Madrid 3/11: democracy after atrocity

About the author
Richard Torné is a freelance writer and regular contributor for the magazine Everything Spain.
The death of 200 people in Spain’s worst-ever terrorist attack is a landmark in the country’s politics as well as its modern history. After three days of national mourning and the 14 March general elections, the new government will face the task of articulating a coherent political programme in a time of national trauma.
In a brief Editors Note, we open a global forum of responses to the bombings in Madrid and the growing number of terror attacks around the world.

The massacre of 11 March 2004, when near-simultaneous bombs at three Madrid railway stations killed around 200 people and injured over a thousand more, casts an indelible shadow over the general election due three days later. The enormity and savagery of these devastating assaults are unprecedented in modern Spanish history. It may indeed be the largest terrorist attack on European soil in the continent's modern history, comparable in its effects to the bombing of the Sveta Nedelya cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria in April 1925 which killed 123 people.

The 20th century in Spain saw a terrible civil war, followed by years of severe state repression. The mass graves of the victims of massacre or political killing during these years are still being excavated. The long “pact of silence” which enveloped the country is very slowly ending, partly thanks to the efforts of groups like the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory.

The campaign of the Basque militant group Euskadi ta Askatasuna (“Basque Homeland and Freedom”, ETA) in its various manifestations and under different leaderships, has killed around 800 people in its thirty-one years of activity. The state too, under the disguise of the counter-terrorist GAL, targeted ETA members and sympathisers in a series of assassinations from 1983-87 which took the lives of 28 people.

In short, Spain is familiar with and has adapted to violence on its soil. But the catastrophe of 11 March 2004, which destroyed the lives of so many ordinary workers and commuters, has also occurred in an age of global media and global terrorism. It will sear the country’s memory; but, whoever the perpetrators prove to be – and there is intense concern about whether ETA itself or a group related to al-Qaida is responsible – the scale and context of this event (in which people from at least ten countries were killed) means that it connects Spain to the world in a terrible and confusing way.

The politics of the last atrocity

The Spanish interior minister in the conservative Partido Popular (PP) government, Angel Acebes, publicly announced just five hours after the attacks that ETA had perpetrated the bombings. All major Spanish news organisations immediately accepted the government line.

As evidence, Acebes cited the fact that in December 2003, ETA suspects were arrested as they were planning to bomb simultaneously the main train station of Chamartín in Madrid and two railway lines. Moreover, two ETA suspects were arrested in Cuenca in a van carrying 536 kilograms of TNT – one of the biggest explosive hauls ever found in the group’s possession.

Then, the discovery of a van outside Madrid later on 11 March containing detonators and Koranic writings suggested the possibility that an extreme Islamist group might have been involved. The definitive assessment of the background to “3/11” awaits – and while ETA’s hand would reinforce hardline sentiment against these “internal” terrorists (thus favouring the PP government), an “international” role would increase doubts about the consequences of the government’s strong support for the Iraq war and the global “war on terror”.

The television appearances of the respective political leaders in the aftermath of the tragedy may well serve to confirm the electorate’s existing perception on election eve. The opposition Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol (PSOE) leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero looked dazed and hesitant, and tripped over his words; by contrast, prime minister Jose Maria Aznar delivered a prepared statement hours later, wearing a black tie and looking serene.

A long year

A year ago the governing Partido Popular (People’s Party) was on the defensive. Mass demonstrations against the Iraq war, backed by public opinion polls reporting 90% opposition, clearly showed that the Spanish people were overwhelmingly against the conflict and their government’s support of it. The sinking of the oil-tanker Prestige, which resulted in huge environmental damage along the north-west Galician coastline, was followed by scandal over the government’s refusal to provide compensation. In this context, Jose Maria Aznar’s confirmation of his decision to serve only two terms as prime minister, thus allowing Mariano Rajoy to become Partido Popular leader and the party’s prime ministerial candidate in the March 2004 elections, raised opposition hopes that the eight-year rule of the PP might be approaching its end.

In the frenzied atmosphere surrounding the war, the socialists – and many observers – were convinced that the electorate would teach the government a hard lesson in the local elections of May 2003. They didn’t; the government’s vote fell, but only by a single percentage point on a national basis.

The leader of the socialists, Jose Luis Zapatero, was engulfed in political crisis soon after the municipal elections. Madrid, one of the important seats won by PSOE, became the centre of a scandal when two of its deputies in the Madrid assembly, were absent on the day the new socialist president was to be sworn in. The election result was declared void and new elections held. The left felt that the original results should be allowed to stand, and that a second victory was assured. In addition, there were claims that the disloyal socialists had accepted bribes from business interests keen on a PP victory in Madrid. In the event, PSOE’s complacent campaign resulted in a sound defeat by the PP.

Zapatero ignored this danger sign, and continued to assail the PP rather than attend to the need to present a coherent and united party. The pattern repeated: every time PSOE revealed serious dissent within its ranks, the socialist leader would try to place the blame on surreptitious government manipulation and underhand tactics. It seldom worked.

