Party leaders vie for undecided voters in first TV debate

Clockwise, from top-left: Pablo Casado (PP), Pedro Sánchez (PSOE), Pablo Iglesias (UP), Albert Rivera (Cs). Image: YouTube
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With as many as 30 percent of Spanish voters still saying they are undecided over which party they’ll vote for on 28th April, the four leading candidates squared off Monday night in the first of two televised debates in which they sought to peel off votes from the other parties in an exceedingly close race to win a governable majority in Spain’s 350-member Congress.

The latest polls going into Monday night’s debate showed the Socialist party (PSOE) of President Pedro Sánchez in the lead among voters, with roughly 29 percent of the vote share for an estimated 129 seats in Congress, falling far short of the required 176 seats needed to govern.

That means the PSOE will need to strike an agreement with one or more other parties to form a stable government after the election and has forced the parties into two opposing camps on the political right and left. Even so, voter preference surveys published at the weekend show that neither camp has a clear shot at forming a governing coalition.


► ► CLICK ABOVE TO WATCH FULL DEBATE VIDEO ► ►

The conservative Partido Popular (PP), led by party general secretary Pablo Casado, is running second in the polls with around 18 percent of the vote, translating into about 75 seats in the next Congress — nearly half of the 137 seats it controlled in the last legislature.

Centre-right Ciudadanos, led by Albert Rivera, is running in third place among voters, with about 14 percent of the vote for 49 seats; and fourth-ranked Unidas Podemos , led by Podemos general secretary Pablo Iglesias, is holding steady in fourth place n the polls with around 13 percent for 33 congressional seats.

The proverbial “elephant in the room” and absent from the stage in Monday night’s debate was Spain’s new ultra-right VOX party, which is polling as high as 12.5 percent of the estimated vote, could win as many as 32 seats in the new Congress and thereby be a deciding factor in bringing a PP-Ciudadanos-VOX coalition to power if the vote on election day trends to the right.

VOX has been barred by the national Junta Electoral Central elections board from participating in debates during the run-up to the 28th April elections, because under Spanish election legislation only parties with 5 percent of the vote in the last previous national elections are allowed to participate.

Monday night’s four-way debate among the candidates saw Ciudadanos’ Rivera engage in an agitated and sustained attack, lashing out against Sánchez for not being tough enough on Catalonia’s pro-independence parties, against Casado for the PP’s record of corruption in politics, and against both parties for having rotated in power throughout the past four decades without having — in Rivera’s eyes — reformed Spain’s economy or political system.

Casado meanwhile attempted with little success to turn the debate into a duel between the two front-runners over the PP and PSOE’s respective handling of Spain’s economy, while Iglesias repeatedly referenced the country’s Constitution in calling on the other parties to do more to defend the rights of Spanish workers and the poor to adequate housing, improved healthcare, education, an increased minimum wage and inflation-indexing of worker retirement pensions.

The assault from all sides appeared to do little to fluster front-runner Sánchez, who repeatedly used his time to underline the social and economic achievements during the 10-month tenure of government, following his party’s ascent to power last May through a no-confidence vote that ousted the PP’s Mariano Rajoy from the presidential palace.

Most observers saw the first televised debate as a draw, but the candidates will have a chance to change tack and attempt to exploit their opponents’ weaknesses in a second debate scheduled for Tuesday night on broadcaster Atresmedia’s Antena 3 and Sexta channels.

► Read More in Spanish at El Diario, La Vanguardia and El Periódico …

► Read More in English at El País, AP via Washington Post and the BBC …

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