16 March 2004
José Maria Aznar has been voted out of power by the people of Spain not because of al-Qa'ida and the bombs in Madrid, but because of a big lie. His government took Spain to war in Iraq on a false premise; they lied about weapons of mass destruction; they lied about connections between Saddam Hussein and the Islamic terror network; they subverted Spain's traditional foreign policy. And they refused to debate any of this in parliament. Aznar exploited terrorism for political purposes and appealed to the lowest inclinations of the Spanish electorate. He fed national and ideological divisions in a way that Spain hasn't known since before the Civil War in the 1930s.
The two questions that obviously come to mind are: why has Spain voted liked this, and what does it mean? The fact that a tragedy like 11 March has had such an impact on the result of an election in a Western democratic country is worrying. But in reality, Mr Aznar and his Popular Party have lost not because of a terrorist attack, but because of their own arrogance.
They took Spain into the Iraq conflict against the wishes of 90 per cent of the Spanish population. Although they got fairly decent results in last May's municipal elections, and probably thought they had got away with it when bombs exploded in Madrid's suburban trains on Thursday, the Aznar government panicked. It was their nightmare scenario - the only thing that could bring defeat in the polls. And the reaction was to take the "big lie" all the way to the end: to blame Eta, the Basque terrorist group, even if all the evidence pointed to Islamic radicals. After all, they must have reasoned, they controlled the state television, the state radio and most of the press. They only needed three days of confusion and contradicting stories, and then they would be safe. It almost worked: they missed by 24 hours.
What Spain has seen in the last couple of days is a "popular democratic revolution" - the equivalent to May '68 in Paris. While the government mobilised all its ambassadors in foreign capitals and called the national and foreign media to "sell" the story that Eta was to blame, tens of thousands of Spanish voters spontaneously took to the streets, communicating through the internet and mobile phones, claiming the right to know the truth.
The end never justifies the means, and nobody in Spain would exchange 200 lives for the result of an election, but the country is now politically healthier than it was just a few days ago. Mr Aznar has enjoyed a good press abroad, but over eight years he has poisoned the air to an enormous extent, exploiting fear, and stigmatising Catalan and Basques as "terrorism sympathisers". It was an electoral strategy, to divide and conquer.
History changes very slowly, and the Popular Party has a stronghold of nine to 10 million voters who support it whatever the circumstances. This is often because they are natural conservatives, or authoritarians, or feel nostalgia for the "good old days" of Franco. Some of them, no doubt, turned against Aznar not because he supported Bush on Iraq, or because of the bombs on 11 March, but because he lied in such a flagrant way. But the big political phenomenon has been the millions of young citizens who felt motivated to vote for the first time, and voted for truth, and peace, and transparency. In the United States, most voters would have probably reacted to 11 March by supporting the government out of a misplaced sense of "patriotism". In Spain, they responded by calling the government's bluff and voting them out off office.
The new socialist leader, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, doesn't have any experience in government, and everything suggests it will be a rough ride for him. After all, Tony Blair couldn't say "no" to Bush on Iraq, and it will not be easy for Mr Zapatero to call the White House and explain that Spain is withdrawing its troops from the Gulf by 30 June. He will do it, though, because he has a political mandate.
Spain didn't get anything out of being in the front line of the war against Islamic terrorism. All we got were a few "photo-ops" of our former prime minister in the Azores, or wearing a Texan hat beside George Bush. All this was in the mind of Spanish voters last Sunday, as much as the bombs in Madrid.
Out of tragedy, Spain has had a catharsis in the last few days. The country has banished the fascist and authoritarian ghosts that were threatening again. It has supported a different style of government, and voted for a more humble prime minister who accepts dialogue and will consider the Basque and Catalan demands for more autonomous power, even for a constitutional change towards a federal state. In a matter of days, power has shifted dramatically from the authoritarian right and the centralist state to the young and the nationalist periphery.
The emphasis of Spanish foreign policy will switch from an unconditional support of Bush and the North American "neo-cons" towards the Franco-German position of the European Union, and the traditional role of Spain as a "bridge" between Europe and Latin America and also between the Western and Arab worlds. Common sense will return. For once, just maybe, Spain has shown a glimpse of the future to Britain and the United States.
The writer is UK correspondent for the Catalan newspaper 'La Vanguardia'