ECR Party Represents Opposition in Spanish Debate

Politics - November 25, 2023

One of the highlights in last general election campaign was the third (and final) debate between Santiago Abascal, the leader of Vox (ECR); Pedro Sánchez from the Spanish Socialist Party PSOE (S&D); and Yolanda Díaz, from the new progressive party Sumar.

As Sánchez and Díaz have been governing together for the past four years, Abascal was the only candidate from the opposition who took centre stage in the studios of the National Television station. Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the leader of the People’s Party (PP) (EPP), declined the invitation from the organizers. This decision was heavily criticized not only by Sánchez, and Díaz, but by the moderator himself. He referred to Feijóo’s absence at least three times during the one-and-a-half-hour debate last Wednesday.

It was, then, a two-to-one duel. That gave Abascal a competitive advantage, despite the goading of his leftist opponents. In every one of the three blocks, Abascal was pressed by both Sánchez and Díaz on several issues, mostly around their social policy agenda.

They sniped at him about his party’s record on immigration, women’s rights, and climate change. Abascal did not respond to the provocations.

Sánchez and Díaz’s apparently coordinated approach, intended to elicit an incendiary discourse from the Vox leader. But they encountered a toned-down Abascal, different from the one his sympathizers usually see at Vox rallies. Many took to social media to convey their disappointment at Abascal’s “restrained” performance.

This was part of a deliberate strategy to “moderate” Vox’s image and appeal to a larger electorate. Vox is known for its loyal political base. But other politicians have also defined it in the media as “extremist” or “radical”. As he did in 2019 when he debated six other candidates, Abascal used this opportunity to pitch Vox’s version of its own party and its own policies.

Since Vox has been in the national scene, its hardcore constituents are typically aloof or simply do not mid these perceptions. Many of Abascal’s followers were expecting a tear-down of the left. However, the top leadership at Vox is carefully calculating their (potential) role in a collation government.

So, Abascal addressed voters beyond the scope of traditional conservatives and moderated his discourse ahead of the complicated political scenario following the general election.

Given Feijóo’s apparent reluctance to govern with Vox, Abascal’s performance displayed a discourse and a tone that could be more palatable to the PP leadership. It is worth remembering the PP and Vox govern in coalition in four different regions of Spain, though this would be the first time they would join forces in a national majority government.

This “restraint” did not amount to a lack of assertiveness. Early in the debate, Abascal warned the audience about the “excuses”, the “lies”, and the “insults” both Sánchez and Díaz were supposedly willing to go through “to hide reality.”

On the other side of the studio, Sánchez and Díaz also gave Abascal an advantage. As they would often—and almost tenderly—speak to each other by their first name and agree on almost every stance, this reinforced Abascal’s role as the “true” leader of the Spanish opposition. The contrast between the pair and Abascal, could not be more evident.

Learning from previous mistakes, this time Sánchez maintained a more sombre tone, refraining from personal attacks to Vox or its president. Díaz, on the other hand, served as the “attack dog” of the leftist bloc.