Round Number One
Spanish candidates clash on key election issues
The Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, was accused last night of lying to and insulting the victims of terrorism by the leader of the conservative opposition, Mariano Rajoy, as the two went head-to-head in the first live TV election debate in 15 years.
The much-anticipated debate, the first of two to be held ahead of elections on March 9, saw the candidates clash over the economy, immigration, terrorism and social reform. Watched by over 13 million viewers, polls this morning suggested Zapatero had emerged the victor, though it is unlikely to have changed many voters' opinions.
Spaniards will decide in under two weeks whether to return Zapatero's socialist government to power after a first term in which he introduced a wide range of social reforms, or back the rightwing People's party (PP), which governed between 1996 and 2004.
The most contentious moments came when Rajoy repeatedly accused Zapatero of being a "liar", referring to failed peace talks with the Basque separatists that continued after Eta broke a ceasefire in December 2006, when they killed two Ecuadorians in an attack on Madrid's Barajas airport. "Which Zapatero are we to support?" asked Rajoy. "The Zapatero ... who says he won't talk politics with Eta or the Zapatero who says he will talk politics with Eta? You have lied and duped all of Spain's people ... you have negotiated politically with Eta." Rajoy accused Zapatero of insulting the victims of terrorism by negotiating with terrorists, who he said were now occupying town hall posts, paid for with taxpayer's money.
Zapatero replied that it was the PP who had lied to Spanish voters ahead of elections in March 2004, when train bombings in Madrid killed 191 people. Despite evidence that Islamist terrorists were responsible, Rajoy, then the deputy prime minister, said he believed Eta was behind the attacks. "You are the ones who have lied, you lied about March 11 [the Madrid train bombings], trying to create a conspiracy, a worthless fabrication," Zapatero said. At no point had his government received the necessary support from the opposition for its anti-terrorism policies, making it impossible for him to bring peace to the Basque country, he added.
The highly choreographed 90-minute debate, which was shown live across Spain's TV networks, was discussed in late-night chat shows and dominated the morning news programmes. Despite moments of tense disagreement, neither candidate was seen to have landed a knockout blow in what many critics felt was a stale debate, with both sides trapped in a rhetorical dead-end. This was partly due to the restrictions agreed by the two parties ahead of the debate, which was divided into various topics with strict limits on who could speak and when. Smaller regional parties, which will not be given the same primetime media coverage were particularly critical of the format, describing it as "a debate of the deaf". Gaspar Llamazares, leader of the leftwing IU party, said it consisted of little more than "two monologues", with no ideas but plenty of disagreement.
Neither the debate's mediator nor the public were allowed to ask questions, which left both sides repeating well-rehearsed arguments. Unlike the US elections, which have been enlivened by the use of video-sharing websites to allow audience participation, the debate felt old-fashioned, with the candidates incapable of rising above dry statistics to give a broader vision of the future.
The economy is likely to be the key to this election, with signs emerging in recent months that, after years of growth, Spain is facing a slowdown. During the debate, the two leaders traded statistics on everything from the price of eggs to unemployment, occasionally waving graphs and polls at each other to support their arguments. Rajoy said that under Zapatero "prices have gone up uncontrollably" and "unemployment has risen". Zapatero replied that the country had enjoyed "four years of spectacular growth". Unemployment was the lowest it has been in the history of Spain's democracy, he said, adding that Spain had far outstripped France, Germany and the UK under his leadership.
Immigration has become another key issue, in a country where 10% of the 45 million inhabitants are foreign-born. Rajoy accused Zapatero of ignoring the rising phenomenon: "You are not interested in talking about immigration, but I am ... 34% of prisoners in jail are foreign. We have to establish some order and control and your party does not want to." Rajoy has made this a central plank in the PP's campaign, targeting lower and middle class families worried about competing for increasingly scarce jobs with Spain's immigrant population. Zapatero retorted that when he came to power in 2004 there were 700,000 illegal immigrants. "We have given them contracts, with the agreement of companies and unions, while all your party did was give them a bus pass," he said.
But perhaps the most eyebrow-raising moment came at the end of the debate when Zapatero chose to sign off by saying "Good night, and good luck", in the fashion of Edward Murrow, the American TV journalist made famous in the 2005 film directed by George Clooney.
Did you notice the constructions using preposition + verbING ?
- The two politicians accused each other of lying.
- People are worried about losing their job.
- They weren't interested in discussing the important issues.
Do you respect politicians? Do you think they are honest?
Do you think it is worth voting? Why/why not?