Battlelines drawn for second Spanish election debate, coalition deals unclear

By John Stonestreet and Belén Carreño
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Main candidates for Spanish general elections hold their first televised debate in Pozuelo de Alarcon, outside Madrid

Main candidates for Spanish general elections People's Party (PP) Pablo Casado, Spanish Prime Minister and Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) Pedro Sanchez, Ciudadanos' Albert Rivera and Unidas Podemos' Pablo Iglesias pose before a televised debate ahead of general elections in Pozuelo de Alarcon, outside Madrid, Spain, April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Sergio Perez

By John Stonestreet and Belén Carreño

MADRID (Reuters) - The main contenders in Spain's national election prepared for a second televised debate on Tuesday after a encounter in which they accused each other of lying but left open questions about what coalition deals might eventually be struck.

Sunday's election, one of the most polarised since Spain's return to democracy four decades ago, is being fought on emotive issues including gender equality and national unity following Catalonia's failed 2017 independence bid rather than matters such as the economy and climate change.

With the result too close to call, the focus on heart rather than head makes it unlikely that candidates will broach new topics in Tuesday's second round.

Ignacio Jurado, politics lecturer at the University of York, suggested rightists Pablo Casado of the People's Party (PP) and Albert Rivera of Ciudadanos might change roles after Monday's two-pronged attack on Socialist Prime Minister and election frontrunner Pedro Sanchez.

Casado might become more aggressive and Rivera pull his punches, Jurado said.

The right-leaning El Mundo newspaper suggested Casado and Rivera had outflanked Sanchez over Catalonia - an issue that has dominated national politics in the last few years.

Sanchez, who took power in 2018 after a series of corruption scandals led to the PP's downfall, has been more open to dialogue with Catalan separatists than other parties and he may need their support to form a viable government.

But he has repeatedly insisted that independence is not up for discussion.

Left-leaning El Pais said Sanchez, seen as a less inspiring public speaker than Rivera and Casado, had not lost the debate.

"Sanchez achieved the minimum required. He managed to get his message across but demonstrated little flexibility," said Jose Fernandez-Albertos, a political scientist at Spanish National Research Council CSIC.

"There was no clear winner, so they can all go home with the job done."

Madrid residents who spoke to Reuters TV on Tuesday morning said the leaders should focus more on creating jobs and improving social benefits than clashing over patriotism.

"Catalonia, the flags, Spain - those things don't shock me. I care about work, well-being, my relatives and society in general, specially the most defenceless," said one, who gave his name as Jose Antonio.

University of York's Jurado said candidates may try to present themselves in different ways on Tuesday but the issues were likely to be the same.


MURKY AND MURKIER?

Should Sanchez's poll standing be harmed by the debates, the election outcome risks becoming more murky than ever.

Publication of official opinion polls ended six days before the election and in Monday's final survey, by GAD3 in ABC newspaper, the Socialists scored 31.5 percent of the vote, giving Sanchez far more leeway than others to pitch for coalition partners.

However, he may well need to bring separatist lawmakers on board, which would complicate any broader alliance.

A putative coalition of Casado's PP, Rivera's centre-right Ciudadanos and the far-right Vox of Santiago Abascal, meanwhile scored a combined 45 percent - putting them short of a parliamentary majority.

Polls show up to four in 10 voters have yet to decide who to cast their ballot for.

Arguably the greatest unknown remains Vox, tipped to win about 30 seats on Sunday in the 350-seat legislature but prevented from participating in either debate because it currently has no parliamentary representation.

In comments during Monday's debate, Abascal criticised the lack of media coverage for his party and the lack of diversity between his main rivals. Vox would bring "order and freedom" to Catalonia, he said.


(Additional reporting by Silvio Castellanos; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Angus MacSwan)