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From the May 2004 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 51, No. 5)

The Madrid Terrorist Attacks and the Spanish Elections

About the Lie

Juan Luís Cebrián, El País (liberal), Madrid, Spain, March 15, 2004

Women cry at a memorial at the Atocha train station in Madrid, April 11, 2004, one month after terrorists bombed the station.
Women cry at a memorial at the Atocha train station in Madrid, April 11, 2004, one month after terrorists bombed the station (Photo: Javier Soriano/AFP-Getty Images).
The blasts that ripped through Madrid on March 11, killing 191 people and wounding more than a thousand, exploded any illusion that Europe was immune to large-scale terrorist attacks. The political shock waves within Spain dislodged a government. In the E.U. and beyond, the carnage spurred a rethinking of geopolitical alignments and strategies for combating international terrorism.

Whatever one’s interpretation of the elections held yesterday in Spain, there is not the slightest doubt that one of the reasons—and perhaps one of the most powerful ones—that facilitated the electoral upset in favor of the Socialists lay in the inevitable feeling by voters of being manipulated and deceived by the government. Manipulated, because of the hasty and arbitrary way it attributed the responsibility for the brutal attack at Atocha to the ETA [the violent Basque separatist group Euskadi ta Askatasuna], after advisers at Moncloa [the prime minister’s palace] suggested that this might provide an advantage in the election.

But perhaps—serious as it was—this was not the worst mistake that accompanied the fall of José María Aznar. It was instead his hard-line insistence on turning his personal obsessions and controversial ideas about Spain, the Spanish people, and how they ought to be governed into dogmas of faith.

I will not venture to comment on the unnecessary coarseness toward his peers of an executive who, in saying goodbye, can point to a favorable balance for his economic policies and a certain astuteness in not taking personally the sound beating his party suffered yesterday. This has enabled us to see that there are many diverse strands within the indissoluble unity of the party of the right. Despite the bad examples we have seen, despite the uncivil behavior of some party militants who demonstrated as poor losers on Calle Genova last night—we can still count on a conservative opposition worthy of the name democratic.

Contrary to those who believe that all politicians are alike, those who are now about to govern us have arrived with a style and intentions very different from those who are departing. They face no small task: They must recompose a concept of Spain based upon a nonsectarian reading of the constitution, a nonpartisan use of the flag, a different understanding of the value of the nation’s languages; they must restore the traditional linkages of our foreign policy, rebuilding the spirit of constructive engagement with Europe, restoring our relations with Morocco, and establishing a relationship with the United States based on trust and friendship, but free of the servility that dragged us into the rash policy in the Iraq war; and they must re-establish an understanding of education, science, and culture that rescues the secular values of democracy itself.

Despite his brilliant victory, [Prime Minister-elect José Luis] Rodríguez Zapatero will not have it easy. In the first place, he takes office as head of state amid rising popular insecurity, at a time when we have scarcely recovered from the horrible drama of last Thursday, and when threats to the liberty and lives of Spaniards are increasing. We hope he will be able to get beyond the claptrap used by Aznar’s supporters during the campaign, according to which all terrorism is alike—because, even though all terror is equally execrable and repugnant, the natures and etiologies of different terrorist groups are usually very distinct, meaning they must be dealt with and resolved using different measures.

In addition, the new electoral landscape requires complex and asymmetrical alliances that will make it possible for Parliament to pass laws in especially difficult circumstances for the country. Carrying out some of the campaign promises that the voters most desire, such as withdrawing the troops from Iraq, will demand formidable diplomatic skills. Recomposing the map of regional autonomy, given rising nationalism in Catalonia and the debate over the Ibarretxe Plan in the Basque region, will also test—and very soon—the new executive’s ability to engage in dialogue.

But at least we can say today that Rodríguez Zapatero is the author of his own victory, that he has inaugurated a new style of politics that shuns the arrogance of power and seeks to engage the man on the street. [Former Prime Minister] Felipe González once told me, speaking of Rodríguez Zapatero, that he had a clear look in his eyes—the face of someone who did not know how to lie.

It has been the manipulation and the lies, the crude use of the argument that the fight against terrorism justifies almost any policy, the abuse of both state-owned and private media, blatant opportunism, and puerile arrogance that cost those who lost yesterday their power. Beginning today, those in the state apparatus will be aiding the new, legitimately constituted authorities. The emerging administration will have an opportunity to prove that deceit is not the exclusive property of politicians. In order to change from what we have been seeing, we hope that the newcomers appreciate criticism more than adulation.

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