Were the Spanish elections of March 14 a referendum on the Iraq war? Conventional wisdom on both sides of the Atlantic has said yes. The ruling Popular Party lost the election unexpectedly because the costs of supporting an unpopular war in Iraq were painfully brought home on March 11 when terrorists killed about 190 people in Madrid in the commuter train bombings. The government’s alleged attempt to manipulate the bombings for political gain by blaming the Basque terrorist band ETA further outraged voters who turned out en masse to vote for the Socialists on Election Day. That view, appealing as it may be, does not seem to stand up to close scrutiny.
Before the attacks, the PP was leading in all the major polls. The big question surrounding the election was not whether the PP would win the election but whether the PP was going to obtain an absolute majority again. To be sure, the majority of Spaniards had opposed the war and the government’s involvement in it, but they were willing to support the PP again because of the strong performance of the Spanish economy over the past eight years, the government’s successes against ETA, its defense of the current constitutional order, and its reputation for seriousness and honesty.
In contrast, the Socialist Party was seen as unreliable on economic matters; untrustworthy on the fight against terrorism, especially after the Socialist Party’s coalition partner in the regional government of Catalonia brokered a ceasefire with ETA for Catalonia alone; and beleaguered with internal struggles between the centralists and the federalists and between the dinosaurs and the Third Way reformers. In short, the Socialists were seen as not yet ready for prime time.
Presented with such a stark choice, voters appeared likely to support the ruling conservative party, notwithstanding its Iraq policy, just as they did last year in local and regional elections. In those elections, held days after the suicide attacks in Casablanca, which included the bombing of the Casa de España, the war in Iraq played as big a role as, if not a bigger role than, it did in the national elections of March 14. Indeed José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the Socialist leader and now incoming prime minister, tried to make those elections a referendum on José María Aznar’s policies on international and domestic terrorism, but voters sided with the government.
Voters this time around appeared to be siding with the government party again. Election results from overseas voters, who cast their ballots up to four days before the Madrid bombings, gave the Popular Party comfortable leads in most regions, including a 13-point lead in Madrid. Those results are significant for two reasons. First, overseas voters have traditionally supported the Socialist Party (although in 2000 they gave the PP a small lead over the Socialists). Second, the overseas vote has traditionally provided a good indicator of how the domestic vote is going to go. (With about one million registered overseas voters, the “sample” size of this subgroup is much larger than the sample size used for any pre-election poll.)
Did the attacks of March 11 lead voters to conduct a second referendum on Iraq policy, one in which voters had updated their beliefs about the costs and benefits of Spanish involvement in something most Spaniards see as a U.S. adventure unrelated to Spain’s interests or the fight against terrorism? That is possible but not likely. In the aftermath of March 11, the public’s outrage was not so much directed at Spain’s involvement in Iraq per se as at the government’s perceived failure to tell the truth about who was behind the attacks. In other words, one of the Popular Party’s most valuable assets, its reputation for honesty, collapsed amid conflicting reports surrounding the authorship of the attacks.
Did the government really try to manipulate and deceive the public by blaming ETA, or was there a concerted effort on the part of the left to create that perception? Classified documents from the National Intelligence Center released by the government last week show that the law enforcement agencies were “almost certain” that ETA was responsible for the attacks. Only after a mysterious van that contained an Arabic-language tape was found and analyzed and the tape translated on the evening of the bombings, did the intelligence services open up a second line of investigation. Those documents show that the government communicated to the public the information it was receiving from the intelligence services in a timely and accurate manner, a decision that was probably made necessary by the proximity of the elections but would not have occurred under more normal circumstances.
On the other hand, there were left-wing media reports of a suicide bomber, which later proved to be false, and claims from Socialist Party spokesmen of confirmation from their sources within the intelligence services of Islamic responsibility for the attacks and of a government cover-up, claims that were actually denied by the intelligence services themselves. Those reports and claims mobilized Socialist sympathizers and anti-government protesters who took to the streets the day before the election, demanded to “know the truth before voting,” and swept Rodríguez Zapatero into power on election day.
Aznar and his Popular Party leave the government with “clean hands and the books in order,” as Mariano Rajoy, the PP’s candidate for prime minister, reminded voters in his concession speech. They also leave Spain with a modern and prosperous economy and closer to defeating the domestic terrorist threat posed by ETA than at any time in the past. For those and other accomplishments they should be thanked.
Zapatero and his supporters should not forget that the same transparency that they demanded and got from the PP government will be expected of them. And that the future of his government, and that of Spain, depends on adopting the liberal policies of Tony Blair or the PP itself and not those old-style Socialist policies that are so en vogue in Brussels, Paris, and Berlin.