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Al Qaeda hijacks Spanish election
Updated: 2004-03-15 13:22

If al Qaeda did mastermind Spain's bloodiest bomb attacks, its militants could claim to have caused a spectacular election upset in Madrid, but some analysts said the defeated government only had itself to blame.

The train blasts that killed 200 people triggered a backlash against the party of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar -- a staunch ally of Washington over the Iraq war -- and handed power to the Socialists who opposed the conflict.

Supporters raise their hands in a gesture against terrorism during a minute of silence outside the Spanish socialist party headquarters in Madrid March 14, 2004. Spain's opposition Socialists won the election while analysts said the ruling PP party had been hurt by the government's handling of Thursday's train bombings that killed 200 people and wounded 1,500. [Reuters]

"If the al Qaeda network is behind these attacks, then you can certainly say that al Qaeda is responsible for removing the Popular Party from government," said Charles Powell, assistant professor at San Pablo-CEU University.

The triumph for Socialist leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero over Mariano Rajoy, who aspired to succeed Aznar, leaves Bush's other Iraq allies -- principally Britain, Poland and Italy -- looking increasingly isolated, analysts said.

Zapatero had pledged to withdraw Spain's 1,300 troops from Iraq if the United Nations does not take control by June 30, although he made no reference to that promise on Sunday, instead pledging to "beat all terrorism."

In the campaign, he had charged Aznar with leading Spain too far away from Europe, suggesting he will lean back towards Spain's more traditional allies like France, which opposed the US-led war.

"If (British Prime Minister) Tony Blair ends up looking lonely (over Iraq) then that's his problem," said Carlos Berzosa, the rector of Madrid's Complutense University. "The Spanish people voted to live in peace."


Spanish Socialist Party leader Jose Rodriguez Zapatero salutes supporters outside the socialist party headquarters in Madrid March 14, 2004. At left is Trinidad Jimenez the socialist local councilor. [Reuters]
Thursday's train blasts and a claim in the name of al Qaeda that the group had mounted the attacks in reprisal for Spain's support for the war rekindled public ire over Iraq.

But some analysts and members of the public said Aznar had helped to bring Sunday's defeat upon his Popular Party (PP).

The perception that Aznar had sought to exploit the attacks for political gain by blaming Basque separatist group ETA only strengthened the backlash that turned opinion polls on their head.

That added to a growing impression that the government was manipulating information, a charge that had also been levelled by critics at the time of the sinking of the Prestige oil tanker off Spain's northwestern coast.

"The PP has only itself to blame. If the government had been honest with the public instead of trying to lay the blame on ETA at all costs, the PP could still have won this election," said one voter, Ramon Capellos, a Socialist supporter.

Rajoy had looked set to succeed Aznar, who had steered Europe's fifth-largest economy to prosperity and delivered stability.

Zapatero, meanwhile, was by no means the obvious choice for a public scared by the train bombings.

His campaign was marred by the disclosure that his party's coalition partner in the Catalan regional government had held secret talks with ETA, after which ETA declared a partial ceasefire limited to Catalonia.

The PP used that to charge the Socialists with being soft on the armed group which has killed some 850 people since 1968 in a campaign for a Basque homeland.

Before the blasts, the question had centred on whether the PP would win a second consecutive absolute majority.

It was Zapatero who was scouting for allies on Sunday.

The Socialists will have to seek out alliances with smaller nationalist parties to form an absolute majority in parliament's lower house while the PP remains the largest single party in the Senate by far, which could complicate Zapatero's legislative programme.

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