In a stunning repudiation of the pro-Iraq-war policy of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a key European ally of President George Bush, Spanish voters overwhelmingly rejected Aznar’s designated successor and elected Socialist leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero instead.

Rodriguez Zapatero immediately announced that he would pull Spanish troops out of Iraq unless the UN replaces the United States as the force in charge, an unlikely prospect.

The election took place just two days after a terrorist attack on three Madrid commuter railway stations. As many as 13 bombs were planted where they could cause the most carnage. Though not all went off, in three commuter stations bombs ripped through stopped trains, killing over 200 commuters and wounding up to 1,500.

Messages of condolences and solidarity with the Spanish people poured in from around the world. In Spain, there was shock and sorrow at the worst single incident of mass terror since Hitler’s Luftwaffe bombed the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.

Before the bombing, most predictions had the right-wing Popular Party (PP) of Aznar winning. However, the predictions turned out to be spectacularly wrong.

The Popular Party was swept from office. The new lineup of parties in the lower house of the Spanish Congress has the social-democratic Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), which had opposed Spanish participation in the war, with 164 seats in the 350-member house, just 12 short of an absolute majority. The PP is reduced to 148, almost a reversal of the pre-election ratio.

Spain has 1,300 soldiers in Iraq, a fact that is deeply unpopular with the Spanish people. As many as 90 percent tell pollsters that they don’t want the troops there. The Spanish government realized that if the train bombings were related to Middle East issues, the government could be seen as putting innocent Spanish civilians in harm’s way, causing a voter backlash.

It appears that Aznar’s government tried to deflect public attention and politically exploit the terrorism tragedy by claiming that the attack was carried out by the Basque independence group, ETA. However, the public didn’t buy it. Strong evidence of an al-Qaeda connection was evidently covered up by the government.

Terrorist groups normally claim credit for their acts and ETA immediately denied responsibility. ETA attacks, while often bloody, are generally aimed at military, police and state officials, rather than at large numbers of civilians. Then police belatedly reported that al-Qaeda had claimed credit for the bombing, stating it was an act of retribution for Aznar’s support of the Bush foreign policy. At this writing, Spanish authorities have detained five suspects, none of them Basque.

Mass demonstrations of mourning began to morph into protests against the government, its Iraq policy and especially its attempt to hide the truth. Unionized workers at Spain’s main news agency, EFE, claimed that the agency had tried to keep information from the public as to the probable al-Qaeda source of the bombing. If this was indeed the government’s plan, it backfired badly.

Immediately after the election, Socialist leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero announced plans to form a coalition government, and went looking for partners. One possible partner is the United Left (Communists and left-socialists), who saw their own parliamentary delegation cut from 10 to five seats, possibly because people who normally would have voted for them decided it would be more practical to support the Socialists so as to get rid of the PP.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.

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