Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Spanish General Election 2008....The Real Rajoy

I went to bed last night after the electoral debate between Zapatero and Rajoy feeling that neither of the two contenders had managed to land any kind of killer blow, in what was a tense and nervy encounter. However, it’s always difficult to disentangle your own feelings about the participants and take a cooler, more distant view. So this morning I decided to look first at a pro-Rajoy news source (El Mundo) to see how the political right had interpreted the debate. Once I saw that their poll had Zapatero as the winner then I realised that my own assessment wasn’t so affected by my (fully justified) prejudices against Rajoy. If anything, I had slightly overrated his performance. When I saw that even the PP controlled TeleMadrid had given Zapatero a slight advantage it confirmed the outcome.

In the end we didn’t get a fake Mariano Rajoy last night, the recent attempt by the PP to present their candidate as a relaxed, carefree, person was dropped in favour of the Rajoy that we already know very well. From the first intervention it was clear that he was hyped up and aggressive, and he maintained this attitude throughout the debate. Both the manner and the arguments used were typical of the PP’s opposition strategy over the last four years. Beginning with the economy Rajoy was better when he talked about concrete price increases, but his attempts to try and force Zapatero not to talk about general economic performance betrayed the weakness of the PP’s case on the economy – they only want to talk about the last 3-4 months. Spain is not in recession, despite the attempts to portray it as being in crisis, so the doom laden discourse of the PP on this issue has limitations; one of the reasons why they lost the economic debate held last week.

On immigration Rajoy was a predictable disgrace, portraying immigrants as taking more than they contribute from the Spanish state, and trying to link immigration and crime. Not a single word about their contribution to Spain’s economic growth, no mention of how their taxes pay the pensions of hundreds of thousands of Spaniards. In the face of this opportunist onslaught on those who can’t vote, Zapatero did well to point out some realities, most notably the fact that the PP left a huge number of immigrants in an unregulated limbo during their time in office. Great for those employers who want cheap unprotected labour, not so good for the immigrants or for the social security system. In the midst of this discussion, Rajoy revealed how in touch he is with the lives of his compatriots by showing he didn’t know what a bonobus is; the multiple journey ticket that any user of public transport should be able to identify. I predict this will quickly become as legendary as Zapatero's ignorance of the price of a cup of coffee.

Turning to terrorism we got a familiar PP discourse with Rajoy accusing Zapatero of deception and of having negotiated politically with ETA. Zapatero hit back with Aznar’s own negotiation with ETA and with the Madrid train bombings. Rajoy fell into the glaring contradiction that always seems to escape PP supporters, how can they claim that ETA was on its last legs when Aznar left office if at the same time they accused it of carrying out the biggest terrorist attack the country has ever seen? I felt Zapatero could have made more of the PP’s hypocrisy on this issue, but it is clear that the PP case is one more suited to campaign speeches where no one has right of reply. Other issues included an exchange on the reform of regional autonomy statutes. Zapatero waffled his way through this one a bit; it’s a difficult issue because it pleases his supporters in some parts of the country but not in others. He did challenge Rajoy on why the PP has voted in favour of things in some regions that it has challenged as unconstitutional in the case of Cataluña.

Despite lacking a bit of precision, and occasionally seeming unable to fill up his allotted time, in the end Zapatero held his own and with that probably achieved his objectives for the night. If the general perception sets in that he won the debate then there may even be further improvements in the opinion polls for the government. Rajoy needed more from this debate, but seems to have opted for a message that was aimed almost entirely at those who are already his convinced supporters. His aggressive style, steely eyed even when he was trying to smile, doesn’t go down well in the country which is one reason why he is so poorly rated as a leader in the polls. The question now is how the PP will approach next week’s debate between the two men, they used up a lot of their ammunition last night without inflicting damage. More of the same is unlikely to work. They could opt for trying to turn the second debate into a shouting match that puts voters off; a lower turnout in theory favours the more committed PP vote. They need to do something, having started the campaign effectively they are now losing the initiative as well as the debates. Mariano only has one journey left on his bus ticket.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Nice summary. I'll admit that I didn't know what a 'bonobus' was (I don't think we have them here - we have T10s instead... also, I don't have to commute to work).

In the end, Zapatero wins because he is the incumbent and Rajoy should be landing much bigger blows on the reputation of the government. The fact that El Mundo describes it as 'Zapatero 8 - Rajoy 3' really says it all, I think.