Gonzalez takes a televised beating: Opposition leader silences critics and buries 'Franco clone' jibes in Spain's first live election debate

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The Independent Online
FELIPE GONZALEZ's face said it all. After a dramatic live television debate with the conservative opposition leader, Jose Maria Aznar, Spain's Socialist Prime Minister bore an uncanny resemblance to an earlier victim of the power of television - Richard M Nixon.

It was not just the tired eyes, the naturally Nixonesque nose or the hunched shoulders. It was the grogginess of the battered boxer, the shock that his opponent had not been the promised pushover, the obvious desire to get out of the studio and back behind the walls of the government palace. You could feel his frustration and pent-up anger through the screen.

Not that Mr Aznar, leader of the Popular Party (PP), came up with any new policies, or any distinctive policies at all. But he kept his cool, battered the Prime Minister with carefully memorised but telling statistics and confounded those who had said his 'lack of charisma' would leave him mincemeat at the hands of 'the great communicator'. Perhaps most importantly, Mr Aznar succeeded in looking anything but a clone of the dictator Francisco Franco, as the Socialists had tried to paint him. 'You've been appealing to fear, Mr Gonzalez, and that makes me very sad,' Mr Aznar declared.

Both camps yesterday claimed the big debate had gone their way. In a speech in Las Palmas Mr Aznar said 'the debate showed that Gonzalez's time has passed'. The deputy prime minister, Narcis Serra, however, insisted Mr Gonzalez had been 'the clear winner'.

Not to be outdone, the key regional Convergence and Union (CiU) party of Catalonia, likely to hold the balance of power in a hung parliament, insisted it, despite its absence in the debate, had been the victor. 'It showed the undecided that they should vote for neither the one (the Socialists) nor the other (the PP),' a CiU spokesman said. He complained that neither leader had mentioned Catalonia: 'Not a single word, as though we didn't exist.'

Opening the debate, Mr Aznar hit Mr Gonzalez with a series of straight punches - 3.3 million unemployed, 2,950 more jobless every day, the peseta devalued three times in eight months, high interest rates, unfulfilled promises: 'Mr Gonzalez, you have no credibility . . . your pretty speeches are useless.' The Prime Minister was on the defensive thereafter, nervously complaining of 'a certain lack of generosity among the opposition'. He came back off the ropes later when defending his foreign policy and pointing up Mr Aznar's notable lack of constructive alternatives.

There is no doubt that Mr Aznar won Spain's first live face-to-face debate between the major protagonists on points. That he failed to deliver a knock-out blow showed his lack of experience, his apparent lack of positive ideas to exploit Mr Gonzalez's mistakes and an occasional tendency to smirk when he had his man down. The Prime Minister is likely to come out fighting in a re-match next Monday, seen as the contenders' last and best chance to win the votes of 6 million undecided Spaniards, 20 per cent of the electorate, on 6 June.

Mr Gonzalez came across as a man unused to and unable to cope with face-to-face criticism, even when a few well-chosen facts might have sufficed to shoot his opponent down. He was, it appeared, the victim of a decade of uncritical coverage by the state's predominant television and radio channels. The private channel Antenna-3 had won the rights to Monday night's debate, which ran into the small hours of yesterday.

If the idea was to emulate historic US presidential debates, the Spanish programme went over the top. The significance of the debate was rammed down the viewer's throat: Nixon's five o'clock shadow had cost him victory, Reagan's 'there you go again' to Jimmy Carter were the four words that had buried the Democratic candidate. In the style of This is Your Life, viewers were shown Mr Gonzalez's limousine driving towards the studio and told, by Spain's equivalent of Terry Wogan, that he and his children had had spaghetti and veal for dinner.

The moderator told us that 'one of these two men will be Spain's next prime minister' - his first faux pas. That is likely but by no means certain. In the event of a hung parliament, the King will have the ultimate word and, at least theoretically, any Spanish citizen is eligible. That could mean any politician from a smaller party, such as the powerful nationalists from Catalonia.

Adding to the Socialists' woes, the Socialist Prime Minister of the northern region of Asturias, Juan Luis Rodriguez-Vigil, and his entire government resigned yesterday amid a fraud scandal. The regional government had loudly trumpeted a supposed 366bn peseta (about pounds 2bn) Saudi investment in a petrochemical complex. When the supposed investor, the Saudi International Bank, was named, however, the bank denied all knowledge of the project.

There was no indication that Mr Rodriguez-Vigil had been directly involved in the affair, which apparently resulted from an attempt by a French intermediary, named in the Spanish press as Maurice-Jean Lauze, to win commissions. Mr Rodriguez-Vigil said no commissions had been paid.

(Photograph omitted)