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The reasons for and consequences of the defeat of the Aznar government in Spain

Francisco J. Romero Salvadó

Until his defeat in Spain’s elections in March, José María Aznar was a key member of the US-led ‘Coalition of the Willing’. His defeat, coming after the Madrid bombing, caused fury in Washington. FRANCISCO J. ROMERO SALVADÓ discusses its causes and repercussions.

It is said that a week is a long time in politics. Five days in March proved to be a political eternity in Spain, when the country was shaken and transformed beyond recognition. The events of March 11-15, from the appalling bombings of commuter trains in Madrid to the victory of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) in the country's general elections, reverberated around the world.

Pre-electoral polls taken on March 10, four days before the polls, indicated that the right-wing Popular Party (PP), led by prime minister José María Aznar, would be returned to power. The PP seemed to have overcome the plunge in its support caused by the unpopular decision to join the US-led invasion of Iraq a year earlier, when Aznar, with characteristic arrogance, ignored opinion polls which indicated that some 90 percent of the Spanish people opposed any involvement in Iraq. Aznar's electoral success appeared guaranteed because of a combination of his party's populist embodiment of national unity against internal separatist tendencies, the feel-good factor of an economic upturn, and the appearance of having defeated the Basque terrorism of ETA. Moreover Spain's main opposition force, the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), was in disarray. A few months earlier it had won a stunning victory at the Catalan elections, displacing from power, for the first time, the moderate Catalan nationalist party (CiU); but this victory appeared to have backfired at a national level when Spain's powerful conservative media published evidence, perfectly timed to coincide with the Spanish national elections, that the leader of one of the PP’s political allies in Catalonia had been in secret negotiations with ETA. Thus it was that the PP entered the last week of campaigning absolutely confident that victory was secure.

On March 11, however, Spaniards awoke to the news of slaughter in Madrid. Glued to their televisions, they watched in horror the Dante-esque images of carnage produced by the bombing of packed commuter trains. Four days later they gave their verdict in the polls: the PP was expelled from office and Zapatero found himself elected prime minister.

This turn-around inevitably caused massive and very mixed reactions among different sectors of society. For many in Spain it was a suitable punishment for the prime minister who had taken his country into war despite the overwhelming opposition of its people. However, for large sectors of the conservative Spanish media, as well as for senior American officials, Zapatero's victory was a victory for terrorism. Dismissing the democratic verdict of the Spanish people as the first victory of Al-Qa’ida in Western Europe, and attacking the free decision of the Spanish people as an act of appeasement and surrender, is of course a grotesque slander. As has happened so often in the past, those who claim to be the greatest sponsors of liberal democracy in the ‘free world’ responded with anger when the democratic process produced a result contrary to their interests. Some commentators suggested that a similar electoral result in Latin America, for example, would almost certainly prove the precursor to a military coup planned in Washington.

Zapatero's public statements immediately after his victory were also greeted with dismay by those who had looked forward to Aznar’s victory. Spain's prime minister-elect characterised the occupation of Iraq as a disaster and threatened to withdraw Spanish troops unless the UN took over the administration of the country, a promise he fulfilled upon taking office in April. He also stated, pointedly, that a war based on lies is not the way to fight global terrorism, and suggested George W. Bush and Tony Blair reflect on current events.

Zapatero might be accused of political inexperience, and perhaps even of naivety. He is certainly a young leader who has not mastered the techniques of spin, unlike most western politicians. For example, one cannot help being amazed by how they go on successfully disguising traditional western imperialist operations as humanitarian, and even altruistic, campaigns on behalf of democracy and freedom. Their history of support for, and then exploitation of, Saddam Hussain during the 1980s and 1990s is a case in point. So too is the way that, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, political sophistry, apocalyptic rhetoric and spurious intelligence, culminating in the US Secretary of State’s remarkable performance at the UN Security Council, were used to manipulate public opinion and international institutions alike. When all this failed, the international community was simply by-passed, and the US marched to war, steadfastedly maintaining that their conquest, occupation and plunder of the wealth of a key region of the Middle East was in fact an mission to bring western-style freedoms to a previously God-forsaken people.

Anyone who has followed events during Iraq's first year of ‘freedom’ cannot but agree with Zapatero that the situation is a mess. The growing resistance is looking increasingly like a full-scale insurrection; many, including US Senator Edward Kennedy, have begun to compare America's involvement in Iraq with its misadventure in Vietnam. Nor can many people take seriously the US’s claims to be winning the so-called war on terror. On the contrary, the carnage in Madrid might well indicate that ‘Islamic terrorism' has arrived in Western Europe. Equally shocking is the dizzying speed with which the Bush administration has squandered the massive global sympathy generated by the attacks of September 11, 2001.

In trying to understand what happened in Spain during those five days in March, it is important to remember that Zapatero's pledge to withdraw the troops from Iraq was made well before the Madrid bombings. Indeed, the Socialists had led Spanish opposition to the commitment of Spanish troops in Iraq, backed also by all parties in Parliament except the PP, as well as by public opinion. Zapatero's speech on the night of March 14 was hailed by many Spaniards. They greeted with enthusiasm his clear and sincere words, and demanded that he fulfil his promises. His direct approach was a breath of fresh air through the half-truths, deceptions and cynicism that have become the norm in the political establishments of our advanced and rich states. Zapatero's words struck a cord with many in the west who had marched in their millions to show their opposition to Washington's aggression, and who understood that fighting terrorism and invading Iraq were two different things. More importantly, they understood that the invasion of Iraq was the greatest possible boost to terrorism, confirming the perception among many Muslims of US double standards: Arabs can always be bombed and killed at will, while Israel, with its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and its record of repression and brutality, can ignore international opinion with impunity.

