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Bloodied but Unbowed, Spain Goes to the Polls

DW Staff (nda)March 14, 2004

Voting continues across Spain in the country's parliamentary election. The ruling Popular Party is facing opposition and protest in the wake of Thursday's terror attacks.

Spanish voters are making their voices heard through their votes.Image: AP

Small groups of demonstrators continued to shout slogans outside the offices of the ruling Popular Party (PP) in the Spanish capital of Madrid as the sun rose on the bloodied nation's parliamentary election day. The protestors shouted "We want the truth" and "Peace," and carried banners accusing the government of lying over responsibility for the bomb attacks that killed 200 people in Madrid.

On Saturday, between 6,000 and 7,000 people gathered to continue the mass protests that started in the immediate wake of the bombings on Thursday. Many protestors spent the night outside the party headquarters.

Meanwhile the Spanish electoral commission said it had filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Popular Party claiming that the protests constituted a bid to influence voters on the eve of the election.

The bombings have complicated an election which looked to be running smoothly for the PP. It seemed to be a foregone conclusion. Up until Thursday morning, Spain's parliamentary election would see the ruling Popular Party retain power. Now, after the bomb attacks in Madrid, a predicted outcome for Sunday's election is far from cut and dried.

Before March 11, the main topic of conversation apart from whether Madrid's footballers would overcome Bayern Munich in their crunch European tie, was not if Mariano Rajoy, the newly installed PP leader, would win but by how much. In fact, unanimous surveys of public opinion had José Maria Aznar's hand-picked successor already installed as Spanish prime minister with the only gray area being whether the 48-year-old would be ruling with an absolute majority or not.

A very different political climate

But those opinions were from a populace which at the time had an unshaking belief that they would wake up on Monday morning and everything would be as it was before the people of Spain went to the polls, with the Popular Party in control. Now, that belief has been rattled by violence and carnage and Spain is now a nation torn apart by bombs and grief. The election is now very hard to call.

However, while the result may now be thrown into as much confusion as the Spanish way of life currently is, Thursday's bombs are expected to prompt Spain's voters to turn out in their millions for elections on Sunday.

According to Charles Powell, senior European affairs analyst at the Madrid-based think tank the Elcano Royal Institute, Spaniards will vote in droves in a bid to have their voices heard. "One thing no-one will dispute is that we are now likely to see a massive turnout," he told BBC News Online.

Voters expected in massive numbers

"People are angry and upset, and they will demonstrate that by voting. It was going to be high anyway, but now I'd estimate it will be over 80 percent," he said.

Professor Juan Pablo Fusi, historian at Madrid University, added his own thoughts to the discussion. "These bombs are likely to increase turnout - to show that they agree with the government that the only way to defeat terrorism is through democracy, by voting."

Before Thursday, the ruling Popular Party enjoyed a slender but consolidated lead over the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), led by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. That lead was estimated to be one of 4.5 percentage points over the opposition. This poll, however, could not possibly take into consideration the effect the deaths of 200 people aboard packed rush-hour trains in Madrid could have on the standings.

ETA factor could force a stronger hand

The vote could be swayed by any evidence that could pin responsibility on the perpetrators. If investigators uncover strong links to the Basque separatist organization ETA, experts believe the voters could show their anger by giving the PP, which has campaigned on a strong line against the separatists, its strongest victory yet. "Assuming it was Eta, the obvious emotional interpretation is this will make people back the party with the toughest line against them," politics professor Josu Mezo told Reuters.

However, if the claim of the al Qaeda affiliated Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades that it carried out the attacks is proved to be correct, then that could lead to a very different reaction. "If it was an Islamic extremist group like, everything would change," said Professor Mezo.

Islamic involvement may damage government

"If it is al-Qaeda, many people may establish a connection with Spain's participation in the invasion of Iraq and vote against the government."

"But, in fact, it looks like we won't know for a while who did this. And unless concrete proof is found before Sunday, I believe things will stay much the same - the PP will win, but there will still be significant support for both parties."

The consequence of confirmed al Qaeda involvement could be that Spain's young left-wingers, who so vocally opposed the war in Iraq, drop their current policy of abstention in votes due to lack of belief in the left parties and register protest votes against the PP, tilting the balance of power.