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Zapatero and rival face off over slowing economy

Latest update : 2008-02-26

In the first television debate since 1993, telegenic Spanish PM Jose Luis Zapatero clashed with his rival, the more serious conservative Mariano Rajoy, as polls show that the upcoming March 9 election will be the most fiercely contested in decades.

Spain's prime minister and the conservative opposition leader clashed late on Monday in a televised election debate over who can best deal with a slowing economy, terrorism and immigration.
   
The debate between Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy was the first among candidates for Spanish prime minister since 1993 and it comes as polls show the March 9 election will be the most fiercely contested in decades.
   
No candidate appeared to score a knock-out punch while snap opinion polls released after the debate showed that more voters fely Zapatero had won.
   
Rajoy, 52, said that under Zapatero's first term in office prices for basic goods like milk and eggs increased faster than real wages while unemployment is on the rise and accused the government of doing nothing to stop it.
   
"You did not wind up the clock and the clock stopped," he said, adding many Spaniards had been forced to tighten their belts in order to get by.
   
Zapatero, 47, said Spain's gross domestic product had grown by an average of 3.8 percent per year during his four years in office, a higher rate than the European Union average, helping to create three million jobs.
   
He predicted the Spanish economy, the fifth largest in the European Union, would slow next year but still continue to grow by a faster rate then the rest of the bloc.
   
"You talked about winding up the clock, we charged the batteries of the economy," he said, adding Rajoy only started to talk about the state of the economy in recent months.
   
Spain led job creation in the euro zone under most of Zapatero's term in office, with the unemployment rate dropping to 7.95 percent in the second quarter of 2007, its lowest level since 1978.
   
But the number of jobless started to rise late last year as the key building sector was hurt by the international lending crunch which ended a credit-fueled expansion. Unemployment hit 8.6 percent in the last quarter of 2007.
   
A snap poll carried out by the Instituto Opina for private television station Cuatro found that 45.4 percent of voters felt Zapatero had won the debate against 33.4 percent who believed Rajoy was the victor.
   
Opinion polls give the Socialists a slim lead over the Popular Party.
   
In one of the more heated moments of the 90-minute debate, Rajoy accused Zapatero of lying when he said government dialogue with the armed Basque separatist group ETA ended after the outfit bombed Madrid's airport in December 2006, killing two men.
   
Late last year the prime minister said the government had contacts with ETA even after the airport bombing.
   
Zapatero defended his government's failed talks with ETA, which has killed 819 people in Spain in its nearly 40-year campaign for an independent Basque homeland, saying it was his duty to try to negotiate peace.
   
He responded to Rajoy's attack by recalling that the Popular Party had tried to pin the March 11, 2004 Madrid train bombings carried out by Islamic militants on ETA.
   
"It was you who lied by inventing a conspiracy," he said.
   
Zapatero scored a surprise election win three days after the train bombings, which killed 191 people, due in part to voter anger caused by perception that the conservative government in power had tried to cover up evidence that Islamic radicals were behind the bombings.
   
Rajoy also sparred with Zapatero over immigration, with the Popular Party leader accusing the government of "importing organised delinquents in violent gangs."
   
"It is evident that immigration is not controled, it is evident that it is an avalanche," he addded.
   
Zapatero's Socialists issued an amnesty for some 700,000 illegal immigrants in 2005 who had a work contract.
   
He said the previous conservative government had allowed illegal immigrants to gain work papers by producing a bus pass as proof of residence.

Date created : 2008-02-26

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