Zapatero, Rajoy face each other in tense Spanish pre-poll debate

Other News Materials 26 February 2008 03:34 (UTC +04:00)

( dpa ) - Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and conservative opposition leader Mariano Rajoy faced each other in a tense live television debate ahead of the March 9 elections late Monday.

The 90-minute debate was the first one between the two top candidates for prime minister in 15 years.

Seventy per cent of Spaniards were estimated to watch the debate which was shown by dozens of national or regional television channels.

Rajoy attacked Zapatero over rising unemployment and inflation, his failed attempt to negotiate with the militant Basque separatist group ETA and what he described as an avalanche of undocumented immigrants into Spain.

Zapatero defended the government's economic performance, including what he described as the increased purchasing power of lower-income citizens.

Zapatero also stressed reforms carried out to give more rights to women, immigrants and homosexuals, and accused Rajoy's People's Party (PP) of having acted immorally in not supporting the government in the fight against Basque terrorism.

The debate was expected to play a key role in the neck-and-neck race, in which low turnout would harm the Socialists, according to analysts.

The last such debate was in 1993 between Socialist then-premier Felipe Gonzalez and his conservative challenger, Jose Maria Aznar, who lost that election but won in 1996.

The Socialists have a slight lead over the conservatives in polls.