“Divide and conquer” has been a classic combat strategy since the days of Julius Caesar. In Spain, the war over who gets to lead the political right played out openly on Tuesday night, during the second televised candidate debate ahead of the general election on Sunday.
The constant clashes between Pablo Casado and Albert Rivera, the leaders of the Popular Party (PP) and Ciudadanos (Citizens), meant that the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist Party (PSOE), was largely spared the onslaught that he had been expecting.
A pretend president like Sánchez is not going to give me lessons on gender violence
PP leader Pablo Casado
At the first debate on Monday, Sánchez had faced a barrage of criticism from his rivals, which also include Pablo Iglesias of the leftist Podemos party, particularly over the issue of Catalan independence.
On Tuesday, however, Casado and Rivera focused on one another as the prime minister looked on, seemingly perplexed at the way his rivals were ignoring him altogether at times.
Meanwhile Iglesias, who refused to join the mudslinging and tried to bring a different tone to the debate – Rivera at one point asked him whether he was the referee – focused on a constructive message based on the defense of social services.
The issue of gender violence proved particularly divisive, and the exchange of accusations between Sánchez, Casado and Rivera became personal. The socialist leader attacked the PP president over his track record on this matter, and Casado reacted immediately: “A pretend president like Sánchez is not going to give me lessons on gender violence. I will not tolerate your finger-pointing. I have a mother, a wife, a daughter. It is an insult to say that the PP does not fight gender violence. You are using women.”
The far right talks about lice-ridden leftist women and about feminist dictatorships
PM Pedro Sánchez
In a rare moment of harmony, Rivera backed Casado. “This is a scourge that affects everyone, Mr Sánchez. Don’t be petty, don’t use women. This is everyone’s cause. This country does not deserve such a PM.”
Sánchez fought back with a warning about the risk of “having these two govern with the far right, which talks about lice-ridden leftist women and about feminist dictatorships.” The PM was alluding to Vox, the ultra-nationalist party that could win up to 10% of the vote on Sunday. Vox was not present at either one of the debates after election authorities said this was not possible due to the party’s lack of congressional representation.
Sánchez and Rivera also had personal messages for one another, backed up by props they brought to the set of the state broadcaster TVE. The Ciudadanos candidate pulled out a copy of Sánchez’s doctoral thesis, alluding to a scandal over alleged plagiarism by the PM, and said: “Since today is Saint George’s Day [observed in Catalonia by exchanging gifts of books and roses], I’m going to give you a book you haven’t read, your own fake thesis.”
Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera
Sánchez was ready for this: he also produced a book, written by Vox leader Santiago Abascal and featuring a Spanish flag on the cover, “so you can see what you allies say.” Sánchez had been hoping to have Abascal at the debates in order to better illustrate his campaign message about “the three rights” that could govern Spain.
The tone reached such a low point that Iglesias, who remained in the zen mode he has adopted throughout the campaign, made a desperate plea: “I am feeling very embarrassed about the way this debate is going.”
English version by Susana Urra.