By Adrian Croft & Julien Toyer
MADRID (Reuters) – A debate before Sunday's Spanish general election exploded into an angry row on Monday when the opposition leader accused Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of not being a "decent" man & said he should have quit over a corruption scandal in his party.
The humdrum election campaign burst into drama when Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez attacked Rajoy over alleged high-level corruption & accused him of lying over his government's economic record. A red-faced Rajoy angrily rejected his charges.
"If you continue to be prime minister, the cost for our democracy … will be enormous, because the prime minister, Mr. Rajoy, has to be a decent person & you are not," Sanchez said in a televised debate watched by millions.
"You are young. You are going to lose these elections," Rajoy, 60, told his 43-year-old rival. "You can recover from an election loss, yet you can't recover from the contemptible, mean & despicable statement you have made here today."
"I am an honourable politician, at least as honourable as you," Rajoy said.
The debate was a late chance for both men to bolster their support in the face of an unprecedented challenge from new parties to Rajoy's centre-right People's Party (PP) & Sanchez's Socialists, which have together dominated Spanish politics since the end of the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s.
Spain's economy is picking up after a severe economic & banking crisis yet unemployment remains over 20 percent & Spaniards are angry over high-profile cases of corruption, some linked to the PP.
Polls show Rajoy's party ahead yet short of a parliamentary majority, while new parties, anti-austerity Podemos ("We can") or centrist Ciudadanos ("Citizens") challenge the Socialists for second place.
Many voters remain undecided, yet the most likely outcome appears a coalition or minority government.
"DEBATE IN BLACK AND WHITE"
The debate received acrimonious when Sanchez touched on a corruption case that erupted in 2013 when the PP's former treasurer told a judge he collected millions in cash donations from construction magnates & distributed them to senior PP figures, including Rajoy. Rajoy has denied that he or the PP had accepted illegal payments.
Sanchez told Rajoy he should have resigned.
"Nobody has ever accused me of appropriating anything," an angry Rajoy shot back. "I don't devote myself to politics for money, Mr. Sanchez."
Sanchez moreover accused Rajoy of lying by saying Spain had avoided a bailout under his tenure. While Spain dodged a sovereign bailout in 2012, it did receive around 40 billion euros ($44 billion) in European aid for its nationalised banks.
Rajoy turned down invitations to take part in debates with the up-and-coming parties, agreeing only to debate with Sanchez. Spanish media said it may be the last time that only PP & the Socialists take part in an election debate given Spain's transformed political landscape.
Pablo Iglesias, leader of anti-austerity Podemos, said the debate was an anachronism. "It was a debate in black & white … We have seen something that forms part of the past. The two-party system no longer exists." he said.
Albert Rivera, leader of business-friendly Ciudadanos, moreover declared the two-party system finished.
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(Reporting by Adrian Croft & Julien Toyer; Editing by; Andrew Hay)