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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (March 18, 2004)

Spanish Election Result sends Shockwaves around the World

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

The surprise defeat of the conservative Popular Party in Spain's general election has sent political shock waves surging around the planet. The outgoing Spanish prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, was a key supporter of US President George W Bush's war in Iraq, and his party's sudden ejection from office will be sorely felt in the White House. More alarming for Washington is the fact that Aznar's perceived closeness to Bush appears to be one of the key factors behind his party's stunning loss. The completely unexpected result has already created a sense of deep unease in London and Tokyo, both of whose leaders staunchly support Bush's stance on Iraq. The demise of Spain's powerful Popular Party also clearly demonstrates that Iraq has become an unpredictable factor in global politics.

After September 2002's unexpected re-election victory of anti-war German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, this is the second major European election in which the result has been significantly influenced by the conflict in Iraq. Ironically, while Bush's Iraq policy may not succeed in its stated aim of redrawing the political map of the Middle East, it is definitely having a huge impact in Europe.

The Spanish election result will alter the European power balance, making Bush's task of generating support for his Iraq policy even more difficult. Spain may even withdraw its troops from Iraq. The incoming Socialist Party is likely to be more closely allied with France and Germany, while British Prime Minister Tony Blair will lose one of the few European leaders who backed him in supporting Bush's preemptive Iraq war. This will further undermine Blair's influence within Europe.

In Britain, the Iraq war, which was domestically unpopular, is likely to dominate next year's anticipated general election. Many observers think Tony Blair may not even survive until then because of his Iraq-induced tumble in popularity. The British public is also now fearful of a Madrid-style terror attack being carried out on its soil. In Tokyo, Iraq also has the potential to topple Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, but his position is currently firmer than Blair's. No doubt, the post-mortem analysis of the Spanish election will be keenly examined in Washington, London and Tokyo.

Nick Hart, a British national living in Spain, comments, "The fact that a seemingly dead-certain election victory for the Popular Party can be completely overturned because of its leader's strong association with George Bush will strike fear in the heart of Tony Blair and might even unsettle Bush himself."

Madrid bombing changed the election result
Up until last Thursday's devastating bombings in Madrid, which killed 200 and injured more than 1,500 people, opinion polls had clearly shown that the conservative Popular Party would win the election by a comfortable margin. However, the widespread belief that an al-Qaeda-linked terror group was behind the mass murder completely changed the closing dynamics of the election.

Initially, the Popular Party insisted that the Basque separatist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or Basque Homeland and Liberty) was responsible for the Madrid terror outrages, something that if true would have worked to the party's advantage because of its tough stance against the group. However, as it appeared more and more likely that an al-Qaeda affiliate was the real culprit, many people became angry with the government, which they accused of trying to manipulate the tragedy for its own ends.

Once news of the arrest of three Moroccans and two Indians in connection with the bombings became public, the national mood sharply shifted. It was also learned that one of the Moroccans had been previously linked to al-Qaeda. For the Popular Party, the final nail in the coffin came when it was announced that the police had a video message from an al-Qaeda-inspired group claiming responsibility for the attacks. The Moroccan-sounding Arabic voice said, "This is a response to the crimes that you have caused in the world, and specifically in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there will be more, if God wills it."

The night before the election, noisy demonstrations broke out around the Popular Party's headquarters in Madrid, with thousands of angry youths shouting that the government was lying to the public.

Spanish pollsters say a high turnout by young voters appears to have turned the election around at the last moment. Alfonso Cortina, a Spanish university student, summed up the feelings of many young Spaniards. He said, "We really wanted to know more information about the bombing before this vote, but we didn't get it. The government said it was ETA, but we know that many signs pointed to al-Qaeda, but still they said 'It is ETA.' The bombings made people think of the war in Iraq. For many, it stopped being an election and instead became a referendum on the war. I respect what Mr Aznar has done for the Spanish economy, but the war in Iraq was too wrong. I think this is why many people decided to vote against Partido Popular [Popular Party]."

On a larger than expected turnout, the Socialists captured nearly 43 percent of the vote while the Popular Party garnered about 38 percent. The Socialist Party's unexpected victory ends eight years of conservative rule.

The incoming Socialist Party prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, said before the election that if he became premier he would withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq unless there was United Nations backing for their deployment. However, at the time he did not realistically expect to win. In his first speech after the surprise result became clear, he played down his pre-election rhetoric, telling the media, "My immediate priority will be to fight all forms of terrorism."

Londoners fear terror attack
In the United Kingdom, many people now believe that their country could be next on the terrorists' list and once again the arguments about the rights and wrongs of military action in Iraq are top of the political agenda. The nation has been put on a heightened state of alert, with the public told to report any suspicious objects or persons to the police.

Tim Walsh, a construction worker who commutes daily into London, echoed the feelings of many of the capital's citizens. He said, "We have been told to be on the lookout for suspicious packages on the trains or buses. It doesn't make you feel happy about traveling on public transport. I feel uneasy about it, but what can you do? We all know that the terrorists will try to strike London next."

Tokyo less concerned
In Tokyo, the government has also tightened security, but the public mood is less gloomy than in London. Some analysts even believe the bombings might strengthen Koizumi's position.

Ryoji Yamauchi, a political commentator and president of Asahikawa University, said, "If it is confirmed that al-Qaeda has carried out these terror acts in Madrid, unlike in Europe, I do not think there will be any significant political fallout in Japan. In fact, it might even work to Koizumi's advantage. The dispatch of Japanese troops to Iraq will now be presented not only as a humanitarian mission but also as an important part of the 'war on terror'. This will probably work to Koizumi's advantage, as opinion polls show that the public do not think he has yet given a sufficient explanation for dispatching troops to Iraq."

Yamauchi added, "Most people think that a terrorist attack is highly unlikely in Japan. This is for two main reasons. First, since sending troops to [the Iraqi city of] Samawah, most Japanese have been convinced by the media that Arab people absolutely love them. This makes people think Japan is way down on the list of terror targets. Second, entry into Japan is already so tightly controlled that it is hard to imagine any terrorist being able to enter the country. Checks are already so strict that thousands of completely legitimate people suffer long security delays."

The Madrid bombings and the subsequent defeat of the Popular Party demonstrate that almost one year after the United States launched its invasion of Iraq, the war is still an immensely volatile political issue capable of destroying governments. This high degree of instability injects a large measure of unpredictability into the political fortunes of several world leaders. It certainly casts a shadow over Bush's re-election chances and clouds the political futures of Blair and Koizumi.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 15 March 2004,, and is republished with permission.)

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