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Spain: Socialists Win Upset Election Victory In Wake Of Bombings

Prague, 15 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Spain's Socialist Party members are celebrating victory as the official vote count from yesterday's election shows they have ousted the conservative party of former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.

The Socialists are voicing jubilation and surprise over the poll results. They are also expressing grief over the terrorist bombings in Madrid just four days ago. The emotions are all linked together because -- in ways that are still not entirely clear -- it is public anger and frustration with the bombings that seem to have swept the Socialists into power.

"If the mayhem in Madrid does prove to have been the work of Muslim terrorists, it could mean that Islamist radicals have affected the outcome of an election in a major Western democracy."
Just days before the 11 March bombings, polls in Spain were showing the former ruling Popular Party of Aznar well on its way to securing a third term in power. The fact that Aznar himself was stepping aside in hopes of handing over the reins to his hand-picked successor, Mariano Rajoy, was a measure of the confidence the party felt after eight years in control.

But the multiple bombs targeting commuter trains in Madrid -- which killed at least 200 people and injured 1,500 others -- turned the predictions upside down.

Voters flocked to the polls in a massive 63-percent turnout in a show of national solidarity against the attacks. But they balked at voting once again for the right-leaning Popular Party, which had enjoyed an absolute majority in parliament. Instead, they swung over to the socialist PSOE, giving it just a dozen seats short of an absolute majority in the lower house.

The PSOE now must find a partner to form a ruling coalition and is expected to do so with left-wing allies or a smaller regional party. The conservative Popular Party remains the largest single party in the upper house.

Speaking to supporters yesterday, Socialist Party leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero did not speculate on how the terrorist attacks in Madrid might have influenced the election. He instead pledged to form a "government for change" and to fight terrorism.

"The government for change will act through dialogue, responsibility and transparency. It will be a government that will work for cohesion, for concord, and for peace. My most immediate priority is to combat all forms of terrorism and my first initiative, tomorrow, Monday [15 March], will be to seek the union of political forces to concentrate all efforts in this fight," Zapatero said.

But if Zapatero is steering clear of analyzing how the Madrid bombings influenced the election, Spanish editorial writers today were less restrained. Several speculated that voters were angered over the outgoing government's response to the bombings and wanted to clean house.

The conservative government initially said that the attacks were carried out by Basque separatists and downplayed the possibility they could have been the work of Islamist extremists.

However, subsequent evidence has increasingly pointed to Islamist groups, as police arrested (13 March) five men linked to a mobile phone found in an explosive-filled backpack like those used in the bombings. Three of the men were Moroccans with militant or criminal backgrounds and two were Indian Muslims.

The daily "El Mundo" newspaper slammed the outgoing government for what it said was the government's deliberate effort to downplay the Islamic militant link for fear it would heighten public concern over Spain's role in Iraq.

The paper said: "The effect of the 11 March attacks appears to have been decisive in the election. [Protesters'] placards demanding an end to [Spain's] involvement with the war in Iraq and the demands for explanations about who carried out the terrorist attacks now seem to be the causes of the Popular Party's fall."

Aznar's Popular Party has been a strong supporter of Washington's intervention in Iraq despite the fact a majority of Spaniards opposed the U.S. action.

The Socialists campaigned strongly against Aznar's pro-U.S. policies, saying they would bring Madrid into line with Paris and Berlin instead. They also pledged to withdraw Spain's 1,300 troops from Iraq by 30 June unless there is a clear UN mandate for their presence.

Zapatero reiterated on Spanish radio today that Spain's troops "will come home." But he said no decision will be made without wide political consultation.

"The war has been a disaster, the occupation continues to be a disaster. It has only caused violence," he said. "There must be consequences. There has been one already -- the election result. The second will be that the Spanish troops will come back."

As the Popular Party conceded defeat last night (14 March), leader Rajoy accepted that public opinion had turned against it. But like Zapatero, he stopped short of analyzing why.

"[After] the attack, the participation of the Spanish people [in the election] has been democratically eloquent," Rajoy said.

But some Popular Party supporters faulted voters for what they said was fear of future terrorist attacks if Spain continued to pursue its pro-U.S. policies. One party member, not identified, told Reuters, "I really feel that it's very sad that for something so sudden, so sinister -- regarding terrorism, you know, which is an international problem everywhere -- somehow Spain reacts so cowardly."

"The Wall Street Journal Europe" today said that the political upset in Spain could represent a victory for Islamist extremists if they were indeed the author of the bombings.

The paper said that, "on the global stage, if the mayhem in Madrid does prove to have been the work of Muslim terrorists, it could mean that Islamist radicals have affected the outcome of an election in a major Western democracy."