OPINION: PM has humiliated Spain’s public TV channel with election debate changes

Pedro Sánchez has trashed public broadcaster RTVE's reputation with his initial decision to only appear on a private TV election debate as a means of being pitted against far-right newcomers VOX, argues Matthew Bennett.

OPINION: PM has humiliated Spain's public TV channel with election debate changes
Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchéz. Photos: AFP

In the beginning, there was going to be a four-way election debate on Spain's public channel, RTVE—with the Socialist Party, PP, Ciudadanos and Podemos—on April 22nd, and a five-way debate on a private channel, Antena 3, with the addition of Vox, on April 23rd.

The Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez (PSOE), decided he was only going to the private-channel five-way debate. He wanted to go up against Vox and frame the three-way split on the Spanish right. This upset workers at the public channel.

The Electoral Commission got involved: it ruled the five-way debate on Antena 3 was not allowed because Vox, while doing well in the polls, currently has no national election results over five percent of the vote and no seats in parliament.

Its real results at the Andalusian election in December don't count because that was just Andalusia. Ciudadanos and Podemos were allowed to take part in 2015 because, while they did not then have any seats in parliament, they had done well enough at local and European elections prior to that general election campaign.

The Electoral Commission told Antena 3 to change the format. The channel had three options: cancel the debate, get rid of Vox, or add other parties (Basque Nationalists, Republican Catalan Left or the Canary Coalition) in order to keep Vox in the debate and comply with the law on proportionality in election debates.

Antena 3 chose to kick Vox off the list, reducing it to the same debate that was supposed to have happened on the public channel, RTVE: a four-way debate, on April 23rd, with the PP, PSOE, Ciudadanos and Podemos.

Vox made a mistake on its WhatsApp channel for journalists, admitting the Electoral Commission ruling “was good for us” but, in public, party leader Santiago Abascal feigned outrage, “because they knew we were going to win it”.

Spaniards, briefly, faced the prospect of being able to enjoy two election debates, both four-way affairs without Vox but two debates nonetheless, one on a private channel and one on the public channel, in the week prior to the vote.

VOX's leader Santiago Abascal. Photo: AFP 

Today, the public channel, TVE, announced it was changing the date of its debate—to April 23—the same night as the Antena 3 debate, and the Prime Minister changed his mind and said he was only now going to the public one.

The other three candidates were having none of it: the PP, Ciudadanos and Podemos quickly said they were sticking with Antena 3, as scheduled.

So now Spain faces the prospect of a three-way debate on the private channel, with an empty tribune in the Prime Minister's spot and without Vox, and a one-way debate or an interview or something with Pedro Sánchez on the public channel, on the same night (next Tuesday) and presumably at the same time.

Workers at the public channel blasted the decision, issuing a statement saying RTVE should not “adjust its programming based on a proposal from a single political party” and that the politicians should keep their hands off public TV election coverage.

The man who is supposed to moderate the debate, Xabier Fortes, tweeted his “absolute disagreement” with the decision: “which brings into question the image of the independence of RTVE we have fought so much for”.

A star night-time news presenter, Carlos Franganillo, tweeted his agreement with other workers, “there must not be a shadow of doubt about the independence of RTVE”.

A truly independent public TV news channel is often talked about in Spanish politics, in the same way as electoral reform: a lofty ideal that is good for a few soundbites but, when it comes down to it, the politicians can never resist this kind of nonsense.

Now, the channel's reputation has been trashed in one announcement, its workers and journalists humiliated, on an electoral whim of the Pedro Sánchez and the Socialist Party.

Shame on the Prime Minister.

(Note: on Friday morning April 19th, Pedro Sánchez reversed his reversed decision and announced he would attend both debates: one on RTVE on April 22nd, and one on Antena 3 on April 23rd, both four-way, without Vox)


Matthew Bennett is the creator of The Spain Report. You can read more of his writing on Patreon, and follow him on Twitter. Don't miss his podcast series with weekly in-depth analysis on Spain.



Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Will Spain have a sixth coronavirus wave?

While Covid infections are rising across Europe, Spain has managed to keep cases and hospitalisations low so far this autumn. But there are already signs things may be changing. 

people walk without masks on ramblas barcelona during covid times
Spain’s epidemiological situation is the most favourable in the EU and a sixth wave but will there be a sixth wave? Photo: Pau Barrena/AFP

Coronavirus cases have been rising quickly across Europe since October but not so in Spain, which has maintained one of the lowest infection, hospitalisation and death rates on the continent. 

