Pro-U.S. Party Defeated in Spanish Elections

The new leader’s announcement marks a major shift from the pro-U.S. foreign policy of Jose Maria Aznar’s Popular Party, which has been in power in Spain since 1996.

The defeat of Aznar’s Party and his hand-picked successor came after Thursday’s rail bombings that killed 200 people and wounded 1,500. Before the attacks, the governing party was leading in the polls.

Just hours before voting began, Spanish officials announced a it had a purported Al-Qaida video, in which the group said it carried out the attacks in retaliation for Spain’s support for the U.S.-led war on Iraq.

On the tape, a man speaking in Moroccan-accented Arabic said the bombings were “a response to your collaboration with the criminals Bush and his allies” and threatened more attacks, Interior Minister Angel Acebes said in a hastily called news conference after midnight.

Three Moroccans and two Indian suspects, also thought to have al-Qaida links, were arrested Saturday. Jamal Zougam, one of the Moroccans, was a follower of suspected al-Qaida leader Imad Yarkas, jailed in Spain for allegedly helping plan the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, according to court documents reviewed by the Associated Press.

A London-based Arabic newspaper had earlier received a claim of responsibility in al-Qaida’s name, but the Spanish government had been reluctant to blame the Islamic group, saying the Basque separatist group ETA was also a suspect. ETA denied responsibility.

During the campaign, the ruling party had charged the Socialists with being soft on ETA, which has killed some 850 people since 1968 in its campaign for a Basque homeland.

Reacting to the election results, Socialist supporter Ramon Capellos told Reuters, “The PP (Popular Party) has only itself to blame. If the government had been honest with the public instead of trying to lay the blame on ETA at all costs, the PP could still have won this election.”

About 5,000 people protested Saturday outside Prime Minister Aznar’s party’s headquarters in Madrid, holding up signs saying “no more cover-up.”

One banner read: “Aznar, because of you we all pay.”

With 164 seats in the lower house of parliament, 12 short of an absolute majority, Zapatero said he intends to govern through dialogue with other groups. He ruled out a coalition with regional parties.

The PP will remain by far the largest single force in Spain’s upper house or Senate, potentially making it difficult for the Socialist government to pass legislation.

Zapatero said his immediate priority would be “fighting terrorism” and promised to improve ties with the rest of Europe.

Aznar’s closeness to U.S. and UK leaders George Bush and Tony Blair was unpopular in Spain, where polls showed as many as 90 percent of people opposed the war in Iraq.

Zapatero said he wanted “cordial” relations with the United States but hoped to restore “magnificent” ties with France, Germany and other European Union members.