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Madrid: Politics of Terror - 2004-03-23

A major act of terrorism shortly before Spain’s parliamentary elections influenced voters into an unanticipated change of government, sweeping out the ruling Popular Party of outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar in favor of the Socialist Party. The Socialists’ choice for prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has said that he will chart a new path for Spain, away from its unpopular involvement in the U.S. led coalition in Iraq, and possibly, a change in Spain’s steadfast support for the war against terror. In today’s Focus, we look at how an act of terrorism in Madrid caused, in just a few days, not only a change in Spain’s government but also sent reverberations across Europe and the United States. Jeffrey Young has the story.

Wednesday evening, March 10 Madrid, the Spanish capital, was the center of intense political campaigning leading up to Sunday’s parliamentary elections. The latest tracking polls available Wednesday put the ruling Popular Party slightly ahead of its Socialist challenger. Everything changed the following morning, Thursday, March 11, exactly two and a half years after the September 11 terror attacks in New York City and outside Washington, D.C. As thousands of rail commuters rode into central Madrid to start another workday, a series of at least 10 explosions shattered trains approaching three local rail stations. The death toll quickly approached the 200 mark, with another 1400 people injured. Spain’s worst terrorist act in its history had just taken place.

Spain’s Ambassador to the United States, Javier Ruperez, likened 3/11 to 9/11: “This is our 9/11, because of the people involved, because of the number of killings. The willingness to kill simply by killing workers…people going to work.”

Rescuers were still picking through the wreckage of those trains when the Spanish government was voicing its first opinions as to who was responsible. Reporter Gil Carbajal in Madrid said officials blamed a well-known Basque separatist group with a history of violence: “Interior Minister Angel Acebes told a news conference the bombings of the packed commuter trains at three busy Madrid train stations were carried out by the Basque militant organization, ETA.”

British journalist Edward Owen in Madrid, who writes for The Sunday Times of London, said a concerted government effort to hold ETA responsible in the court of world opinion was underway: “The government was so keen to spread the word that ETA was responsible that the Foreign Minister, Ana Palacio, of Spain issued a directive to all her ambassadors around the world to tell anyone that ETA was responsible.”

And the world listened. Thursday evening, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution condemning the Madrid bombings, specifically naming ETA. On Friday, March 12, President Bush paid a condolence visit to the Embassy of Spain in Washington, laying a wreath and singling out the Basque group: “I appreciate so very much your government’s strong stand against terrorism, terrorist organizations like ETA.”

But shortly after the train bombings, the Basque political party Batasuna issued statements condemning the acts of terrorism and strongly denying that Basques were responsible. Despite that, Spain continued on the day after the bombings to blame ETA. Meanwhile, on the streets of Madrid and other Spanish cities Friday, crowds estimated in the millions nationwide marched in condemnation of terrorism -- regardless of who is behind it. They vented their anger and called for action to stop terror.

While Spain was overcome with grief, questions started to be asked. Why was the Spanish government so quick to blame ETA, and to project such a sense of certainty about it? Journalist Edward Owen -- who has lived in Spain for some 23 years and has covered its politics extensively -- asserted that the ruling Popular Party had strong political motives in quickly fixing the blame on ETA and not on other possibilities, such as terrorists allied with Osama Bin Laden: “It was always known that the ruling Popular Party, the conservative government in Spain, would favor them if ETA had been responsible for the attack and it would go against them if al-Qaida was responsible for the attack.”

Indeed, the Popular Party of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar had staked its political ground on a platform of vigorous action against terrorism, including direct involvement in the U.S. led coalition administering Iraq, a country President Bush has called the centerpiece in the global war against terror.

U.S. anti-terrorism and security expert Brian Jenkins was one of a number of outside voices highly aware of the impact the identity of the bombers could have on Spain’s Sunday March 14 parliamentary election: “If this were to turn out to be a part of the global jihad, then that would seem to be a very, very steep price for Spain’s relationship with the United States, and could affect the election.”

On Saturday, March 13, Spanish Interior Minister Angel Acebes announced that the government had found a videotape in which al-Qaida claims responsibility for the bombings. The man speaking on the videotape said that the bombings were punishment for Spain’s support of the U.S.-led war and occupation of Iraq. Later that day, Mr. Acebes also announced the arrest of five people in connection with the bombing. Three of the suspects were said to be Moroccan, the other two Indian in origin. Basque separatists were not known in the past to have outsiders involved in their acts.

The initial government assertion that ETA was responsible was coming under question, with mounting political repercussions. Some Spaniards once again took to the streets, as reporter Gil Carbajal observed in Madrid: “The crowd of a few thousand people demonstrated in front of the Popular Party headquarters in Madrid, accusing the government of distorting information collected from the investigation. The demonstrators accused the government of lying and demanded the truth before they cast their ballots in Sunday’s general election.”

By the time the Spanish polls opened on Sunday morning, the existence of the videotape claiming responsibility by forces allied with al-Qaida, and the arrests of five people clearly not Basques, were widely known among the electorate.

Turnout was heavier than it had been in recent elections, with observers saying voters were energized both by the train bombings as well as widespread opposition to Spain’s involvement with the Iraq war and its aftermath.

By Sunday evening, as the ballots were tallied, a stunning upset victory by the Socialist Party was clearly apparent. Financial Times reporter George Parker echoed the world press in his analysis of the results: “There’s no doubt at all that the election result was turned on the terrorist attack and that clearly was directly related to the Spanish support for the Americans and the war in Iraq.”

The Popular Party government of Jose Maria Aznar became the first administration siding with the White House on the Iraq war to be voted out of office. At party headquarters in Madrid, Socialist leader and now the incoming Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero exulted in victory before thousands of supporters: “Thank you for your confidence. Thank you for your votes.”

Before the night was over, Mr. Zapatero directly addressed the concerns of many Spaniards by announcing that he intended to withdraw Spain’s 1300 troops in Iraq unless military command there was put under United Nations’ control. Yet, mindful of the horrific murder of more than 200 people in the Madrid train bombings, he also said that he would continue Spain’s fight against terrorism and groups supporting it. Other governments, especially the United States, moved quickly to call on the new prime minister to remain steadfast in that fight.

President Bush underscored the need to win the common struggle against terrorism, while also abstractly acknowledging the Iraq war’s unpopularity with Spanish voters: “The Prime Minister has got issues at home that he’ll deal with. But there’s no doubt that he understands the stakes and the historic opportunity with which we’re faced.”

The days following the Madrid train bombings and Spain’s change in government have been filled with discussion and analysis of those events. Many observers say that that the bombings were apparently very carefully timed for maximum emotional impact upon voters, triggering a reaction not tempered by the cooler reason additional time may have allowed. Could popular reaction to acts of terror, and national commitments to military actions, cause similar political upheavals in other countries? That’s a matter of speculation.