"My immediate priority will be to fight all forms of terrorism," a victorious Zapatero announced Sunday evening after it became clear his party of Socialists had ousted the conservative Popular Party of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.
Up until the bombings, the PP looked almost certain to win a third consecutive term in power. But the surprise win by the Socialists, who garnered 43 percent of the votes compared to 38 percent for the Popular Party (PP), was seen by many as a reaction to the government's information policy after the Madrid attacks which killed 200 people and wounded 1,500 and to the country's continued involvement in Iraq.
Questioning government information
Immediately after the bombings on commuter trains, Aznar's party pointed fingers at the Basque separatist group ETA and until late Saturday evening continued to view the regional terrorist group as the chief suspect, despite growing evidence that Islamic extremists may have been involved.
Only hours before polling began on Sunday, the government revealed it had a videotape, purportedly from Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda, saying the attacks were in retaliation for Spain's support for the U.S.-led war on Iraq. The earlier discovery of a van with detonators and a tape in Arabic reciting Koran verses as well as the arrest of three Moroccans and two Indians caused many Spaniards to question the government's case.
On the eve of election thousands took to the streets in Madrid and other large cities protesting the government's withholding of information for the sake of winning votes. Gathering in front of the Popular Party's office, the protestors chanted "Liar" and held up banners demanding, "We want the truth."
A new Iraq policyThe 43-year-old Zapatero, who has risen to popularity by criticizing outgoing premier Aznar's support for the U.S. policy in Iraq and threatening to pull out the 1,300 Spanish troops stationed in the country once elected, said his administration would be marked by dialogue and transparency.
"Today Spaniards have spoken," he said triumphantly. "The people wanted a government of change." Zapatero, who has never held office, pledged to enact social reform and "move Spain to the front line of European construction."
Many, however, see in him the leader who can turn around Spain's unpopular foreign policy in Iraq. According to polls, some 90 percent of Spaniards opposed Aznar's decision to join the U.S. led coalition to topple Saddam Hussein and want to see a return of Spanish troops.
If there is no change in the war-torn country by June 30, the date the United States has promised to transfer sovereignty to a provisional government, Spain's prime minister-elect said he would pull Spanish soldiers out of Iraq.
"The war on Iraq was a disaster, the occupation of Iraq is a disaster," Zapatero said on Cadena Ser radio on Monday.
"The government has paid the price for its involvement in Iraq, for Aznar's relationship with Bush and Tony Blair. The vote has been a reaction to this," Carlos Berzosa, rector of Madrid's Complutense University, told Reuters news service.
With 164 seats in the lower house of parliament, 12 short of those needed for an absolute majority, the Socialists will need to forge alliances with smaller regional parties or left-wing allies in order to govern. The PP will remain the largest single party in the upper house or Senate making it difficult for a Socialist government to pass legislation.