A Vote for Honesty

A Vote for Honesty

Click here to read Lowenberg’s dispatch from the March 20 peace march in Madrid.



It is a maxim of politics that people do not vote on foreign policy. But foreign policy became a domestic issue here on March 11, when the country was shaken by the early morning terrorist strikes on four Madrid commuter trains.

The moment at which Spaniards decided to throw out the conservative Popular Party that had ruled the country for eight years was not the attack itself, which took more than 200 lives and injured over 1,500 people. In the immediate aftermath of the blasts the government announced that they had almost certainly been the work of the Basque separatist group ETA, and with national elections only three days away, the conventional wisdom here was that the people would rally behind the ruling party for its hard-line law-and-order policies. But attitudes changed as hour-by-hour revelations suggested that the government had downplayed evidence pointing to Islamic extremist groups engaged in reprisals for Spain’s backing of the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Public anger boiled over when it became clear that the government was desperately trying to spin the investigation. Spain’s largest daily, El Pais, reported that Foreign Minister Ana Palacio had ordered Spanish embassies to push the ETA line, and, in a particularly clumsy move, Prime Minister José María Aznar personally called the editors of the country’s newspapers warning them off pursuing the Al Qaeda connections.

People did not like being lied to. The night before the elections, thousands filled the streets outside the Popular Party’s headquarters, accusing the government of making Spain a target with its US alliance and then trying to cover up the consequences. “We want the truth before the elections,” the crowd chanted. “No more manipulation of information!” The demonstrations continued throughout the night, with groups of protesters marching through the city’s cobblestone streets banging pots and pans. “We were tired of this authoritarian style of government,” said José Ortega, a Madrid psychology professor.

Until the bombing and the government reaction, the Popular Party had been expected to win the election easily, even though an overwhelming majority of the people had opposed Spain’s involvement in the Iraq war. Compared with economic growth and domestic tranquillity, Spain’s relatively small involvement in the war was an abstract idea. “We didn’t want to go to war, but we did [it] because of Aznar,” said Miguel Barrios, a 45-year-old maintenance worker who was in one of the bombed trains. “They didn’t pay attention to the antiwar movement.”

For the Bush Administration, the election of the Socialists means the loss of a crucial supporter of its foreign policy. In a news conference, Prime Minister-elect José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero called the Iraq war and subsequent occupation “a disaster” and pledged to bring Spain’s 1,300 troops home by the end of June unless the occupation comes under United Nations control. Zapatero said fighting terrorism cannot be a unilateral action, but requires “a grand alliance” of democracies. Socialist envoys are already preparing to mend relations with the French and German governments and to work more closely with them. “Assuming it is Al Qaeda, it is not just a Spanish problem, it is a European problem,” said Rafael Bardaji, a former Spanish intelligence official.

Meanwhile, Spaniards continue grieving. On the Sunday after the attacks, hundreds of people showed up at the train stations where the blasts had occurred to mourn at ad hoc shrines. Normally drab corners and walkways were strewn with flowers, crayon drawings, photographs and, in one station, a teddy bear. That night, following the surprise ouster of the Popular Party, the atmosphere was less celebratory than one of muted relief. “The sensation is both bitter and sweet,” said Ortega. “We are happy, but we are mourning.”

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