning. The PSOE would be four to five points behind. No poll shows the Socialists winning the election.
A. I think we are in a technical tie, and tactical voting will be more useful than ever in bringing an end to a government that has enacted social cuts, to the situation of having no voice in the world, in order to achieve a fair recovery and resolve the coexistence problem we have in Spain.
Q. Do you think that Spaniards have forgiven the previous Socialist administration for the cuts that have led to several election defeats?
A. Those administrations never cut back on health, education or social services, and they did not lower the lowest pensions.
Q. Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos, accuses the PSOE of saying one thing while in opposition and doing another when in government.
A. Iglesias also said that change would begin in Greece.
Q. In this campaign, do you trust your program, your party or yourself?
A. I certainly trust the program and the party, and the social-democratic project that is changing Europe and that is already there in Portugal, France and Italy, and will soon be in Spain as well.
Q. In some of those countries, it’s populism that’s making inroads.
A. Yes, it is advancing in France, Italy and Britain because of the economic, social and political crisis. We need to provide answers to those three challenges, and that is what we aim to do. Because of our program, history and project, we can represent the majority values of society.
Q. What weaknesses and deficiencies do you see as most pressing in Spain?
A. In many ways, Spain must recover the modernizing, transformative impulse of 1982 [when the PSOE first reached power after the transition back to democracy]. I want to modernize the economy and leave behind the PP’s crony capitalism; I want to rebuild the welfare state and revitalize trust in the institutions.
Q. What about constitutional reform to change Spain’s territorial structure? The debate moderator had a hard time getting either you or Mariano Rajoy to talk about Catalonia. It was like you were avoiding the subject.
A. I talk a lot about Catalonia, but Catalans have the same problems as all other Spaniards, corruption included. It would be a negative thing to talk only about the separatist challenge.
I had the obligation to demand accountability. That is how I view political leadership”
Q. In your 17 months at the helm of the party, you’ve had to make important decisions. Would more management experience have been a good thing?
A. At this point, having a party with a history and experience is essential, but so is being a new leader with a fresh vision of the challenges up ahead.
A. New faces and freshness is what Podemos and Ciudadanos are offering. When did you realize that they were here to stay?
A. They deserve some credit, but now they must decide who they want to be and stop being ambiguous, because after December 20 it’s all going to be between Rajoy and myself. That is why it is essential for the vote not to be divided, but instead rally around the PSOE, which is the only party that can really implement change.
Q. Albert Rivera [of Ciudadanos] has said that he will support neither you nor Rajoy.
A. Rivera is lying, and if he can, he will secure Rajoy’s position in La Moncloa. And Podemos has given up on winning the election and is just going after the PSOE. That is why it is essential for the vote not to fragment.
Q. If you don’t win the election, will your future as Socialist Party leader be in danger?
A. I am touched by all the interest about my own future... My future will be decided by Spaniards and by party members. Wherever I may be, I will always serve my country and my party.
Q. If you don’t win the election, will you try to form an alternative majority?
A. I aim to win the election.
Q. What line of work do you see yourself in at a future time?
A. Without a doubt, as a university lecturer.
English version by Susana Urra.