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Spanish politicians get personal to convince undecided voters

Source: Reuters - Wed 9th Dec 2015
Spanish politicians get personal to convince undecided voters

The ability to cook, endure a high-speed car crash or win at table football are not usually prerequisites for political office, but election candidates in Spain are showing off these and other skills to try to lure undecided voters.

One in five Spaniards who say they will take part in the parliamentary election on Dec. 20 have yet to make up their mind about their choice, the latest poll shows, a record number which is partly due to a newly-crowded political scene.

The anti-austerity Podemos and market-friendly Ciudadanos parties have ruptured a two-party system in place since the 1970s and their young, telegenic leaders are driving even Spain's low-key prime minister to display his personal side.

Mariano Rajoy, criticised for shunning four-way TV debates with other leaders, went on the radio in November to commentate a Champions' League soccer match together with his son in the hope of improving one of the lowest ever ratings for a premier.

Another candidate recently danced on television, while yet another rode in a race car which crashed and hurtled into the air.

Economic crisis, high unemployment and a slew of corruption trials are turning people away from the two parties that have ruled Spain since it emerged from dictatorship. But there is also some scepticism about the two upstarts that burst onto the political scene this year.

Hence the record number of undecided voters and a new U.S.-style focus on personal style to try to win them over.

"There's undoubtedly pressure from the new parties," said David Redoli, chairman of the Political Communication Association. "If Ciudadanos and Podemos had not burst onto the scene, there would be a lot less care and energy spent on political communication."

CLOSE RACE

The ruling People's Party (PP) is leading opinion polls, although not by enough to win a majority, while the opposition Socialists (PSOE) and Ciudadanos are vying for second place in a race likely to be followed by weeks of coalition negotiations.

Campaign coordinators for the new parties see the focus on personality as natural territory for their younger leaders and an essential way of raising awareness for new party brands amongst voters.

"We don't shy away from showcasing our leader, on the contrary, we take advantage of any opportunity," said campaign manager of Ciudadanos, Jose Manuel Villegas. Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera, 36, was the best-rated party leader in the latest poll.

Rivera was co-driver in a rally car that crashed spectacularly on an adventure programme while Pablo Iglesias, the pony-tailed leader of Podemos, played the guitar and sang songs during a TV interview.

"I like seeing these kinds of programmes," said 41-year-old clerk Francisco Gomez, who is undecided between Ciudadanos and Podemos. "They help you see candidates in a different way than rallies or party events."

Rajoy has aimed to cast aside a stiff and serious image with appearances on light-hearted TV and radio programmes paired with on-the-ground campaigning in small towns rather than big cities.

"Our strategy is all about proximity - showing an experienced prime minister close up," Fernando Martinez, one of the PP campaign managers, told Reuters. "Fewer rallies and more contact with citizens, that about sums up our campaign."

Rajoy cooked, drank wine and played table football on an informal TV interview show filmed at the home of host Bertin Osborne, days after PSOE leader Pedro Sanchez chatted about breakdancing and played table tennis on the same programme.

After beating Osbourne at the game every Spaniard has played as a teenager, the prime minister declared: "Now do I seem as boring as some people say?"

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* Spanish PM rejects pacts while rivals discuss constitutional reform

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