Bombings Spain Votes in New Socialist Government, 03/17/04
In the wake of train bombings that killed over 200 people, voters in Spain ousted the pro-U.S. government in favor of a socialist prime minister who has vowed to remove his country's troops from Iraq.
Spain is recovering from a series of ten explosions that ripped through early morning commuter trains in the capital Madrid last week, leaving over 200 dead and 1,500 injured.
"It is the worst act of terror in the history of Spain and the worst act of terror in memory in any European Union state," said European Parliament President Pat Cox.
Directly after the March 11 bombing there was confusion over who was responsible for the deadly attack. Initially the government blamed the Basque separatist group ETA, which has a long history of exploding bombs in public spaces, but other evidence pointed to international terror network al-Qaida.
What is ETA?
The Basques are a distinct ethnic group living primarily in northern Spain and southwest France. During Spain's dictatorship years (1939-75) the Basque people were severely oppressed.
ETA (Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna), which means Basque Homeland and Freedom, established itself as a student resistance movement in the 1960s but has evolved into a terrorist organization that is fighting for an independent Basque homeland. This is despite the fact that Spain's Basque country has obtained a high level of autonomy, with its own parliament, police, education and tax system.
Prior to the Madrid bombings, ETA had taken responsibility for more than 800 deaths in its decades-old campaign, the largest of which was a supermarket blast in Barcelona that killed 21 people in 1987. But the group has denied responsibility for the March 11 attacks.
The massive train attack, three days before Spaniards went to the polls, seemed timed to influence the election results. The question was, which way?
If ETA was found responsible, it could have helped the ruling Popular Party, which was expected to win and had taken a strong stance against the Basque separatists.
If al-Qaida was responsible, it could hurt the ruling party, which had committed to the war in Iraq despite lack of support from the Spanish public.
After days of uncertainty and confusing reports, the interior minister held a press conference at midnight the eve of elections and played a video in which a man said al-Qaida carried out the attacks in retaliation for Spain's support for the U.S.-led war on Iraq.
Political analysts said many voters believed the government purposely withheld information that linked the attacks to al-Qaida in order to influence Sunday's election.
"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," Spanish television reporter Salvador Sala told the NewsHour.
In the end, a record number of Spaniards went to the polls, with 77 percent voting -- 9 percentage points higher than the 2000 elections. An additional 2 million first-time voters participated, indicating a last minute surge against Prime Minister Jose Aznar, a close ally of President Bush and the United States.
"We love America -- Faulkner, Hemmingway, Coca-Cola and Marilyn Monroe -- but we have something against your government," Luis Gonzales a Spanish teacher told The Washington Post. "Aznar took us into a war that wasn't our war but only for the benefit of the extreme right and the American companies."
The Socialist Party
Following the election, the winner -- Socialist Workers' Party leader Jose Zapatero -- told reporters that he would keep his campaign promise to remove Spanish troops from Iraq unless the United Nations takes charge of the country by mid-year.
"I have said clearly in recent months that, unless there is a change -- in that the United Nations take control and the occupiers give up political control -- the Spanish troops will come back, and the limit for their presence there is June 30," Zapatero said
Spain has 1,300 troops in Iraq. They are part of a 9,000-strong multinational stabilization force mostly in the south-central part of the country.
Allies Poland and Ukraine, two of the largest contributors to the stabilization force, have said that they will not withdraw their troops from Iraq.
By Annie Schleicher, Online NewsHour
© 2004 MacNeil/Lehrer Productions