According to prestigious medical publication The Lancet, Spain could well be on the verge of reaching herd immunity, a statement the country’s Health Minister tends to agree with.  

READ ALSO: Has Spain almost reached herd immunity?

Add the favourable epidemiological indicators to the almost 80 percent rate of full vaccination of Spain’s entire population and the immunity claim doesn’t seem so far-fetched. 

But if there’s one thing this pandemic has taught governments around the world – or should have – is to not assume Covid-19 can be eradicated after a few encouraging weeks. 

Not that Spain is letting down its guard, the general public continues to take mask wearing in indoor spaces seriously (outdoors as well even though not required in many situations) and there are still some regional restrictions in place. 

READ MORE: What Covid-19 restrictions are in place in Spain’s regions in November?

And yet, Covid infections are on the rise again, although not at the pace seen during previous waves of the virus. 

On Thursday November 4th Spain re-entered the Health Ministry’s “medium risk” category after the national fortnightly infection rate surpassed 50 cases per 100,000 people.

From Friday 5th to Monday 8th, it climbed five more points up to 58 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. 

It’s the biggest rise since last July but this shouldn’t be cause for alarm, especially as hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths all remain low and steady.

A closer look at the stats shows that 1.52 percent of hospital beds across the country are currently occupied by Covid patients, 4.41 percent in the case of ICU beds. 

Daily Covid deaths in October were under 20 a day, the lowest rate since August 2020. 

With all this in mind, is a sixth wave of the coronavirus in Spain at all likely?

According to a study by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, Spain will have a sixth wave.

The Seattle-based research group predicts an increase in infections in Spain from the second half of November, which will skyrocket in December reaching the highest peak towards the end of the year. 

The country would reportedly need about 24,000 beds for Covid patients (4,550 for critical ones) and there would be almost 2,000 deaths. 

Increased social interactions would mean that on December 30th alone, daily Covid infections in Spain could reach 92,000, the study claims. 

If restrictions were tightened ahead of the holiday period, including the use of face masks, the sixth wave’s peak wouldn’t be as great, IHME states

It’s worth noting that the IHME wrongly predicted that Spain wouldn’t be affected by a fifth wave whereas it ended up causing more than a million infections and 5,000 deaths. 

two elderly women in san sebastian during covid times
The vaccination rate among over 70s in Spain is almost 100 percent. Photo: Ander Guillenea/AFP

The latest message from Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias is that currently “the virus is cornered” in the country, whilst admitting that there was a slight rise in cases. 

“I do not know if there will be a sixth wave, but first we must remember that immunisation is not complete in all patients despite vaccinations,” Dr. José Polo , president of the Spanish Society of Primary Care Physicians (Semergen), told El Periódico de España

“That’s because 100 percent effectiveness doesn’t exist in any drug, or in any medicine”.

Despite having one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, Spain still has around 4.2 million eligible people who haven’t been vaccinated, mostly people aged 20 to 40. 

The majority of Covid hospitalisations across Spain are patients who have not been vaccinated: 90 percent in the Basque Country, 70 percent in Catalonia and 60 percent in Andalusia.

Among Covid ICU patients, 90 percent of people in critical condition across all regions are unvaccinated. 

“Although there are many people vaccinated in Spain, there will be an increase in cases because we know how the virus is transmitted and when the cold comes and the evenings are darker we will tend to go indoors, and the virus spreads there,” Cesar Carballo, Vice President of the Spanish Society of Emergency Medicine of Madrid, told La Sexta news.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has already warned that Europe is at a  “critical point of regrowth”  and that it has once again become the “epicentre”  of the pandemic, due to the generalised spike in cases in recent weeks.

Does that mean that Spain’s daily infections won’t be in the thousands again as winter nears? Or that regional governments won’t reintroduce Covid measures ahead of Christmas to prevent this from happening?

Nothing is for certain, but as things stand Spain’s epidemiological situation is the most favourable in the EU and a sixth wave seems unlikely, but not impossible.

The Spanish government continues to push ahead with its vaccination campaign, reopening its vaccination centres, administering booster shots to its most vulnerable and considering vaccinating under 12s to meet an immunity target of 90 percent.