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Spanish PM, opposition leader clash on ETA, economy and immigration

Spanish PM, opposition leader clash on ETA, economy and immigration

Spain's prime minister and the opposition leader clashed on the economy, Basque separatism and immigration as they staged a rare election debate _ a potential momentum-builder in a race that is now a dead heat.
Socialist Premier Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and conservative opposition leader Mariano Rajoy deluged each other with statistics Monday on everything from the price of eggs to funding for university scholarships as they argued over the state of this deeply polarized country as it heads toward a general election on March 9.
In Spain's first such debate in 15 years, the interrupted each other often, did a lot of head-shaking and at one point engaged in what verged on a shouting match over failed peace talks with the armed Basque group ETA.
But there were no personal insults, and neither committed a major gaffe or scored a knockout punch.
The debate was important because the two men's parties are neck-and-neck and polls suggest there is an enticing number of undecided voters.
A Metroscopia poll published Sunday in the newspaper El Pais gave Zapatero's party a 3.7 percentage point lead over Rajoy's Popular Party, but the margin of error was 4.1 points, meaning statistically they are tied.
Rajoy attacked Zapatero repeatedly over his failed peace talks with ETA, saying Zapatero had raised the possibility of making concessions to the group _ a taboo for any Spanish government. Rajoy also assailed Zapatero's recent admission that the government had been in contact with ETA even after it broke a cease-fire in 2006 and killed two people in a car bombing.
"You lied. You fooled all the Spanish people," Rajoy said. "You toyed with the law."
Zapatero hit back saying "You were the ones who lied", alluding to the March 2004 Islamic terrorist attacks in Madrid, which Rajoy's party, in power at the time, initially blamed on ETA, even as evidence of Islamic involvement emerged.
Spanish voters ousted Rajoy's Popular Party in elections held three days after the massacre, which killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,800.
Zapatero recalled that his first act on taking power was to bring home Spanish peacekeepers sent to Iraq by his predecessor, Jose Maria Aznar, a firm ally of U.S. President George W. Bush.
Rajoy said, "You want people to vote for you because of what happened last time, Bush and the March 11 attack and Iraq."
Zapatero hit away at a favorite theme, that the conservatives have done nothing to support the Socialist government as it tried to end the Basque conflict. He said Rajoy and company have wrongly depicted the Socialists as turning Spain into a country splitting at the seams by tolerating and even encouraging pro-independence fervor in the Basque region and Catalonia.
"You have spent four years denigrating the government of Spain," Zapatero said.
The debate was as painstakingly choreographed as the Oscars.
Strict rules were established as to who sat where on the stage, who spoke first and who spoke last, how long cameras could focus on either and from what angle, all of this in an auditorium with no audience.
The debate began at 10 p.m. _ the start of TV prime time in this country of inveterate night owls. A second is scheduled for March 3.


Updated : 2021-03-06 23:46 GMT+08:00