Voters reject Spain's leaders

Socialists oust ruling party

angry voters say support of Iraq war led to attack

March 15, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MADRID, Spain - Voters turned on Spain's ruling party yesterday, and the United States may have lost an ally in Iraq, as opposition Socialists surged to an unexpected victory in an election clouded by the bombings of the country's train system and emerging evidence that fundamentalist Muslims may have been responsible.

Only four days ago, the Popular Party of Jose Maria Aznar appeared headed to victory, but the bombings Thursday, which killed at least 200 people, changed the dynamic of the race and, in the eyes of some voters, altered the outcome.

Voters were apparently upset with Aznar's backing of the war in Iraq, and many felt he tried to shift blame for Thursday's attacks away from Islamic fundamentalists for fear it would hurt his party at the polls.

Reports indicated yesterday that a Moroccan arrested in the attacks is linked to a suspected al-Qaida member jailed in Spain for allegedly helping plan the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

The incoming prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, had pledged to bring home 1,300 Spanish troops sent to Iraq in the aftermath of fighting there if the United Nations did not have a major role in peacekeeping by July.

He campaigned on a foreign policy platform of repairing relations with France and Germany, which opposed the war in Iraq, even if it meant angering the United States.

"Today, the Spanish people have spoken with a massive turnout," he said. "They have said they want a government of change.

He made no mention of the war in Iraq but said his most important responsibility, with 400 people from Thursday's attack still hospitalized, was clear.

"My first priority will be to combat all kinds of terrorism," he said. "The terrorists must know that they will confront all of us together."

The Socialists, who lost a 14-year hold on power in 1996 amid corruption scandals, declared victory with nearly all votes counted.

The party, down in the polls by 3 to 5 percentage points a week ago, increased its presence in the 350-seat legislature to 164 seats, up from 125. The governing Popular Party fell to 148 seats, from 183.

`Lying' about bombings

The Socialists' victory marked a stunning defeat for Aznar's center-right Popular Party, given Spain's emerging economy, which has held steadier than most in Europe in recent years.

The unemployment rate remains a problematic 10 percent, but that is about half the rate it was when Aznar took office.

"People care about more than money. He and his government unraveled and lost all credibility, first by getting us into the war and then by lying about the bombings," said Fernando Tapia, 34, a teacher in the Basque region of northern Spain.

"He tried to manipulate the tragedy for political gain, and when people realized that, they were going to vote against him."

Although Aznar pledged support for the war with Iraq despite 90 percent of the population saying they opposed it, the issue had largely receded in the campaign until Thursday's attacks.

Such was the impact of the scene that more than 2 million people took to the streets of Madrid to protest for peace on Friday, and millions more marched throughout the country.

On Saturday, smaller protests demanding information about the investigation into the bombings targeted Aznar's government.

Aznar and his interior minister were adamant in the hours after the bombings that the Basque separatist group ETA was responsible for 10 bombs that exploded on commuter trains and stations during morning rush hour, and they have yet to fully back off their claim.

During his eight years in office, Aznar took a tough stance against Basque demands for increased autonomy and had cracked down on ETA activities with many arrests.

Political analysts here had said if ETA were responsible for the bombings, Aznar's party would benefit politically, but that if al-Qaida or other Muslim extremists were responsible, the party could be hurt by voters who felt Aznar made Spain a target by supporting the war against Iraq.

`People aren't stupid'

Public sentiment seemed firmly to support the theory that ETA was responsible immediately after the bombings, but thoughts began to change when a van was discovered near a train station with detonators and an audiotape of verses from the Quran inside.

ETA then issued a statement that it had nothing to do with the attacks.

Then, on the eve of voting, authorities announced they had arrested five people who may have had ties to Islamic extremist groups in connection with the bombings. And hours before the polls opened, they announced they had located a videotape in which al-Qaida claimed responsibility.

"People aren't stupid," said Harkaitz Millan, a 24-year-old student. "The government was saying `ETA, ETA, ETA,' and the evidence was al-Qaida, and I think people resented them for trying to gain from 200 people dead."

Aznar's hand-picked successor, Mariano Rajoy, conceded defeat 2 1/2 hours after polls closed.

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