The different peoples of the several nations that comprise Spain can be called many things, but certainly not cowards or appeasers. In recent history, unlike many European countries whose constitutional and liberal orders were overthrown by fascist and authoritarian forces with little resistance, Spaniards fought back against a military insurrection. It took 33 months for Franco’s forces to destroy democracy; aided, one might add, by the cowardly inaction of Western powers bent, at the time, on appeasing the dictators. The day after the slaughter of nearly 200 civilians in Madrid, Spaniards offered the world a lesson in mobilisation against terrorism. Twelve million people took to the streets as internal domestic differences were buried. At no time did they ask the authorities to cave in to terrorism. If anything, their message was the precise opposite: a determined revulsion and decisiveness to fight this scourge by all means.

Above all, what these twelve million people expected from their government was honesty. Seventy-two hours later, many had concluded that their government was hiding the truth and exploiting the Madrid massacre for its political ends. The stunning election result was, above all, a rebellion against what many Spaniards perceived as the PP's arrogance and manipulation of the truth. In the aftermath of the bombings, Aznar’s government was faced with a dilemma: if the bombing had been carried out by Basque terrorists, the backlash might help the PP increase its parliamentary majority. If, on the other hand, a Muslim connection emerged, the PP feared a backlash that might endanger its expected victory. The result was an all-out government effort to pin the blame on ETA, over-riding all evidence to the contrary. Ministers insisted that ETA was responsible, diplomats and security services were instructed to follow the same line, and pressure was placed on the media to do the same. As circumstantial and direct evidence mounted, however, it became clear that Al-Qa’ida-type Muslims were in fact the likeliest suspects, and anger grew at the Aznar government’s misrepresentation of the bombings for purely political motives.

Thus it was the mishandling of the aftermath of the tragedy, rather than the terrorist deed itself, that brought about the PP's defeat. In the era of the internet and of mobile phones, news of emerging evidence of Muslim involvement spread quickly, despite the government’s efforts. By the evening of March 13 the government was in disarray. Foreign editorials ranging from the New York Times to Le Monde were already confirming the Islamic connection. The important non-governmental radio station, Cadena Ser, openly accused the authorities of concealing a mountain of evidence, including the conclusions of the intelligence agencies, for the sake of political expediency. Thousands of bitter protesters besieged the PP's headquarters in Madrid. As Aznar and other high-ranking party officials cast their votes on the morning of March 14, protesters excoriated them as liars and murderers. Still that morning, in a blatant display of either political blindness or unabated cynicism, the Spanish foreign minister, Ana Palacios, claimed in an interview with the BBC that she was positive of ETA's guilt. But the PP's fate had been sealed.

The impact of this terrorism on Spain has extended far beyond the political. The subsequent cycle of arrests of terrorist suspects, and fears of further terrorist outrages, have created a collective psychosis. The arrests that have taken place, and the deaths of several suspects, including the alleged Al-Qa’ida leader Sarhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet (a.k.a. ‘the Tunisian’), in an explosion in an apartment in Leganes, on the outskirts of Madrid, might prove to be the beginning of the end; for now, nobody knows.

However, the country is facing the future with a regained confidence produced by the fresh new style that characterises the young team assembled by Zapatero. Domestically, the PP's exploitation of the country's internal divisions will be reversed as the Socialists' Catalan experience has demonstrated the possibility of compromise and understanding. Internationally, Aznar's dreams of grandeur have been buried, and the US-led ‘coalition of the willing' has lost one of its central actors, and British prime minister Tony Blair has lost a key ally in Europe. Zapatero will move Spain towards a rapprochement with France and Germany that should clear the way for the elaboration of a European constitution.

Although Zapatero has never advocated an anti-American policy, he does not believe in blind subservience either. This clearly reflects wider European feelings, as the balance in Europe is tilting clearly towards those who want the European Union to be a partner of the United States, but who also stress that, among friends, there should be room for disagreement. Europe should act on behalf of its own interests, which might well, at crucial moments, mean becoming a bulwark against US's global hegemony. The need to defeat terrorism is widely agreed; but terrorism will not be defeated by all-out military solutions that serve only to justify anti-western violence.

Many in the West agree with what Blair and Bush have sometimes said, but never meant, namely that tough measures must be pursued not only against terrorism but also against its causes. Many would share the views expressed by Mohammad Eskandari, press attaché at the Iranian embassy in London, writing in the Guardian on April 14. He suggested that unless three conditions are met, the future will remain bleak. The peoples of the Middle East have to be taken into account; they have to be listened to and not prescribed pre-packaged recipes from afar; and governments that draw their legitimacy from their people need to be supported.

As long as large parts of the world’s population continued to regard the West as motivated and characterised by cultural arrogance, economic greed and political duplicity, there will be those willing to kill thousands of innocents in the misguided belief that they are striking justifiable blows against a world power that itself understands only the language of war and violence.

[Dr. Francisco J. Romero Salvadó is Senior Lecturer in Modern European Politics at the London Metropolitan University, London, UK.]

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 3

Rabi' al-Awwal 11, 14252004-05-01

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