Monday, February 25, 2008

Spanish General Election 2008....The Debates Make A Difference

Tonight sees the first electoral debate between Mariano Rajoy and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. The fallout from last week’s debate on the economy demonstrates that the debates themselves may not be very interesting, but the consequences can be. Only the most ardent Partido Popular (PP) supporters claim that Manuel Pizarro won that debate against Zapatero’s Finance Minister Pedro Solbes. Sometimes no amount of post debate spin can change a perception that already seems to have translated itself into a bigger lead for the government in the daily tracking polls. The reaction of the party leaders to the debate tells its own story; Zapatero has repeatedly praised Solbes in his subsequent election speeches, whilst Rajoy has avoided mentioning the debate at all.

Pizarro was supposed to be the star signing for the PP in this campaign, but he demonstrated the other night that there is a big difference between knowing when to sell your stock options, and knowing anything about the broader economy in general. His most pathetic moment came when he attempted to avoid a proper explanation of how the PP would pay for the substantial tax cuts that they are proposing. Pizarro’s response that he would do it by abolishing the housing ministry and by not giving money to terrorists only demonstrated that they still haven’t tracked down anyone in PP headquarters with an economics degree and a calculator. Meanwhile Solbes showed that these events are not just about presentation alone. Nobody has ever accused him of being charismatic, and with one eye almost completely closed due to a recent illness he even had a faintly sinister appearance. Nevertheless, content triumphed over style.

The bounce in the opinion polls in favour of the government means that it is Rajoy who is under most pressure tonight; he needs to do something to try and arrest the momentum that Zapatero’s campaign has got from the unexpectedly clear victory for Solbes. Zapatero just needs to hold his own, and apart from controlling a tendency to improvise he can more or less be himself. Rajoy and his advisers have some tough choices, because an over aggressive approach could easily backfire on them, yet they need to put Zapatero on the defensive. The PP’s catastrophe laden discourse on the economy has now lost its force following Pizarro’s defeat, although Zapatero is much less secure on economic issues than Solbes. In recent days the PP has turned once again to its favourite theme of terrorism and its claims that Zapatero betrayed the country with his negotiations with ETA. However, it is one thing to use this issue in speeches to a supportive audience where no one has right of reply. Pressing it too much in a debate could invite Zapatero to respond on the PP’s own negotiations with ETA; not to mention their repeated manipulation of the Madrid train bombings.

Rajoy is naturally an abrasive debater, which has already cost him in his parliamentary clashes with Zapatero. He has been trying to promote a much softer image in the campaign, but if I was Zapatero I would go the debate armed with the (long) list of all the insults that Rajoy has directed at him over the last few years. Many of those insults come from Rajoy believing in his own superiority over his opponent, and it remains to be seen whether anyone has convinced him that this approach doesn’t work. He has to make the biggest effort to change his natural style and maintaining the pretence over two debates could prove to be difficult. The “debate” itself is really going to be a series of alternating short monologues by the contenders, with tightly controlled conditions agreed on everything from the issues to be discussed to the camera angles permitted and the temperature in the studio. It could well end up like one of those big football games which generate so much expectation, yet end up with the fear of losing dominating over everything else. Except that one of the contenders needs to score tonight.

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