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Terrorism & Politics in Spain

March 16, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: It’s been a time of tragedy and political turmoil in Spain, a terrorist attack followed by an election bringing in a new government, one that promises to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq. Two Spanish views on that that now.

Salvador Sala is the Washington bureau chief for the Spanish network TV3, Television of Catalunya. That’s the region surrounding Barcelona. Jose Gijon is a lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He’s from Madrid. Well, Jose, in 72 hours from the time the bombs went off until the time the polls open, something major happened inside the country. What?

JOSE GIJON: Well, what I think is that essentially there was a large majority of people who were not going to vote who decided to go to the polls in order to punish Aznar government. It was particularly due to the voters realized although it was not clear who were those who had committed those atrocities in Madrid that it might have been related to the war in Iraq.

Ninety percent of the Spanish population was against this war and they just — instead of staying at home — they decided to vote and to vote against Mr. Aznar. What is interesting to look at the polls from two days ago in Madrid is that Aznar’s party support decreased by a little, it only decreased by 700,000 votes. What is very impressive is the increasing total participation, which increased by 8.5 percent, giving Mr. Zapatero the highest support in the history of Spanish democracy — around 11 million votes.

You can only explain that by people who were going to stay home and decided to vote for Mr. Zapatero considering that they didn’t support Mr. Aznar’s stance on the war in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: So this was about Aznar’s policy on the war. When you say punish Aznar and the government, punish them for what?

JOSE GIJON: For supporting a war which was … which 90 percent of the Spanish population was against. And although people consider that … many people consider that Aznar was going to vote, there was nothing to do and that’s why the polls in my opinion were reflecting that Mr. Aznar had the possibilities to win or Mr. Aznar … Mr. Aznar’s vice president who was heading the ticket of Mr. Aznar’s party, Mr. Rajoit.

I believe that means there was a long shift of people who were not going to vote that supported finally the socialist candidate. On the other hand, it is fair to say that the Socialists carry out a very, very, very good campaign. And that also means that Mr. Zapatero which was a relatively unknown figure, he was the new leader of the Socialist Party although he was there for four years and he attracted a lot of people. It is true that maybe before Thursday there was a slight advance of … a slight advantage in terms for the popular party but it’s true that also voters were already attracted by Mr. Zapatero’s message.

RAY SUAREZ: Salvador Sala, a lot of attention and a lot of the things that voters themselves have told reporters go to the behavior of the government in the hours after the bombing. What was the government doing that made public opinion break so sharply in 72 hours?

SALVADOR SALA: I think that that was really the key point of this election. I think that the Spanish people have the suspicion that the government doesn’t explain the real things, the real people who were behind those attacks. They finger pointed at the first moment ETA.

Of course we have a long story of attacks in our country by ETA, the Basque terrorist organization. But they don’t … there are so many evidences that are not so clear and for that reason the people, well, there is a huge suspicion. I remember here in the United States the same day after the bombings there is one official quoted by writers here, an official of the American intelligence agency, who said, well, the multiplicity of these attacks the modus operandi, the way that this … the perfect coordination of this attacks remind us a lot of what happened in this country in Sept. 11.

That means that there is a huge possibility in the first moments of these attacks for the main international intelligence agencies that they were the work of al-Qaida or something under the umbrella of al-Qaida, could be the possibility of one of those extremist parties from al-Qaida — under the umbrella of al-Qaida.

RAY SUAREZ: But the government stayed with the ETA-Basque connection longer than the public believed them?

SALVADOR SALA: Yes, of course. I remember in Spain where just in the last hour of the day before the election the Saturday night, later when the minister of interior was in front of the press and he said, well — hours before, he said, “we have in custody some members two Morocco’s and two Indians.” But just before the Sunday he said al-Qaida could be a possibility that there is an Islamic group behind those attacks. I think it was the key point for the people the next day, the next hours the people went to the polls and cast its vote against the popular party.

RAY SUAREZ: The reaction outside of Spain to the prime minister designate’s threat to remove the Spanish troops from Iraq has been very sharp and, Jose Gijon, some commentators have said that basically the terrorists have been able to set Spanish policy in this regard.

JOSE GIJON: I don’t think so. I think the socialists had already shown in previous governments a strong loyalty in this case to the U.S. policy as Felipe Gonzalez did in the first Iraq war and also in the Kosovo War where Mr. Javier Solano, who was the secretary general of NATO and also former socialist foreign minister also had a leading role in the Kosovo campaign.

I believe that the new government which is entering now in Spain will be responsible and the only thing that — and it will be loyal to its commitments until June 13. And then depending on the mandate, on the U.N. mandate, they will consider to withdraw the troops, but I don’t think that the government right now will take the troops out immediately.

RAY SUAREZ: Was this part of the socialist campaign all along? Is it any surprise that this is what Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is promising, to remove the troops?

SALVADOR SALA: No, it’s not a surprise. This was one of several issues in his campaign to pull out the troops from Iraq. But I try to put here on the table one thing. Imagine things happened here in the United States, an attack just before the coming presidential elections. If Kerry wins these elections, what will be the headlines in the newspapers or in the broadcast news? Will it be the terrorists win the elections in the United States? I don’t think so.

RAY SUAREZ: Well today the presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said terrorists must not be allowed to think that they influence elections or that they influence policy. That would be a terrible message to send. Is it clear that that is not the message being sent?

JOSE GIJON: I don’t think so. This is my feeling. In my case as a Spaniard maybe this is a little bit the message that is given out in the rest of the world but the message on my feeling and the feeling of people that are around me in Spain is that the feeling was that the Spaniards wanted to in some ways punish an intervention which was unpopular and it didn’t matter.

Spain has been always sticking very highly to a fight against terrorism. We’ve been fighting both domestically and internationally. I don’t think that the new government … that the new government has to be seen as someone that has been elected because there are some … there have been some influences due to terrorism. I don’t think so. I think that the feeling in Spain is just that it was a clear message to send to the popular party in Spain saying that they didn’t want to follow … to continue with Mr. Aznar’s policy. Maybe when you are … when you are abroad you may … there is a different message that have been taken but that was not the stance of Spanish voters.

RAY SUAREZ: Is the Spanish public clear on the distinction? Are they wedded, loyal to the war on terrorism and don’t see that themselves as anti-American?

SALVADOR SALA: Well, in Spain we have in many places I think that there is this kind of feeling. But I think at the end of the day the Spanish people are against the terrorism. If you remember the day after the attacks they were … one-third of the country the people the citizens of the country behind the Spanish government, the Spanish government, and these huge demonstrations against the war. I think that is a clear message that the Spanish people is in this fight against the terrorism.

But I think now the question will be how we fight this terrorism. The way as George Bush do: hitting the enemy? Because there is a shadowy war against terrorism. Yesterday I remember there is a general from the French army who was hunting bin Laden in the Pakistan borderline and he said, well, if we capture Bin Laden tomorrow, this war will follow because it’s like the idol of nine heads. You cut one head but you have several heads on this war.

And we’ll have several elections. Normally the democracies elections have every four years an election. That will a long, long, battle, a long, long fight against terrorism. We have seen so many changes because we live in democracy here and many places. We have live in democracy. We will see a lot of changes. We will blame all of these changes, normal changes in democracy to the terrorists? I don’t think so.

RAY SUAREZ: Salvador Sala, Jose Gijon, thank you both.