20 Jul, 2023 @ 10:21
3 mins read

Debate ahead of Sunday’s general election in Spain marked by absence of Popular Party candidate

2023 election debate

THREE of the prime ministerial candidates ahead of this weekend’s general election in Spain slugged it out during a live TV debate on Wednesday night, but there was a notable absence on the screens of state broadcaster TVE. 

Missing from the head-to-head was Popular Party leader Alberto Nuñez Feijoo, who opted not to appear. He was, however, a constant topic of the conversation, being mentioned nearly 70 times by current prime minister Pedro Sanchez of the Socialist Party, leader of far-right Vox Santiago Abascal, and deputy prime minister and head of the new leftist alliance Sumar, Yolanda Diaz.

The 90 minutes of debate were intense, but markedly less bad-tempered and with fewer interruptions than were seen last week when Feijoo and Sanchez debated on a rival television network. On that occasion, the moderators did little to stop the sparks that were flying between the political rivals, whereas last night the moderator was almost goading the participants into getting stuck into one another. 

The polls suggest that a PP and Vox coalition will be the most likely way a government can be formed after Sunday’s vote, but a Socialist-Sumar union is also a possibility with the support of smaller parties. 

As such, Sanchez and Diaz were clearly in tune with one another during the debate, referring to each other by their christian names and using the familiar tu rather than the usted they reserved for Abascal. 

Splits in left

There were, however, a few disagreements between the leftist politicians: Diaz made clear that a red line for her party would be any further raising of the retirement age (in Spain it is currently between 65 and 67, depending on factors such as years worked). 

Sanchez, for his part, was sceptical about Diaz’s proposal for a universal payment of €20,000 to all young Spaniards. “I agree with Yolanda, but we need to keep our feet on the ground,” he stated. 

For his part, Santiago Abascal kept quiet about whether he would demand a place in government should the PP and Vox end up forging a deal. He defended himself from the joint attacks made by Sanchez and Diaz by arguing that the pair were concerned that the ‘end of the world’ was coming instead of focussing on the problems faced by ordinary Spaniards ‘who can’t get to the end of the month’ with enough money in their pockets. 

He honed in on the government’s climate change law from 2021, arguing that the legislation ‘doesn’t fill Spaniards’ fridges, doesn’t pay electricity bills, doesn’t put anything in the tills of businesses and doesn’t reach the pockets of Spaniards’. 

The tensest moments came when Diaz was quizzing Abascal about his party’s track record on domestic violence against women, something that Vox denies exists in favour of ‘inter-family violence’ with no gender distinction. 

The Sumar leader confronted Abascal with a photo of two Vox politicians who, she claimed, were laughing at a homage to a domestic violence victim. She also called on the far-right politician to apologise for incorrectly claiming that the recent murder of a shopkeeper in central Madrid had been carried out by immigrants when the true culprits were Spanish. 

Feijoo ‘ashamed’

As for Feijoo, Prime Minister Sanchez was scathing with his criticism.  “Mr Feijoo is not here so that he does not have to take responsibility for all of the lies he told at the other debate,” he railed. “And also because he is ashamed of appearing with Mr Abascal. He does deals with him, and he governs with him, but he is ashamed to appear alongside him.”

Sanchez was referring to the hundreds of agreements reached between the PP and Vox in local councils in the wake of the May 28 elections, as well as the regions where the two parties have gone into government together, including Castilla y León and Valencia. 

“It doesn’t seem normal to me to attack a person who is not here to defend themselves,” Abascal replied. 

For Spanish daily El Pais, “the absence of Feijoo illustrated the inconsistencies of the far right compared to the cohesion between Sanchez and Diaz”. 

Whether all Spaniards watching will have thought the same is moot, but the debate did at least give viewers a chance to reflect on three of the four prime ministerial candidates before Sunday’s vote. 

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Simon Hunter

Simon Hunter has been living in Madrid since the year 2000 and has worked as a journalist and translator practically since he arrived. For 16 years he was at the English Edition of Spanish daily EL PAÍS, editing the site from 2014 to 2022, and is currently one of the Spain reporters at The Times. He is also a voice actor, and can be heard telling passengers to "mind the gap" on Spain's AVLO high-speed trains.

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