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The Spanish election of March 2004 
Part 2 of the article on the Madrid terror attacks
Book hotels of all categories in Madrid online
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Article by Michael Borop, Madrid, added on April 1, 2004
  
As voting began on Sunday, March 14, 2004 (or 14-M, as it was called), everyone was wondering what effect the events of the previous few days would have on the Spanish general election. As late as February, opinion polls were predicting that the PP would repeat their performance in the 2000 election. But the gap between the PP and the PSOE was shrinking and in early March, Rajoy saw the likelihood of a PP majority start to slip away. One week before the election, polls indicated that the PP was leading the Socialists by about 5% and 30 parliamentary seats. A comfortable lead on the one hand, but worrisome too, since the PP had unified almost all the remaining parties in opposition and now might have difficulty finding coalition partners.
 
When the polls closed, the various exit polls painted a confusing picture with their wildly different predictions. But as the official results came in, almost everyone was caught by surprise. Not only had the PSOE won the national election, but it wasn't very close. The Socialists and their candidate for prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, won 43% of the vote and 164 seats in the Congreso, compared to the PP's 38% and 148 seats. The conservative Catalan regionalist party CiU maintained its position as Spain's third-largest, but lost 1/3 of its parliamentary seats, down to ten. Their leftist, secessionist rivals, the ERC, confirmed the spectacular growth they showed in the regional elections a few weeks before: they garnered eight seats, compared to only one in the 2000 election. The principal Basque party (PNV) repeated its previous performance, with seven seats. Surprisingly, the electorate's shift to the left did not benefit IU, which lost three seats, down to five. Despite the national election surprise and the more predictable victory of the PSOE in regional elections in Andalusia, not everything went Zapatero's way. The PP maintained its predominance in the Senate with 102 out of the 208 seats, 21 more than the Socialists.
 
Though the PSOE claimed that their victory was not related to the Madrid terror attacks (to avoid looking like they gained from them), they most probably would not have won had it not been for the train bombings and the events that followed. Outgoing prime minister Aznar's support for Bush in the Iraq war was immensely unpopular and the likelihood of a radical Islamic connection to the train bombings immediately resurrected that unpopularity. Compounding that, the fact that the government insisted so strongly that ETA, not Al Qaeda, was to blame for the attack demonstrated that the PP was imprudent at the very least, and many saw this as deliberate manipulation for political gain. The high turnout (77%) suggests that many people who otherwise would have abstained went to the polls and cast their vote for the Socialists.
 
Some right-wing commentators in Spain and abroad claimed that the terrorists had hijacked the election. Indeed, it sends out a bad signal: elections can be influenced by terror attacks. This is an invitation to terrorists around the world to try to have an impact on elections, though the outcome will not necessarily be the one they want. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that Spain did not vote to abandon the fight against terrorism, it voted to protest the war in Iraq and the ruling party's perceived manipulation of the Madrid bombing investigation. Spain will continue to fight terrorism under the Socialists, and will even need to redouble its efforts now that it is threatened on two fronts: ETA and Al Qaeda.
 
Prime minister-elect Zapatero wasted no time in repeating his campaign pledge to withdraw the country's troops from Iraq at the end of June, if the UN has not taken control of the occupation force by then. Spain's support of the U.S.-led war on Iraq was mostly symbolic: no Spanish troops participated in the war itself and its contingent in the post-war period is modest. But the changes in foreign policy are clear: Zapatero wants to improve relations with France and Germany and abandon the cozy relationship Aznar had established with U.S. President Bush.
 
The PSOE has decided to govern alone, but since they are twelve seats shy of a majority in the Congreso and only the second-largest force in the Senate, that may prove to be a real challenge in the future. They currently have the support of all the parties except the PP and are adopting a centrist, unifying tone, but their parliamentary support may not necessarily hold up for long. Many of the smaller parties are regionalist and while Zapatero is in favor of more decentralization, there is a risk that this will not satisfy the regionalists but will only lead to more calls for independence from the Basque Country and Catalonia, most notably. In fact, the leader of the Basque Country, Juan José Ibarretxe, is currently trying to push through an initiative that would make the Basque Country virtually independent, despite the opposition of the PP and the PSOE. The issue of decentralization is a divisive one and it appears Zapatero, who lacks executive experience, doesn't have the full support of everyone in his party (as demonstrated when Catalan Socialist leader Maragall very publicly disobeyed orders by Zapatero on the composition of that region's governing coalition). To complicate matters, the new government also has to confront terrorism from both ETA and Al Qaeda. On the domestic front, the Socialists need to maintain the good economic growth and declining unemployment they've inherited from the Aznar government, not an easy feat given the disastrous economic policies of the previous Socialist government. Zapatero also needs to reinforce the country's important tourist industry in the wake of the terrorist attacks, prevent a backlash against the country's Muslim and immigrant communities, and manage an inflationary housing market, among other issues.
 
A
znar leaves the political scene with a mixed, but positive legacy overall. His most positive contribution has undoubtedly been the economy: during the eight years he led the country, Spain's record unemployment rate dropped steadily, economic growth has been strong for several years, several sectors were privatized, and the country has continued modernizing, narrowing the gap that separates it from the likes of France, Germany, and Britain. Aznar also worked hard to make Spain's voice heard in the UN, the European Union, and other international bodies. Constant and effective police action under Aznar's government has left ETA apparently crippled and weak. On the down side, with a majority in parliament in his second term in office, Aznar ended up ruling rather than governing. His government was criticized for its handling of the Prestige oil tanker disaster, troops were sent to post-war Iraq without parliamentary approval, and many opposition attempts to set up commissions of investigation were stonewalled. Aznar's "for us or against us" rhetoric antagonized all the other political parties, most notably portraying the democratic Basque PNV party as radicals and accomplices of ETA. While he had little to do with his party's defeat, it is now up to Mariano Rajoy to pick up the pieces from the electoral debacle. In the meantime, Zapatero has to assuage the country's political polarization and manage the opportunities and challenges of his post as the country's new leader.

To Part 1 of the article: The Madrid terror attacks.



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