SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Madrid and the aftermath

‘The wars are yours – the deaths are ours’, read one placard on a demonstration in Madrid in the early hours of Sunday morning. This summed up the mood of millions throughout Spain after the horrific bombings in Madrid on 11 March left over 200 dead and at least 1,400 injured. TONY SAUNOIS writes.

OVER TWELVE MILLION people turned out in memorial marches the day after the bombings. Within a few hours, tens of thousands again took to the streets in spontaneous demonstrations all over the country. The sombre mood had changed to anger and bitterness directed at José María Aznar’s government and his party, Partido Popular (PP). These events, and the defeat of the PP in the election on 14 March, triggered a political earthquake with tremendous repercussions throughout Europe, the US and internationally.

Aznar’s right-wing conservative PP attempted to manipulate the bombings for its own electoral advantage. By withholding information and putting blame on the Basque nationalist paramilitary organisation, ETA, it hoped to avoid blame being heaped on the government for Aznar’s enthusiastic support for the invasion of Iraq.

We have actively opposed the imperialist wars against Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries, which have caused the slaughter of tens of thousands. We also condemn the bombings in Madrid. Such methods only cause further suffering to working people and do not challenge ‘leaders’ like Aznar, or the capitalist system which is responsible for the suffering faced by the peoples of the world. Socialists have nothing in common with reactionary, right-wing groups like al-Qa’ida.

By blaming ETA, the PP also hoped to justify its ‘hard-line’ policy in resisting increasing demands for greater autonomy in the Basque Country, Catalonia and other regions. Aznar was assisted by the United Nations Security Council which agreed to his request to condemn ETA for the bombings. Resolution 15, adopted a few hours after the attack, condemned "in the strongest terms the bomb attacks in Madrid, Spain, perpetrated by the terrorist group ETA…" The working people and youth of Spain, however, were not prepared to be duped by the government’s attempted manipulation.

Huge backlash

THE PP’S ATTEMPT to cover up provoked a massive backlash. Demonstrators poured onto the streets and marched on the party offices of the PP as it became clearer that al-Qa’ida was probably responsible. Abdu Dujan al-Afghani, al-Qa’ida’s military spokesperson in Europe, has since claimed responsibility.

As a result, a political upheaval has taken place in Spain. Aznar’s is the first government that enthusiastically supported the war against Iraq to be brought down. The defeat of the PP now haunts Tony Blair, George Bush and the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard. They are all pondering whether they will face the same fate. The pro-war camp in Britain has reacted by arguing that the Spanish people have succumbed to terrorism. Bronwen Maddox, the foreign editor of The Times, writes that it seems "disingenuous to say, as some opposed to the war have done enthusiastically, that the shock of the result on Sunday night was a victory for democracy". (The Times, 16 March).

There is an international campaign by the ‘neo-cons’ around Bush, Blair and Howard to discredit Spain’s election results, accusing the Spanish people of encouraging terrorism. The leader of the Republicans in the US House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, accused the Spanish people of ‘appeasing terrorism’. In reality, the majority of people in Spain made clear that they both oppose the war and terrorist attacks.

The Spanish daily, El País, showed a better understanding of the situation from the standpoint of Spanish capitalism. In an editorial (15 March), it argued that "democracy had been strengthened". It understands that if the PP had stolen the election and then the truth had come out, the authority of capitalist institutions and parties would have been massively undermined. There would have been the prospect of major social mobilisations against a PP election fraud. Better, it calculates, to rock the parliamentary cradle to the ‘left’ and hope the anger of people is channelled through a change of government.

New Labourised PSOE

BEFORE THE BOMBINGS, the PP and most commentators were taking it for granted that it would be returned to power, probably with a reduced majority. This was despite a massive general strike in June 2002, and mass protests against the PP government’s inept handling of the Prestige oil spill. And it would have been in spite of increasing bitterness by the Basque and Catalan peoples towards the government’s opposition to their demands for greater autonomy and democratic national rights. Aznar’s appointed successor, Mariano Rajoy, seemed set for victory.

The PP was bolstered by Spain’s economic growth. Moreover, PSOE (Spanish Workers’ Socialist Party), which was ‘New Labourised’ by Felipe Gonazales before Britain’s New Labour, was not seen as an alternative by many workers and young people. The party remained scarred by its time in government, when there was a series of corruption scandals, attacks against workers and the setting up of GAL, a legal ‘hit squad’ to assassinate ETA activists. It was seen as a pro-capitalist party, part of the establishment. The Communist Party-dominated Izquierda Unida (IU – United Left party) also failed to offer an alternative and joined coalitions with PSOE at local level, implementing cuts. A low turnout was expected in the general elections.

All this was overridden, however, by the mass rage which swelled up against the government after the bombings. The much higher turnout of over 77% can largely be attributed to the anti-war youth turning out to drive the PP from office. The PP’s share of the vote fell from 44.52% in 2000 to 37.08%, with the loss of over 690,000 votes. PSOE increased its share from 34.16% to 42.64%, winning 10,909,687 votes – its biggest ever absolute number of votes. Most of the increase in PSOE’s vote came from young voters – two million voting for the first time. IU saw its vote fall from 5.96% to 4.96%, and its number of MPs from nine to five. IU has suffered a decline in each election since 1996.

El País gave credit to the new PSOE Prime Minister, José Zapatero, and proclaimed that he had defeated Rajoy. In reality, it was Spanish workers and youth who drove the PP from office.

