Paul Anderson, Tribune column, March 19 2004
This week’s general election result in Spain is one of the most extraordinary in living memory. A week before polling day, prime minister José María Aznar’s conservative People’s Party was comfortably ahead in the opinion polls, and the talk on the left was of who would succeed José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero as leader of the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) when it lost.
But then came the vile atrocity of last Thursday’s train bombs in Madrid — and everything changed, in a matter of 48 hours.
Encouraged by the Aznar government, which confidently declared that the perpetrator of the outrage was the Basque separatist group ETA, millions took to the streets throughout Spain on Friday to protest against terrorism. The demonstrations were angry yet dignified, a remarkable and moving affirmation of national solidarity against terror and terrorists, and for democracy. The number that turned out was bigger by far than the Europe-wide total of protesters against the Iraq war in February last year.
Yet there was something else bubbling under. Even as the crowds gathered, many Spaniards suspected that there was something just a little fishy about the government’s insistence that ETA, against which it had taken a notably hard line, planted the bombs.
And over the next 24 hours their suspicions were apparently confirmed. A van was discovered containing detonators and a tape of verses from the Koran. ETA vehemently denied responsibility not once but twice. And police arrested three Moroccans and two Indians — not widely represnted in ETA’s ranks — after finding an unexploded knapsack device of the kind used in the train bombings.
The evidence seemed to point towards al-Qaida or some other Islamist group — yet still the government pressed the all-too convenient line that ETA was responsible. By Saturday night, angry crowds were demonstrating outside the People’s Party headquarters in Madrid, accusing the PP of lying to maximise its vote. And on Sunday the Socialists were given a massive boost as voters repelled by the PP’s cynical attempt to exploit the deaths of 200 people for electoral gain flocked to the polling booths to kick out the conservatives. Almost incredibly, on Sunday evening the PSOE emerged as the largest party — and Zapatero found himself with the unexpected challenge of putting together the next government.
Who said that politics has become dull and predictable? This was an upset as big as Labour’s victory in Britain in 1945 — and for the first time since 1989 a continental European political story led the BBC news.
But what does it all mean? Most of the instant comment in the UK on the Socialists’ victory — from left and right — has interpreted the wave of revulsion against the PP as a refusal of Aznar’s support of the Bush administration’s “war on terror”, in particular the deployment of Spanish forces in Iraq.
There is some truth in this: the belief that Aznar’s backing for the US military action in Iraq made Spain a target for Islamist terror appears to have had a big effect on some voters, and the Socialists undoubtedly won support from their promise to withdraw the Spanish contingent from the coalition forces occupying Iraq — a promise repeated by Zapatero (with qualifications) after winning the election.
But to extrapolate from this that the Spanish have collectively decided that the best way of coping with Islamist terror is to withdraw from confrontation — capitulation or considered rejection of a counter-productive US policy depending on your point of view — is utterly ludicrous.
Sunday’s vote was not an endorsement of copping out of opposition to Islamist terror: it was a vote against politicians’ opportunist exploitation of mass murder, a vote for less self-serving rhetoric and more effective action against the mass murderers.
Yes, the Socialists were against the war in Iraq, as were the overwhelming majority of Spanish people. But voters who were anti-war above all else were committed to the PSOE and other left parties long before the train bombings and long before the late swing that pushed them into power. The Socialists owe their victory to people unmoved by their anti-war message but disgusted by the right’s lack of respect for the dead. If Zapatero is going to retain the suport of those voters, he’s going to have to take as tough a line against terror and terrorists as any other western government leader — though how his “troops out of Iraq” policy can possibly be seen as tough is hard to see.