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The Spanish lesson

Print edition : Apr 09, 2004

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In the aftermath of the Madrid bombings that killed more than 200 people, Spain votes out of power the Jose Maria Aznar-led Popular Party which manipulated the identity of the perpetrators of the attack. The vote is also seen as a protest against dragging the country into the war on Iraq.

in Madrid

LYING and "spin" in the wake of the horrific bombings that shook Madrid on March 11 resulted in Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's Popular Party losing power in the legislative elections in Spain held three days later.

"The vote against the Popular Party was not dictated so much by the fact that Aznar had imposed an unpopular war on our people. It had to do with the fact that he lied. It was a total betrayal of democracy. Even when most newspapers were pointing out that the culprits could not have been ETA, when ETA leaders were saying they had nothing to do with the devastation, Aznar was busy pressuring editors, telling them the Basque separatist organisation was behind the carnage and destruction. It was dishonest, low, manipulative and despicable. The government's attitude showed it up for what it was - a lying, cheating bunch of politicians with scant respect for the voters who put them there in the first place. If the government had said: `We don't know who it was, we are looking into it', the Popular Party would still have won the elections," said journalist Juan Antonio Ortega.

The Aznar government's ploy to win sympathy votes by pinning the blame on ETA so as to justify its tough stand on the Basque terrorist organisation and deflect questions on its decision to join the United States-led war on Iraq despite massive opposition at home, boomeranged. The Socialist Party led by Jose Luis Roderiguez Zapatero won a convincing victory over the Popular Party and will be forming the next government in coalition with smaller leftwing and environmentalist parties.

THE bombings in Madrid have changed the face of Europe. "This was our September 11. Hyper-terrorism has now visited Europe and is probably here to stay," said Francois Heisbourg, Director of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research. The bombings, which killed 201 people and injured almost 1,500, have also exploded the myth of European invincibility.

The events of the past fortnight have irreversibly modified the balance of relations between Europe and the U.S. The U.S. had managed to divide Europe and weaken the power and influence of the Franco-German axis by sidelining the two main opponents to its war on Iraq. President George W. Bush has lost much more than the support of his ardent acolyte, Aznar.

The day after the election, on March 15, the message from Madrid was clear, tough and direct. Zapatero said: "The war in Iraq was a disaster and the occupation continues to be a disaster." The United Kingdom and the U.S. would do well to indulge in some self-criticism, the Prime Minister-designate said.

Zapatero announced that unless the operations in Iraq were handed over to the United Nations by June 30, the 1,300 Spanish troops deployed in that country by his predecessor would be coming home. He also said he would bring his country more in line with Europe. "Spain is going to see eye to eye with Europe again." This means that Spain will drop its stubborn demand for votes on a par with France and Germany in the new European Constitution. This will, to the satisfaction of France, effectively isolate Poland and help heal the rift within continental Europe that has been brought about by Bush's divisive diplomacy. It will bring "Old Europe" together again.

Bowing before this evidence, Poland's Prime Minister Leszek Miller admitted that the change of government in Spain "creates serious complications for Poland". In Italy, the third country that was an active supporter of the war against Iraq, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi maintained a stubborn silence.

However, Zapatero's remarks have set other tongues free. Chief of the European Commission Romano Prodi and French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin have begun to speak out against the U.S. policies in Iraq with a vehemence that had evaporated following Washington's largely successful attempts to punish them for their opposition. While de Villepin described the war in Iraq as "an error, even a mistake", Prodi pointed out that terrorism had increased, not decreased after the invasion of Iraq.

It is an irony that the attacks in Madrid will weaken, not strengthen, what the U.S. calls its "anti-terror coalition". There are reasons for that. Why, European leaders will now ask, did you not go after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Why did you choose to attack a secular, albeit autocratic, regime that had no proven link to Al Qaeda? Why did you use trumped-up evidence to invade a country that has since been turned into a breeding ground for terrorists? And, finally, why have you persistently refused to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian question since it is evident that the continued occupation of Palestinian territory by Israel gives Al Qaeda powerful arguments to continue its campaign of terror?

"WHERE next", is the question on everyone's lips. Will it be London, Warsaw or Rome? Terrorism and how best to fight it will certainly dominate the next European Summit meeting to be held in Brussels at the end of March. The bombings in Spain and the electoral reversals suffered by the Popular Party have sent shock waves across Europe. Berlusconi and Tony Blair are probably quaking in their boots. Blair particularly, since his intelligence services produced much of the questionable "evidence" on weapons of mass destruction that served as an excuse to invade Iraq. `Aznarisation' has become the scare word now.

The French go to the polls in regional elections in a week's time. The Spanish situation has had a clear and direct effect on the way the government has taken to handling terrorist threats it has received. Two weeks ago, the French government reacted angrily when newspapers revealed it had engaged in negotiations - even going to the extent of attempting to pay a huge ransom - with a mysterious organisation called AZF that had threatened to blow up the railway system. Following the carnage in Spain, the government has taken a completely different tack, explaining other threats received since from purportedly Islamic organisations bent on punishing France for banning the Muslim head scarf from French schools.

There are those who have described the Spanish vote as "appeasement", calling it the new Munich. Recently, in two separate articles in The New York Times, analysts such as Edward Luttwak and David Brook said the Spaniards were attempting to buy "a separate peace". While Luttwak claimed that Zapatero "seems to be validating the crudest caricatures of `old European' cowardly decadence", Brooks said that "we can be pretty sure now this will not be the last of the election-eve massacres. Al Qaeda will regard Spain as a splendid triumph" and concluded that this would constrain U.S. policy for years to come. Constraining U.S. unilateralism could yet save the world from many more mistakes such as the war on Iraq. What the Spaniards have done is not appeasement. It is an attempt to undo a lie. Despite the opposition of 90 per cent of the population, Aznar led his country into an unnecessary and unpopular war. He then added insult to injury by lying about the nature of the terrorist attacks. The Spaniards went to the polls in the midst of burying their dead, showing immense strength and determination. It was a triumph for democracy.

Zapatero is not likely to be soft on terrorism - he has said he will take a tough stand against terrorists. However, he is against continuing a faulty foreign policy. He would like to set Spain on the right track and bring his country back into the European fold.

The Europeans should seize this opportunity to heal their wounds and use their common weight to pressure the U. S. into taking more positive action over the Israeli-Palestinian issue. A homeland for the Palestinians and an end to the Israeli occupation would remove the major arguments used by Islamic terrorists to find recruits.

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