Empty Chair Says Rajoy in Damage Control Mode for Spain Vote

Updated on
  • Rajoy is least popular leader in more than three decades
  • Polls show prime minister may win most votes, lose majority

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had the chance to defend his record on live television against his rivals. Instead, he left his place empty.

While the three other candidates jousted over how to build on the economic recovery, address inequality and keep Catalonia within Spain in a Monday night debate broadcast online by El Pais newspaper, the prime minister’s position to the right of the set was unoccupied. He was giving a one-on-one interview to another broadcaster that aired at the same time.

“Hiding the candidate is probably the least bad strategy,” said Jose Fernandez-Albertos, Madrid-based political science researcher at the Spanish National Research Council. “He is more of a burden rather than an asset.”

Rajoy’s unprecedented decision to duck the debate is a mark of his party’s struggle to shape an election campaign around the most unpopular leader in more than three decades. After four years of austerity, waves of corruption allegations against the governing People’s Party and a 41 billion-euro ($43 billion) bank bailout, the state pollster says 83 percent of Spaniards have little or no confidence in their prime minister despite the resurgent economy.

“While leaving a chair empty is bad for democracy, it can make sense from the candidate’s strategic point of view,” said Ferran Martinez i Coma, a political science researcher at University of Sydney. “Also, an internet-based debate tends to target younger and urban voters, two segments that are particularly critical of the PP.”

Whether to engage with challengers is a perennial dilemma for election frontrunners.

In Argentina, the establishment candidate Daniel Scioli was leading in the polls when he opted not to join an October televised debate with his five rivals. Broadcasters in Buenos Aires placed an empty chair on the set in his place and Scioli was beaten to the presidency by Mauricio Macri in last month’s runoff.

Broadcasters including the BBC also threatened to “empty chair” Prime Minister David Cameron as he initially resisted debates before the U.K.’s election in May. Cameron secured a surprise majority after agreeing to series of televised events including one seven-way candidates’ debate instead of a head-to-head with opposition leader Ed Miliband.

Absent Leader

On Monday night, Rajoy’s opponents wasted little time in highlighting the prime minister’s refusal to show up.

“What the Socialists want to change tonight is, as he has been for the past four years, absent,” Socialist Leader Pedro Sanchez said in his opening remarks. “He’s been looking away as the problems have grown and grown.”

Though the economy is expanding at the fastest pace since 2007 and unemployment has dropped to a four-year low, polls show Rajoy will fall well short of a majority on Dec. 20. He may struggle to find support for a second term even if he wins the most seats.

Ciudadanos Leader Albert Rivera is, theoretically at least, the closest to Rajoy in policy terms, but he has said he won’t lend support to the prime minister, without explicitly ruling out a deal with the PP under different leadership.

Competing Ideas

In the debate, Rivera painted Rajoy’s PP and the main opposition Socialists, who’ve governed between them since 1982, as the establishment parties who’ve let Spain down.

“The model of the PP and the Socialists has been a failure,” Rivera said.

Sanchez in turn attacked Rivera’s plan to introduce a single labor contract to reduce the number of temporary jobs that have left many people on the fringes of the economic recovery.

“It’s another turn of the screw,” Sanchez said. “You want to make job insecurity universal.”

Pablo Iglesias, leader of anti-austerity group Podemos, went a step further, calling for a solidarity tax on the banks and a levy on financial transactions. All of them aimed jibes at the absent prime minister.

Rajoy Too Busy

Rajoy is vulnerable to rivals’ attacks after a special investigative court found evidence that the PP ran a secret slush fund from at least 1990 to 2008. Rajoy, who became party leader in 2004, pleaded the demands of his day job prevented him from participating in the debate.

“I can’t do everything because, among other things, I am prime minister,” Rajoy said at a press conference in Paris Monday where he was attending the start of a climate summit alongside world leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama and China’s Xi Jinping. Rajoy will hold one debate with the Socialist leader Sanchez on Dec. 10.

Still, he did find time to commentate on a Real Madrid match last week for Radio Cope and on Sunday Cuatro television station aired a profile of Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria. Saenz, who has been building up her media profile ahead of the election, spent two days hiking a pilgrim trail in northern Spain with a film crew.

At the end of the first day, the camera showed Saenz calling her boss on speakerphone to catch up.

“I’m watching the soccer,” Rajoy told her.

— With assistance by Rodrigo Orihuela

(Updates with context on Argentina, the U.K. in sixth, seventh paragraphs.)
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