American Conservatives Misread the Spanish Election

March 24, 2004 • Commentary

Seldom has mythology arisen so quickly about an event as it has with regard to the election results in Spain. Hordes of conservative pundits in the United States have rushed to condemn the unexpected defeat of the right‐​wing Popular Party as a vote for the appeasement of terrorism. According to the conservative conventional wisdom, Spanish voters, in an appalling act of cowardice, reacted to the terrorist bombings in Madrid by ousting the party that had loyally supported the Bush administration’s war on terror, and especially the war in Iraq.

Such an interpretation profoundly misreads the election results. Although Al Qaeda may believe that the outcome vindicates a strategy of intimidation, there is no evidence that Spanish voters intended to convey a message of appeasement. Indeed, in his first news conference, the new prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, emphasized that combating terrorism would be a top priority of his government. Spain has been resolute all along in helping the United States identify and disrupt Al Qaeda cells in that country. Now that Spanish blood has been shed on Spanish soil by the terrorists, that resolve is likely to be strengthened, not weakened.

But just because the Spanish people are determined to combat radical Islamic terrorism does not mean that they have an obligation to endorse the U.S. intervention in Iraq. The election results confirm that a majority of Spaniards make a distinction between those two missions. That is not surprising, because large majorities around the world have made a similar distinction. Indeed, it is a distinction that seems to elude few people — except for a majority of conservatives in the United States.

Public opinion surveys before, during, and after the Iraq war showed that 80 to 90 percent of Spanish voters opposed the U.S. policy. Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s government took a great risk in defying such overwhelming sentiment by supporting the U.S. war and occupation. It should not come as a surprise that, in a healthy democratic system, a political party that arrogantly ignores the public’s near consensus on an important issue may go down to defeat in the next election.

True, opinion polls showed the Popular Party with a modest lead over the opposition Socialists before the Madrid bombings. That was largely because the Iraq war had faded as a salient issue for most voters. The bombings of the commuter trains again elevated the prominence of the Iraq issue. And when that happened, voters remembered their irritation with the Aznar government.

The Aznar administration compounded the Popular Party’s renewed problems by prematurely and tenaciously attributing the bombings to the radical Basque separatist group ETA. When evidence continued to mount that Al Qaeda, not ETA, was probably responsible for the atrocities, a good many Spanish voters concluded that the government was manipulating the tragedy for its own political advantage. They suspected (with good reason) that Aznar and his associates were trying to blame ETA to conceal the reality that the attacks were a payback for Spain’s support of Washington’s Iraq policy. Not surprisingly, voters did not react well to such attempts at self‐​serving political deception.

Those Americans who accuse Spaniards of appeasement exhibit a lack of respect for the workings of Spain’s democratic system. They implicitly assume that voters had an obligation to return the Popular Party to power, even though that party did not reflect the will of the people on a crucial issue. Critics of the election result have no right to expect such sheep‐​like behavior, however much it might have benefited the foreign policy of the Bush administration.

The outcome of Spain’s election was a referendum on Iraq policy, not policy toward Al Qaeda. Allegations of appeasement are a despicable slur against a population that has already suffered grievously.

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