The Return of Spanish Democracy

Rene L. Gonzalez Berrios

03/16/04: "ICH" - The surprise election of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and the Socialists in Spain, following the March 13th train terrorist attacks, has been disconcerting for some, a joy to others. The real question is what does Spain's election represent: a victory for the terrorists (as argued by right-wing spokesmen in America, such as Bill O'Reilly) or the return of Spanish democracy?

One aspect of the whole election is uncontroversial: the conservative Popular Party (the party of outgoing Prime Minister Aznar) was headed for a win at the polls prior to the March 13th attacks. Virtually all informed opinion in Spain and abroad agrees that the bombings (and the subsequent attempt by Aznar's government to ascribe blame to ETA, the Basque Separatist group) had important consequences for Spanish politics. First, the bombings produced divergent reactions from different sectors of Spanish society. Clearly, a large portion was mobilized to either change their previous support of the Aznar government and vote Socialist, or leave their usual apathy and vote. It wasn't the dedicated Socialist base that gave the election to Zapatero; it was either "independents" or members of other parties changing their vote. The Socialists were slated to lose handily to the Popular Party a few days before the bombings, which proves that a major population-electoral shift was produced by the bombings.

Aznar has much to take blame, regarding the lost election. First, it was his support of Bush's Iraq War, opposed by 90% of the Spanish population, which produced the highly volatile social divisions making the Socialist victory possible and the political incentives by otherwise "apathetic" voters to come out and vote Socialist. Much like Bush in the U.S., Aznar has shaken the otherwise calculable electoral logic of his society. Those that could be counted on to be Popular supporters no longer could be, and those counted on never to vote, could be the real spoilers of the new election. Secondly, the vote also reflected last-minute disenchantment and repudiation of Aznar's attempt to ascribe blame of the March 13th bombings to ETA. The claim was a rather transparent attempt to cater to the usual Spanish indignation with usual ETA attacks, and was made hollow by subsequent denials of responsibility by ETA, and by the circumstances of the bombing. 

The general feeling in Spain was that ETA picked military or government targets, attempting to avoid civilian casualties. March 13th's wanton massacre of civilians and its intended targeting of them was simply not congruent with an ETA attack. Later evidence began to surface of an Al-Qaeda admission of responsibility, and the participation of several individuals, some with Al-Qaeda ties. The doubt produced by the inconsistencies of the Aznar governments' claim engendered a back-lash. In some reports, several voters were quoted as stating that they had not planned to vote, but that Aznar's deception regarding the March 13th bombings inspired them to go out and vote. 

Aznar played his poker hand thinking he could convince the Spanish population to be indignant with ETA, and cater to patriotism, much like Bush had done after 9-11. To Aznar's horror, the Spanish people proved themselves more intelligent than their American counterparts. The appeal to patriotism quickly became hollow, and cost the Popular Party the election.

Which leaves the question to be answered: What does the Spanish election of 2004 mean, in more historical terms? The positions can be concretized (with some necessary simplification) into two opposing camps: those that view the Spanish election as a capitulation of the Spanish population to terrorism, and those that view the Spanish election as the logical endgame for regimes who survive and thrive on the manipulation of information and deception of their populaces. 

Popular "right-wing in the closet" TV show host Bill O'Reilly has emerged as one of the early proponents of the first theory, calling the Spanish election a "great victory for Al-Qaeda". For him and others, the Spanish election sent the message to Al-Qaeda that terrorism could have rewarding consequences. The implied message was that the Spanish population lacked "backbone", that the proper stance would have been to adopt the internationally-abhorred arrogant unilateralism of President Bush's "War on Terrorism". The theory could only be made logical if one believes the necessary "prior assumption": that the terrorists hate us, not because of social, political, religious, or cultural grievances and contexts, but because they hate our very existence, society, traditions, and way of life. If that was the "prior assumption" of the theory, then the logical conclusion is that one could not "back-down" and "capitulate" to Al-Qaeda terrorism, by supporting the "softer" party in Spain, the Socialists. The only remedy to Al-Qaeda "hatred of our very existence" was to adopt the Bushist doctrine of "bringing the terrorism to the terrorists", and voting for the Spanish party that would continue a policy of confrontation: the Popular party. Negotiation was not an option. Case-closed.

