Within just four days, terrorism radically changed the direction of the general elections that took place Sunday in Spain, and tested the public’s tolerance of concealment and manipulation of information in the investigation effort.
On Sunday, the governing Popular Party (PP) lost 35 seats in Congress and its absolute majority. To judge by the opinion polls conducted prior to the elections, the center-right party would not have suffered defeat without Thursday’s rail blasts and carnage in Madrid.
Whether or not it is confirmed that the perpetrators were Islamic extremists, many believe the tragedy would not have occurred if the Spanish government had not gotten involved in U.S. President George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism”.
Although voters punished the PP’s candidate for prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, the main blow went to Aznar, who will be remembered for his unconditional support for Bush in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq despite the mass protests held throughout Spain prior to and during the war.
Ten members of Spain’s security forces and two Spanish journalists have been killed in Iraq. A survey carried out by the Center for Sociological Research (CIS) in February 2003 just before the March invasion of Iraq found that 83 percent of respondents were opposed to the war on Iraq.
Spain’s prime minister-elect, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero the candidate of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) confirmed his intention to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq. “The war in Iraq was a disaster, the occupation of Iraq is a disaster,” he said.
Many voters were also angry at the way the government handled the evidence arising in the investigation of Thursday’s devastating terror attacks, which left 200 dead and more than 1,500 wounded. The impression was that the government was attempting to capitalize on the attacks electorally.
For more than 48 hours a crucial period in which many Spaniards were making their final decision on who to vote for on Sunday the government stated categorically that the terrorist Basque separatist group ETA was responsible for the explosions, despite growing signs pointing to Islamic terrorist involvement.
It was unlikely that such a meticulously planned attack of such magnitude would be immediately clarified, unless the perpetrators credibly claimed responsibility.
But it was clear that firm evidence of involvement by fundamentalist Islamic groups, in reprisal for Spain’s participation in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, would have devastating consequences for the PP in the national elections.
Starting on Thursday morning, the government through Interior Minister Angel Acebes insistently repeated that the attacks were undoubtedly the work of ETA.
All of the country’s newspapers carried headlines that day with variations of “Massacre by ETA”.
On Thursday afternoon, several foreign correspondents in Spain received phone calls from a woman who identified herself as an official from the government palace, who listed “reasons” that they should consider ETA responsible for the attacks.
“She gave us three reasons: the first, that no one had claimed responsibility, and ETA usually takes several days to do so. The second, that the kind of explosive was the same that is frequently used by ETA. The third, that ETA never provides warnings prior to attacks,” said Henk Boom, who writes for the daily newspapers De Tijd of Belgium and Het Financieele Dagblad of the Netherlands.
The phone calls began several hours after the Spanish police found a stolen van in the town of Alcalá de Henares the starting-point of several of the trains in which the blasts occurred and an audiotape with Koranic verses in Arabic.
Concerned over what some journalists saw as pressure from the government, the association of foreign correspondents met Monday to discuss the case. However, the government denied that it had made any attempt to influence the media.
The parties officially closed the campaign immediately after the attacks. But the question of the election continued to shape the investigation, in terms of what was investigated and what information was made public.
The state-run TV station helped the government in its efforts to pin the blame on ETA, by using the banner “ETA attack” from the very start.
In its call for demonstrators to come out on Friday to mourn the victims and repudiate the attacks, the government added the theme “in defense of the constitution”, which nationalist sectors want to amend.
Throughout Spain, as many as 12 million people poured out into the streets Friday, defying the cold and heavy rain.
“Spanish television was broadcasting footage of the demonstrations in Madrid, lingering on images of signs that read ‘An Entire Nation and Only One Flag’, but never showing the placards reading ‘No to War, Yes to Peace’,” according to an on-line article by Spanish journalist Lucía Etxebarría.
According to Etxebarría, the newspaper El Mundo refused to publish an article in which she criticized the government’s hypothesis that ETA was responsible, even though the daily had specifically commissioned the story.
On Saturday, Acebes was still saying he was “convinced” that new evidence would prove that the attacks were the work of ETA, while PP candidate Rajoy said he had a “moral conviction” that ETA was involved.
While people were talking about ETA in Spain, the rest of the world seemed to be watching another movie, perhaps moved by their own fears, or perhaps because they were able to see from afar, in the mangled trains, disturbing signs of the hand of Islamic terrorism.
In Israel, reports of the train blasts were accompanied from the start by talk of al-Qaeda, the Islamic network led by fugitive Saudi national Osama bin Laden that is blamed for the Sep. 11, 2001 terror attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.
US intelligence officials and journalists promptly pointed out that a series of numerous large-scale explosions in rapid sequence fit with al-Qaeda’s style.
In Buenos Aires, callers, including homemakers, were phoning the radio stations to give their impression that al-Qaeda, not ETA, was responsible for the horror. The same thing was said by Spaniards living in Argentina, who gathered Friday to mourn and repudiate the tragedy.
By Saturday, when thousands of Spaniards gathered outside PP headquarters in Madrid, Bilbao, Santiago, Barcelona, Gijón, Zaragoza and other cities in Spain to protest the government’s handling of the evidence regarding the attacks and demand that it tell the truth, ETA had already denied twice that it was involved in Thursday’s blasts.
“Who Was Responsible?”, “Liars!” and “We Want the Truth!” shouted the crowds, although those who called the demonstrations had urged people to gather in silence, because according to campaign rules, the day before the elections is a “day of reflection.”
The tension reached such a point that in Pamplona, in the Basque Country, an off-duty police officer shot and killed a local baker after an argument over the attacks.
It was then that the government reported the appearance of a video left in a trash bin near a mosque in Madrid, in which a man who identifies himself as a “military spokesman” for al-Qaeda in Europe, Abu Dujan Al Afgani, said the group was responsible for the explosions.
This is a response to Spain’s “collaboration with the criminals Bush and his allies…to the crimes that you caused in the world, and specifically in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there will be more if God wills it,” he says in Arabic.
Local authorities in Spain had already arrested five foreign suspects, three from Morocco and two from India, and the ETA hypothesis was crumbling fast.
On Sunday, the PP lost its eight-year hold on power to the PSOE, which took 43 percent of the vote. Voter turnout was the highest in 29 years.
The PSOE had opposed the war on Iraq from the onset.
Still in shock, Spain’s grieving voters used their ballots to demand the truth, and reaffirm democracy, above and beyond party loyalty.
But if Islamic extremists were indeed responsible for the attacks in Madrid, and indirectly altered the results of the elections, not only Spain but the entire world now has much more to worry about.
Read more by Diana Cariboni
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