Spain's Sanchez Resists Attacks, Lines Up an Ally in Debate

(Bloomberg) -- Spain’s first electoral debate laid bare the rift at the heart of the country’s politics as the challengers tried and failed to force Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez into an error that might disrupt his lead in opinion polls.

While Sanchez and Pablo Iglesias of left-wing protest party Unidas Podemos swapped pleasantries, the leaders of the conservative People’s Party and the liberals of Ciudadanos attacked the premier for undermining job creation, freezing pensions in the past and jeopardizing the unity of Spain by working with Catalan separatists.

Spain's Sanchez Resists Attacks, Lines Up an Ally in Debate

Sanchez has maintained a clear advantage since calling the election in February, bolstered by a combination of dwindling support for Unidas Podemos and fragmentation to the right, where Ciudadanos and the nationalists of Vox are both taking support from the PP, his party’s traditional rival.

In Monday’s debate, followed by about 8 million people according to state broadcaster RTVE, the four candidates all managed to avoid major missteps by sticking closely to well known scripts. Pablo Casado of the PP and Albert Rivera of Ciudadanos both pledged sweeping tax cuts and harsh measures against Catalan separatists, while Sanchez and Iglesias focused strongly on social policies. The candidates will go head-to-head in a second debate on Tuesday night before Spaniards cast their ballots on Sunday.

Last night Rivera was the winner, according to almost 40 percent of the 172,000 readers who voted in a survey published by El Pais newspaper on its website Tuesday.

While the four-way clash lacked surprises, it did serve to indicate where alliances are likely to be drawn up when the parties have to sit down after the vote to piece together a governing majority. Casado and Rivera both insisted that that they are not adversaries, while Sanchez and Iglesias signaled they are ready to deepen their alliance.

Spain has lacked a stable government since former PP Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy lost his majority in elections in the 2015 election.

Unlike other European nations, Spain doesn’t have a tradition of coalitions, even though the PP and the Socialists both relied on smaller partners to govern at various times. Sanchez himself was elected in June with support from Catalan pro-independence groups, a Basque nationalist party, and Unidas Podemos, although none of those joined the government.

The run-up to the debates was shrouded in controversy over the participation of Vox, which lacks representation in parliament. The party had been originally invited to take part in a five-side debate scheduled for Tuesday and organized by private broadcaster Atresmedia. The party’s participation was blocked after three regional parties complained to the electoral board.

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