Rage against the PP

THE BRUTAL BOMBINGS particularly hit working-class people and young people. The most number of dead were on a double-decker train in the working-class suburb of El Pozo. It was here that clandestine trade unions began to be organised under General Franco’s dictatorship. Large numbers of economic migrant workers from Latin America and Eastern Europe live in this area. Many trade union activists, students and workers died. Of the 201 killed over 40 were foreigners, including economic migrants from Central and Latin America.

Many of the victims had undoubtedly marched against the Iraq war – 92% of Spain’s population opposed it. Messages left at Atocha Central station, another scene of bombing, bear this out: "I leave this to be the voice of those we lost yesterday", one read. "We will not forget because I have also died a little. Tomorrow I will vote with you against the parties who supported the war and violence". (El País, 15 March) Another read: "The reply of Iraq and Afghanistan is here". And: "Yesterday, no to war; Today no to terrorism. Tomorrow – what? Enough!!"

The PP provoked such anger because it tried to exploit the bombings for its own advantage. In doing so, it unleashed all of the stored-up resentment against the government. The PP’s actions also reawakened bitter and fearful memories of the Franco dictatorship.

During the bombing crisis, the state television channel, Televisión Espanola, showed Disney’s Lion King, and science fiction films. News services were blanked out. Documentaries were broadcast about an ETA assassination of a PSOE official. One voter said: "They are keeping things from us. It’s like a nightmare from an American film". (El País, 15 March)

The journalist unions have now protested at the manipulation of the media by the PP. Unions at the Spanish press agency, EFE, have accused the employers of ‘manipulation, censorship and propaganda’ on behalf of the out-going government. Journalists at EFE have since revealed that within a few hours of the bombings information was received which questioned ETA’s involvement. It was not broadcast.

The fear of many regarding the actions of the government was undoubtedly fuelled by the past association of sections of the PP with Franco. The government’s attempted cover-up recalled state manipulation and distortions organised under the Franco dictatorship. Indeed, Aznar was a former member of the FES (Student Union Front) – the youth wing of the fascist ‘Falange’.

On polling day, at his local polling station, Rajoy, the new PP leader, was faced with a group of protesters chanting, ‘You are fascists; you are the real terrorists’.

The biggest swings against the PP were in the Basque Country and Catalonia. The PP government reacted to Basque and Catalan demands for greater autonomy and independence by refusing even to negotiate with the nationalist parties. The Esquerra Republican de Catalunya (ERC – Left Republican Party of Catalunya) has been the target of a PP campaign because it held talks with ETA. Later, it was revealed that the PP had known in advance about these talks, but only denounced them afterwards. The ERC made significant gains in the elections.

In the Basque Country, the PP government refused to negotiate with the capitalist nationalist Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which is demanding greater autonomy. The Basque nationalist party, Herri Batasuna, which won 20% of the vote in 1999, was banned because of its links with ETA. The party was then re-launched as Batasuna, which was also banned.


THE PP DEFEAT has already had international repercussions. The election of Zapatero has complicated the situation facing Bush and Blair and will help strengthen opposition to them in both Britain and the US. Zapatero has been compelled to reflect the anti-war mood at home and denounced the war on Iraq and the occupation as ‘disastrous’. He has threatened to withdraw Spanish forces from Iraq if power is not transferred to the UN and the ‘Iraqi people’ by the end of June. Spain’s military presence in Iraq is minimal, but withdrawal would strengthen the opposition to the occupation. It could also put more pressure on other countries, like Poland or even Italy, to follow suit. Blair, Bush and Howard will all feel increasing pressure following these developments. The announcement of Zapatero of the possible withdrawal of troops from Iraq has also provoked a response from US Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Revealing his real role and that of the Democratic Party, Kerry criticised Zapatero, arguing that this will weaken the fight against terrorism.

Aznar’s defeat will also affect inter-state relations in the European Union. Spain may now be more likely to compromise on its EU voting strength, allying itself more closely with France and Germany.

Within Spain, it is possible that Zapatero will begin negotiations with the nationalist parties in the Basque Country and Catalonia. Whether they will be able to reach an agreement is problematical. On a capitalist basis they will not be able to satisfy the demands and aspirations of the peoples in these areas.

Such policy changes, however, would not represent an attempt to challenge capitalism by PSOE. Neither would they be an attempt to introduce reforms in favour of the working class and the poor. PSOE and its leaders wholly embrace capitalism. Their aim would be to try and manage the interests of capitalism better than the ultra-conservative Aznar who, like Blair, adopted a subservient attitude towards US imperialism. Although the new PSOE government may attempt some cosmetic measures, such as strengthening the legal rights of temporary contract workers, it will undoubtedly move to attack the working class and implement more neo-liberal policies. Zapatero was elected leader of PSOE as the standard bearer of the right-wing, pro-capitalist ‘Nueva Via’ (New Way) grouping, the Spanish version of Blair’s ‘third way’.

The day after the election, the new finance minister, Miguel Sebastián (formerly of BBVA, Spain’s second-largest bank), assured international investors that the new government would be "rigorous and orthodox" on economic policy. He promised a budget following "an orthodox economic programme based on budgetary stability, further liberalisation and a big overhaul of the tax system… We will be a market friendly government". IU announced that it will be a loyal supporter of the new government, signalling that it will not offer any alternative to the ‘market-friendly’ administration.

Spanish workers and youth undoubtedly see the PP’s defeat as a big victory. The new government’s early economic statements, however, are a warning. Zapatero will move to implement policies defending the interests of capitalism. Further privatisations are planned, along with other attacks against the working class. PSOE was defeated in the 1996 general election after years of pro-capitalist, anti-working class policies. Sebastián’s assurances to financial markets indicate that Zapatero’s government will take the same road. The task facing workers and socialists is to build a genuine socialist alternative to the existing pro-capitalist parties.


Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page