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)