In the end, Rajoy had to listen to all that he had avoided hearing for the last four years. He had fostered -- at times deliberately -- a hungry Pedro Sanchez who was willing to push it to the conceivable limit during the face-to-face debate. He came to identify in his opponent all the corruption that the People's Party (PP) has produced in the last few years. And the president got angry.
Sanchez: "You are not free. You are a prisoner of the Bárcenas papers. You should have resigned after sending those text messages. The president of the government must be respectable. You are not."
Rajoy: "This is where we find ourselves. What you say is vile, petty and miserable. If I were calm, I would have presented a motion to censure. If you are disappointed because you are going to lose the election, then use different arguments."
It was the fourth face-to-face debate for Mariano Rajoy, and the first for Pedro Sánchez as the leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE). We'll soon see if it is the last for both of them. The socialist Secretary-General left the ring laden with plummeting surveys and the morale of his troops at an all-time low: the debate with Rajoy was his silver bullet. And he cornered his opponent in the first part of the debate with a scathing review of the spending cuts that have left many Spaniards shivering during the years of the popular government. Unemployment rates, precarious jobs, access to the bank of pensions, the banking bailout and the ghosts of Bankia and Rato formed strong arguments to confront the Rajoy economic era, and Sanchez pulled no punches. Cuts to the so-called "dependency law" allowed Rajoy little response, and he could only point to the situation he inherited, and to the enormous effort necessary to stabilize a country in ruins. The issue of unemployment benefits would reappear throughout the debate, which raises an interesting question: Is it possible that the president of the government doesn't know that it has fallen 10 points during his tenure?
The corruption of this face-to-face debate, and the bitter aftertaste that it left behind, have been a bad rehearsal for the new era to come.
Sanchez missed the chance to advance his argument in favor of a woman's right to choose when Rajoy twisted the phrase and replied "When have I denied a woman the right to be a mother?" It is precisely the issue of when motherhood begins that is the crux of the matter.
Those excluded from the debate had already declared, and repeated later, that it was a black and white debate from another era -- an epilogue for bipartisanship. They are not off base: even visually, the set seemed old and sad. The face of Manuel Campo Vidal, the moderator, with his years of experience that came, now, to seem like the white glove treatment, was a poem unto itself. Disconcerted by the level of aggression that the soiree had attained, he then had to call on the rivals to speak about Catalonia.
It's logical that Pablo Iglesias and Albert Rivera would dismiss the debate for two, but the face-to-face debates are essential for a democracy. There will always be a president who defends his seat and presents his own account of events, and a candidate who does not trust him. This was the only debate that Rajoy has accepted during this campaign, and it is now more clear than ever as to why. Far from Bertin's sofa, far from the questions of a citizenry overwhelmed by stage fright, and the comfort zone in the halls of Congress, with his followers yelling and applauding each one of his words, Rajoy has shown himself to be out of shape for a brawl. He clearly lost the debate; what isn't clear is whether Sanchez won. The illusion continues to be a part of the candidates' heritage: it is their greatest asset, and not one of the opponents in this debate has known how to incorporate it.
The only certainty in regard to the elections next Sunday is that on Monday, a new political era will begin in Spain. Farewell to the absolute majorities and to the monochrome governments; hello to negotiation and agreement. Politics -- and also citizens -- will need to abide by a culture of accords. The corruption of this face-to-face debate, and the bitter aftertaste that it left behind, have been a bad rehearsal for the new era to come.
This post first appeared on HuffPost Spain. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.