A Catalan imbroglio

If the socialists found the PP’s armour impregnable in the capital, the regions gave the left another opportunity to govern. The Catalan elections in November 2003 produced a larger vote for the pro-independence Republican Left party (ERC) led by Josep Lluis Carod-Rovira, which entered a three-party coalition in the north-east territory. This alliance produced near-panic among socialist grandees like Juan Carlos Rodriguez Ibarra and Jose Bono; they claimed that the new Catalan government’s desire to “restructure” rich Catalonia’s contributions to the national budget would harm their own, poorer regions (Extremadura and Castilla-La Mancha respectively).

The Barcelona-based coalition looked shaky from day one. The Catalan socialist leader and new premier of the region, Pascual Maragall, refused to defer to Jose Luis Zapatero, and declared that he would fight to create a new model of finance that would entail more money for Catalonia.

Maragall’s defiance of the “national” leadership highlights Zapatero’s main problem: he looks like a leader unable to control his own deputies in the various autonomous regions, who themselves often appear more like self-interested medieval landlords defending their own property than members of a modern, united, political party.

A few weeks after it took office, a major crisis hit the new Catalan government, when the right-wing journal ABC revealed that Carod-Rovira had held a six-hour meeting with ETA’s leadership in France. His apparent aim was to reach an agreement with the terrorist group that they would not target Catalonia (the most deadly operation in ETA’s history had been an explosion in a Barcelona supermarket in 1987 which killed 21 people). The PSOE leadership had not been consulted, and found out about the meeting only through the press.

Jose Luis Zapatero, as usual in a crisis, tried directly to implicate the government by claiming that it had used the intelligence services to leak information about the secret meeting. Whether this is true or not, the electorate seemed more worried about the meeting itself than the alleged misuse of the secret services.

A story of survival

The opposition’s divisions and ineptitude, then, helped the PP government to survive what was potentially a very difficult year. But has it done a good job of running the country? Until the dreadful tragedy of 11 March intervened, this was the decisive question guiding an assessment of the likely election result.

The PP has been involved or implicated in many serious scandals: its inept and insensitive handling of the Yakolev-42 plane crash in Turkey in May 2003, which killed 62 Spanish soldiers; the PP mayor who refused to resign even after a conviction for sexually abusing a child; the incompetence and delays around the building of the high-speed rail link between Madrid and Catalonia. All this suggests that behind the façade of a modern European country, organisational chaos and bureaucratic obstacles to progress persist in Spain.

Yet the simple truth is that the PP has been seen to deliver the goods – economically, at least. Enough Spaniards, it seems, have been seduced by the explosive recent growth of their economy to turn a blind eye to corruption and administrative failure.

Even before the atrocity of Thursday 11 March, there was every prospect that the opposition PSOE would fail in its effort to return to power in the general election of 14 March; the most that seemed likely was that the PP would be denied an overall majority and be forced to govern in a coalition with regionally-based partners.

The election will now be held at the end of three days of national mourning, and in a sombre, even surreal atmosphere after all political campaigning is suspended.

After massacre

Until 3/11, Spain’s post-election prospects were discussed in terms of the country’s future economic path in the context of European Union enlargement, and the internal balance between the centre and the regions (especially the Basque Country and Catalonia).

Spain’s political class knows that from 2007 it will not be able to rely on EU subsidies – which, according to Madrid’s IESE business school, have financed between 30%-50% of all construction projects since Spain joined the EU in 1986. Extremadura, almost the size of Ireland and one of Europe’s poorest regions, may be hit particularly hard; even Catalonia, the flagship of modern Spain in so many ways, is facing the closure of factories and the withdrawal of foreign investment. Most of the nation’s homes still lack basic amenities such as piped gas. Moreover, Spain has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe and some poorer regions are trying to attract young families from Argentina and Romania to bring life to dying villages and towns.

The handling of the Catalan and Basque issues will be an even more pressing problem after the elections; the Catalan election in November, and the “Ibarretxe plan” for even greater regional autonomy proposed by the Basque Lehendakari (regional premier) Juan Jose Ibarretxe, have highlighted the increasing political polarisation and fragmentation of Spanish society. The massacre of civilians in Madrid will not deflect the determination of Basque and Catalan nationalists to seek referenda on full independence for their respective regions.

If the PP’s new Galician leader Mariano Rajoy does succeed Aznar as prime minister, he may be more personable than the often abrasive and austere Castilian (even though he refused a head-to-head television debate with Zapatero), but he has made clear that he shares the same unbending commitment to Spain’s political unity.

The election of 14 March 2004 will, whatever the result, be forever associated with an unforgettable tragedy that – in a single moment that will last lifetimes – obliterated the lives of thousands of Spanish and non-Spanish citizens. The political and global security challenge the event poses will combine with the return of what passes for “normal” politics in Spain – regional fractures, economic strains, European enlargement – to make the next four years even more decisive than the previous eight for the political future of Spain as a nation. Spain will need to call on the best of itself and of its people’s resourcefulness in the difficult days ahead.