The announcement by the newly elect Socialist prime minister of Spain, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, that his government will pull Spanish troops out of Iraq by the end of June lest the UN take over the operation has elicited the predictable charge that he is handing a victory to Al Qaeda, which claimed responsibility for the bombing of four commuter trains in Madrid five days earlier. Yet to render that conclusion is to engage in the same kind of willful ignorance that landed Spanish troops in Iraq in the first place. Zapatero’s decision represents a commitment to keep an explicit campaign promise on which the Spanish public elected him. The reversal in Spain’s stance is the entirely predictable consequence of the way in which the conservative government of the Popular Party (PP) took the country into the war. And that government’s demise was boosted not by the horrific attacks themselves but by the way the PP responded to the crisis in the short interval leading up to the election, which turned on an all to evident manipulation of the very issue of "terrorism" and served to return the issue of the war to center stage.
When the government of Jose Maria Aznar chose to join the US’s preemptive war in Iraq, polls showed that near 90 percent of the Spanish public strongly opposed that war. Millions demonstrated against the government’s decision in the streets of Madrid and virtually every other Spanish city. Aznar’s choice to ignore this unprecedented expression of public opposition was praised by George Bush as a sign of courage. Yet in Spain it was seen by most as an act of utmost arrogance by an elected government. When the time came to send troops to Iraq, the government’s complete lack of backing forced it to limit its deployment to a force of just over a thousand troops in order to limit public outrage. From the military standpoint, Spain’s participation thus ended up being little more than symbolic. Yet politically it played an important part in undermining Europe’s ability to present a coherent position that, however it might have been arrived at, would have reflected the overwhelming feeling of its citizens.
The PP’s popularity dropped significantly in most of Spain after the invasion of Iraq, and it was expected to loose the absolute majority it gained in the 2000 elections. Yet it continued to maintain a lead in the polls largely because it managed to deflect the attention of the Spanish electorate from the issue of Iraq to the highly polarizing debate over the decision by the government of the autonomous Basque region to call for a referendum on the Basque Country’s status in Spain. The PP’s rejection of any reform of the Basque Country’s statute of autonomy and its refusal to enter a dialogue with the non-violent Basque Nationalist Party that rules the region as long as the radical Basque terrorist organization, ETA, continues to perpetrate acts of violence has much support in Spain. Yet it has also polarized the country politically over the issue of regional autonomy. The PP relied on that polarization to criticize the PSOE’s decision to form a coalition government with a separatist party in Catalonia in the run up to the election. And when the bombings in Madrid occurred just three days short of the scheduled elections, it pointed the finger squarely at ETA as the prime suspect.
The belief in ETA’s authorship of the Madrid atrocity was initially widely shared in Spain, and most analysts expected that this would result in a large surge for the PP. Yet, in the course of the three day interval leading up to the Sunday election, many in Spain became convinced that the government was withholding information that might point in the direction of Al Qaeda precisely because this would bring the issue of Iraq back to center stage and lead people to hold it responsible for what had happened. On the afternoon before the election, an opposition radio station reported sources from Spain’s intelligence service and the police as stating that the focus of the investigation had shifted away from ETA and onto a radical Islamic group even as the government continued to make public statements insisting that ETA remained the prime suspect. The news set off demonstrations before PP headquarters in many Spanish cities demanding that the government tell the truth about the investigation before voters went to the polls. Finally, as the evening drew to a close, the government released the news of the arrest of a number of individuals linked to an Islamic group, based on information that it clearly had known of much earlier.
The perception that the PP was manipulating the Madrid tragedy in order not to loose votes set off deep indignation. It also had the effect of bringing the issue of Iraq back into sharp focus. The government’s insistence on the ETA hypothesis laid bare its political strategy of relying on the divisive issue of regional separatism in Spain to deflect attention from its decision on the war. If the train attacks contributed to the Socialist victory it did so not by way of intimidation but by raising the level of anger that many in Spain felt at the government for that decision. The PP’s handling of the crisis further fueled that anger. In the end, what made the difference was a higher than expected voter turn out which raised the vote for the PSOE. The Spanish U turn is the fallout not of the Madrid bombings but of the conservative government’s extravagant decision to ignore the overwhelming opposition of the Spanish people to Spain’s participation in the occupation of Iraq.
Sofía Pérez is Associate Professor of Political Science at Boston University and writes here in a personal capacity. She is a Spanish citizen and voted in the dramatic elections. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org