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Spanish Voters Oust Ruling Party

Anger over support for the war in Iraq, and the terrorist attacks at home, is evident in the election that puts the Socialists in charge.

March 15, 2004|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

MADRID — Blaming last week's railway bombings on their government's support for the U.S. war in Iraq, Spanish voters ousted the ruling party Sunday in an angry, dramatic upset.

Barely two hours after the polls closed, the opposition Socialist Party claimed victory as Spaniards waving flags poured into Madrid's streets. The Popular Party of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar conceded defeat, another victim, perhaps, of Spain's deadliest terrorist attack -- one increasingly attributed to Islamic extremists.

The Socialist victory ends eight years of conservative rule and deprives Washington of one of its closest allies, complicating the Bush administration's international political and military agenda. Socialist leaders have said they will bring Spanish troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, where they were among the earliest members of U.S.-led alliances.

"Today the Spanish people have spoken with massive participation. They have said they want a government of change," Socialist Party leader and soon-to-be Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told a crowded room of supporters.

He opened his victory address with a minute of silence for the dead.

Reeling from Thursday's railway bombings, which killed 200 people and wounded 1,500, Spanish voters turned out in high numbers Sunday. Emotions were raw. People wept openly at polling stations, many of which were draped with black ribbons of mourning.

Numerous voters said they believed Spain's support for the Bush administration had put it in the cross hairs of Islamic terrorists.

Aznar's government initially downplayed the possibility that the bombings were the work of Islamic militants and instead blamed Basque separatists.

In the middle of Saturday night, however, just hours before the polls opened, the government announced it had been given a tape on which a purported spokesman for the Al Qaeda terrorist network claimed responsibility for the attacks. The speaker said Spain was being punished for helping "the criminal Bush."

"It may well be" that Al Qaeda determined the election, analyst Charles Powell of Madrid's San Pablo University said. "Voters are obviously making the connection to Thursday's attack. They are saying it was Aznar's fault, that we wouldn't have been a target if it weren't for him."

The overwhelming majority of Spaniards opposed the war in Iraq, but Aznar ignored that sentiment and gave his full support to President Bush. Spain has 1,300 troops in Iraq.

Still, the opposition had not translated into political change until now.

Aznar has governed for the last eight years and was not running for reelection, having designated as his successor Mariano Rajoy. Aznar oversaw a period of steady economic growth, reducing inflation, creating jobs and balancing the budget. He held firm against the Basque separatist group ETA and is credited with whipping his once-divided party into shape and raising Spain's profile in the world.

But opponents said Aznar's devotion to Bush alienated Spain from its traditional European allies.

The government also came under criticism for its handling of the investigation into Thursday's massacre. Some Spaniards accused it of manipulating information on the suspects for political gain, a charge Aznar vehemently denied.

Demonstrations in the two days since the attacks helped galvanize the public and send more voters than expected to the polls in a show of defiance and perseverance. Turnout was significantly higher than in the last general election, in 2000.

"Filling the ballot boxes is the best way of confronting those who seek to impose death on this society's desire for life," the pro-left El Pais newspaper said in an editorial Sunday.

With 99% of the ballots counted, the Socialists had 42.6% of the vote, for 164 seats in parliament, compared with 37.7% and 148 seats for the Popular Party.

Key to the Socialist victory were 2 million first-time voters, who were likely to be especially angry about the Iraq war, analyst Powell said.

Of the dozens of people interviewed by The Times, no one said the bombings made them change the way they voted. Instead, the decisive factor seems to have been turnout. People voted who might not have gone to the polls otherwise, benefiting the left.

With bandages on his face and a neck brace, bombing victim Cayetano Abad arrived at his polling station by ambulance and wheelchair. "I've come to show that everything carries on, that we cannot stand idle," he said.

The Socialists, however, must make alliances with other parties to govern. That might temper drastic policy shifts and will leave the government in a fragile position at a time when it must minister to a battered public.

Perhaps seeking to allay concerns about whether he can be as tough as Aznar on terrorism, Rodriguez Zapatero pledged to "unite all political forces" in the battle. "My immediate priority will be to fight all forms of terrorism," he told supporters.

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