WASHINGTON, D.C.—Decorously referred to in the U.S. press as an “upset,” Sunday’s national election victory by the Socialists in Spain had more the feel of a popular uprising, or as the Catalan paper El Periódico put it, “democratic rebellion.” Only this time the wrath of the people was aimed at José María Aznar, the country’s lame-duck right-wing prime minister, Bush’s ally in Iraq, and the man he cheerily calls “Ansar.” In Spain, this is being likened to the days in 1975 when Franco died and the country underwent a tumultuous but peaceful transition from fascist state to democracy.
Sunday’s vote took place against a background in which the right-wing government knowingly lied to the voters, claiming the perpetrators of the bombings were Basque separatists, when they knew that in all probability the catastrophe was the work of Islamic terrorists. All so Aznar’s handpicked successor, Mariano Rajoy, could continue the Popular Party’s stay in power.
With a comfortable lead in the polls, the Popular Party mainly had to avoid any suggestion that the attacks were the work of Islamic terrorists, lest they be perceived as retribution for the country’s siding with Bush and sending troops, even though a token number, to Iraq, when millions of Spaniards had already demonstrated in the streets against involvement. To that end, the government deliberately hid evidence of a connection to Muslim terrorists and focused on ETA, the Basque separatist movement that the Spanish public is weary of and which has a lengthy history of killings and bombings—although nothing on a scale of what happened in Madrid. The cover-up went like this:
Soon after the bombings Thursday morning, Spain pressured the U.N. to make a statement specifically blaming ETA for the train bombings. Some delegations—Russia was one—balked, but because the delegation insisted the government knew it was ETA, the U.N. went along in the end.
At around 10:30 a.m. Thursday, investigators discovered a van with detonators and a tape near the station where the terrorists got on the trains to leave the bombs. The detonators were of the same type as used in the bombing, and the tape contained passages from the Koran.
Later that same day, around 5 p.m., the Department of the Presidency (Spain’s version of the White House) phoned foreign reporters working in Spain to “inform” them that the government was sure that ETA was responsible for the attacks. The government was certain. There was no doubt.
A few minutes later, around 5:30, Ana Palacio, the foreign affairs minister, sent an “urgent” telegram to all the country’s ambassadors around the world, urging them all “to confirm” that ETA had carried out the attacks, thereby “helping to dispel any kind of doubt that some interested parties might want to create.” She went on to contend that the explosives and “modus operandi” were the usual ones for ETA and then vaguely referred to other data, to be released later, that would confirm these conclusions. And she urged ambassadors to go to the local press and present this version of the facts.
By the time these actions were taken, the Spanish government had known for several hours of the connection between the van with the Islamic writings and detonators and the bombings.
At around 3 a.m. Friday, investigators discovered amid the debris on the train tracks a backpack with an unexploded bomb and a cell phone inside. That bomb had the same type of detonators as those in the van. Neither the detonators nor the explosives bore resemblance to those used by ETA. By this time, investigators had the number of the cell phone and were tracing it.
Even though it was by now pretty clear that some Islamic group had carried out the attack, the government continued to blame the Basque separatists. On Saturday morning The New York Times was quoting a Spanish government official claiming that opposition parties were using the bombing to advance their own purposes. But by Sunday morning, the polls were showing the Socialists gaining, cutting Rajoy’s comfortable lead of 8 percentage points to 4.5, and turning the election into a dead heat. “Certain opposition parties are trying to use Al Qaeda because of the Iraq war simply to win an election,” Gustavo de Aristegui, himself a well-versed diplomat with experience in the Arab world and the Popular Party’s foreign affairs spokesman, told a Times reporter. “I think it’s repulsive.” He went on to speculate that the van and tape were the work of the opposition. “I cannot picture a radical Islamist with a beginner’s tape,” he said. “Normally it would be someone with more sophisticated material. Anybody could have planted a tape there.”
Finally, on Saturday morning, Cadena SER, a leftish network that had been broadcasting info that undercut the government’s story, got a leak from the National Intelligence Center (the equivalent of our CIA and FBI) that the agency was 99 percent certain that Islamic terrorists were responsible.
By Saturday night, people in Barcelona, Madrid, and other Spanish cities had taken to their balconies, some setting up a din, banging pots and pans. Cars in the streets were honking, and at the central HQ of the Popular Party in Madrid, thousands of people had gathered to scream, “Murderers!” Other Popular Party offices were mobbed with agitated voters. Rajoy criticized the demonstrators as “illegal” and “anti-democratic” and designed to coerce people when the polls opened the next day.
Additional reporting: Meritxell Mir in Barcelona, Alicia Ng, and Ashley Glacel