For opponents of the "prior assumption" of the current, confrontational foreign policy approach to Al-Qaeda terrorism, the logic did not run that Spain needed to adopt Bushist unilateralism. Thus, alternatives were possible, alternatives proposed, presumably, by the Socialist party of Spain. The Spanish election was not a capitulation of the Spanish people, nor a victory for Al-Qaeda. Quite the contrary. The Spanish election was a victory for democratic rule, openness, and truth, and a setback for Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda thrives on violent confrontation. It renews itself through the recruitment of disaffected individuals in various parts of the world, necessitating violence from its enemies to effect further recruitment. In simple terms, a "Great Satan" that does not place armed forces in Third World nations, exploit the natural resources of those nations, and implement an imperialist foreign policy, does not make a persuasive case for Al-Qaeda recruitment. It simply would not be worth it for regular people to join Al-Qaeda, give up their lives and families, and join a "holy war" against a country that did not perpetuate any meaningful harm to them. Much like the Nazis, Al-Qaeda is headed by ideological, religious fanatatics that prey on the fears, anger, and resentment of regular individuals. However, the ideologues, like the Nazis without the German nation, would be powerless to mobilize their ideology and fanaticism in the absence of a socio-political context which engendered fear, hatred, and resentment. Without Western colonialism, neo-colonialism and support of Israeli apartheid in Palestine, Al-Qaeda ideologues would be a rag-tag group of loonies, shouting hatred of the West, but powerless to convince their peers to join their "Jihad". This theory has often been referred to as "fighting the mosquitoes through draining the swamp". The Bushist foreign policy was rightly condemned, under the perception that it would increase Al-Qaeda terrorism, hatred of America, and further violence. In simple terms, it was to help "fill the swamp" rather than drain it. The evidence is pretty conclusive. Iraq, an otherwise secular Muslim nation without much incidence of the type of social divisions plaguing countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other Arab/Muslim nations, is now fraught with daily terrorism. Bush's war brought that terrorism to Iraq. It destabilized a social order that hindered Islamic fanaticism without proposing a workable alternative, a fear prophecied by anti-war opponents. 

The Spanish people recognized this reality, and voted accordingly. Although American imperialism is long a factor of world politics, the last three and 1/2 years have made it brash, brazen, and "in your face". The need to oppose it resolutely has never been greater. The Spanish people, faced with the reality of increasing terrorism, a deceptive and unresponsive government, and the possibility of further years of Spanish collusion in a failed, neoconservative-imperialist foreign policy course that would be destined to lead to new "Madrid bombings", gave the Popular party a kick in their behinds. The Spanish election was the return of Spanish Democracy, a precious commodity that had been sidelined, shamefully, at the time of Aznar's commitment to Bush's war (despite 90% opposition). From that moment on, Aznar's government had become illegitimate and surviving only on the manipulation of information and deception of the populace. The deception simply ended with the Spanish election, when the Spanish people decided the the "prior assumption" of Bushist unilateralism did not explain Al-Qaeda terrorism, that the war on Iraq had not "drained the swamp", that violence and force were not defeating terrorism, and that the government's actions from its commitment to the war and on, were manifestations of a deceptive government, intent on perpetuating its control at the cost of Spanish lives, treasure, and reputation. Faced with this realization, the Spanish people opted to bolt the Bush imperialist boat, and chart a new course toward a more sane foreign policy. It was at the same time a rational decision, but also a cathartic new beginning: Spain need not follow Washington's rule anymore.

The hope of this author is that the people of Britain, Australia, and America come to similar realizations, hopefully without the need of another "Madrid bombing". The logic of the "prior assumption" (that terrorists hate us, not for political reasons, but simply because we exist) is faulty, the neoconservative-Bushist-imperialist "medicine" to confront this "reality" has been faulty and a failure, and its continuation will not stop terrorism. The Spanish election could be recorded in history as the moment where Spain "capitulated" to Al-Qaeda, while the West, almost romantically, fought on, or it can be recorded as the moment that one of the "coalition of the bribed" came to the sober and rational realization that the foreign policy it had been following had failed miserably. The coming elections in England, Australia, and the United States will tell whether or not the British, Australian, and American publics have had enough of their own ideologues, or if they wish further useless, hopeless, and unending confrontation. For their part, the Spanish people have already decided how to confront Al-Qaeda: by emphasizing to the Arab and Muslim world that they do not wish harm on their peoples, and that they simply wish to live in peace with them, a tactic sure to make recruitment of terrorism against Spain more difficult for Al-Qaeda. Simply put, the "90%" is back in power, and that's a return to true Spanish democracy.

Rene L. Gonzalez Berrios M.A.
Political Science / Univ. of Massachusetts
Gonzalez is a Doctoral Candidate in Comparative Politics at the University of Massachusetts. He may be contacted by email at: <>

2004 Rene L. Gonzalez Berrios

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