Spain's socialist Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, finally drew ahead of his conservative rival, Mariano Rajoy, yesterday after an ill-tempered television debate with general elections set for next Sunday. But neither set the nation alight.
Monday's breathlessly hyped confrontation peaked a campaign high on media razzmatazz, but low on political vision, in which leading politicians remain protected from the people. Journalists on the trail are kept from the candidates, and each party films and edits the clips for nationwide broadcast. We see rallies of adoring supporters, and no empty seats.
"The media has taken over the role of the politicians, but has no programme of its own beyond anecdotes and image," German Yanke, a commentator with the conservative ABC newspaper, said yesterday. "It deals only with minutiae, not the contrast of political visions. The debate was Mr Rajoy's last chance, and Mr Zapatero was more effective. But there was no real debate, just a dispute over details. It was disappointing, a wasted opportunity."
Twelve million people watched on Monday night, a million down on the first round a week ago, but 77 per cent of Spaniards said in a poll that the campaign was unhelpful in influencing their choice. For two hours, Mr Rajoy and Mr Zapatero commanded record media audiences, but all they contrived to do was shuffle a blizzard of charts, clippings and briefings with all the spontaneity of candidates sitting an oral exam.
But they had no scruple in accusing each other of lying over dealings with Eta Basque separatists, or the war in Iraq, on which most Spaniards made up their minds long ago. Fearful of screwing up, neither candidate has shown the killer instinct. Mr Rajoy, 53, held five ministerial posts in Mr Aznar's eight-year government, but is remembered chiefly for the aftermath of the Prestige disaster in 2002, when he described the filth spewed from a crippled tanker on to northern Spain's beaches, as "little threads of Plasticine that will solidify as they rise".
And Mr Zapatero, 47, who inspired such enthusiasm when elected four years ago, has failed to fulfil many expectations. He is criticised for punching below Spain's weight in Europe, and not making influential international allies as predecessors did.
"But he's been treading shifting sands," said Javier Valenzuela, at the pro-socialist El Pais newspaper, who used to be Mr Zapatero's foreign policy adviser. "When he began, Europe's leaders were Berlusconi, Blair, Chirac and Schröder. The map's completely changed."
Spain has a powerful economy but remains a net recipient of EU funds, which weakens its bargaining power, Mr Yanke adds. "We're still seeking EU funds, not providing them. That'll change, but Zapatero has striven to postpone the moment."
Faced with stagnant polls, Mr Rajoy and Mr Zapatero each appealed at the weekend to their outer flank. Mr Rajoy wheeled out the hardline former prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, who effortlessly eclipsed his grey, hand-picked successor; and Mr Zapatero courted the communists with an impassioned attack on social injustices.
The strategem confirmed the belief of many Spaniards that the political centre has disappeared in favour of a deeply entrenched "two Spains". The former socialist prime minister, Felipe Gonzalez, dismissed Mr Rajoy as "an imbecile", and the veteran conservative, Manuel Fraga, promised to use the socialist manifesto as "lavatory paper".
Polls suggest that Mr Zapatero will scrape through, but he will need allies to rule.
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