MADRID (Reuters) -Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Alberto Nunez Feijoo, leader of the conservative People’s Party (PP), held a fractious live television debate on Monday, ahead of a national election on July 23.
The pair tore into each other on a range of topics from the economy, housing, and pensions, to the environment, international relations, and policies towards women, interrupting regularly, waving numerical charts, rolling their eyes and gesticulating furiously.
While both candidates pronounced themselves satisfied with the outcome, viewers and analysts said the two parties’ plans for governance were eclipsed by the chaotic performance. Many criticised the programme’s two hosts for failing to rein them in.
“They got entangled in the differences between them, which has harmed both equally,” Maria Jose Canel, Professor of Political Communication at Madrid’s Complutense University, said, adding that while veteran showman Sanchez had been more “histrionic” than anticipated, the taciturn Feijoo had performed better than she expected.
With just under two weeks to go until the vote, opinion polls predict Feijoo as the likely winner, although he would probably need the support of far-right party Vox.
Some surveys, though, show the Socialists (PSOE) closing the gap just over a month since Sanchez announced the snap election following regional elections in which his party underperformed.
ECONOMY AS A MOTORBIKE
The candidates cited different metrics of inflation, economic growth and employment to paint the incumbent’s economic stewardship through the COVID pandemic and the Ukraine war as either exemplary or disastrous.
Sanchez highlighted that Spain is among only a few European countries that has tamed inflation to below the European Central Bank’s 2% target by 2023. Evidence, he said, that “we are going in the right direction”.
Feijoo said Sanchez’s claim that the economy was moving “like a motorbike… shows a lack of respect to Spaniards,” citing people struggling to afford their weekly groceries.
Both candidates ran into uncomfortable territory on their policies related to women.
The leftist government of Sanchez was forced to apologise in April for a loophole in a sexual violence law that saw at least 1,155 imprisoned offenders have their sentences reduced or ended early.
Feijoo’s PP has sealed coalition agreements in several Spanish regions and cities with Vox that include reframing gender violence as “intra-family violence”. Feijoo himself was recently pilloried for saying a Vox electoral candidate convicted of gender violence had a “hard divorce”.
Feijoo told Sanchez: “Those men who raped in the street are in the street because of you – there are more than 1,000 of them.”
Sanchez responded: “In Spain there is indeed a problem of sexual aggression. A legal error is corrected, but a macho statement made knowingly is not an error, it’s something else.”
The pair also clashed over the awkward bedfellows they may have to pick to secure the 176 parliamentary seats they would need to govern after the election.
Feijoo underscored the PSOE’s relying on the Basque separatist party EH Bildu – linked to the now-defunct terrorist group ETA – for votes to pass laws.
“You cannot lecture us on pacts,” he told Sanchez. “Bildu is your partner.”
Sanchez responded by quoting comments made by Vox lawmakers that were chauvinist or questioned climate change and the validity of COVID vaccines.
“You have made a shameless exchange of rights for votes,” he spat, leaving Feijoo momentarily speechless.
Jose Miguel Contreras, Professor of Communication at Madrid’s King Juan Carlos University, said with the debate taking place “at a delicate moment in the electoral process”, its influence could be “decisive”.
The late-night debate was broadcast simultaneously on the right-wing Antena 3 and laSexta, which is aimed at a left-wing audience. Both channels are owned by Atresmedia.
(Reporting by Belen Carreno and Corina Rodriguez, writing by Belen Carreno and Aislinn Laing; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)
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