Of late, I've seen the usual right-wing commentators comparing-and-contrasting the Spanish and British reactions to the recent al-Qaeda terrorist outrages in their national capitals. The Spanish, it is said, cravenly caved in to terrorist pressure. The Britons, in contrast, remain stalwart opponents of al-Qaeda. Go to National Review
's website if you don't believe me.
As is usual with right-wing commentators, these arguments work only if you ignore large chunks of reality. For starters, the large minority of British public opinion supporting the Iraq war had no parallels in Spain, where according to opinion polls 90% of the population were opposed to Spain's participation
. If it hadn't been for the willingness of Spain's right-wing Popular Party government, under Prime Minister José Maria Aznar, Spain wouldn't have been in Iraq in the first place (and, it must be added, become a prominent al-Qaeda target).
Why did the Spanish vote out the Popular Party government and withdraw their country's military forces from Iraq? It wasn't because they were cowards. Rather, it's because they were angry in a most unprecedented yet inspiring fashion, as Chris Brooke suggested
last year at the Virtual Stoa.
Isn't the simplest explanation for what happened in Spain just that the splendid response of the population -- with eight million on the streets in protest against last week's bombings and in defence of Spanish democracy -- had the effect of raising the electoral turnout; and that when turnout rates rise in the context of a general democratic mobilisation, Left parties are more likely to benefit, given that it's the poor, the unemployed, the working class, the less well educated and so on who are, other things being equal, those who are less likely to cast a ballot? And that all the witterings about whether the Socialists are craven defeatists in the struggle against terrorism (they probably aren't) or whether Mr. Aznar was opportunistic in attempting to pin the blame on Eta for short-term electoral reasons (he probably was) pale into relative insignificance beside this fact?
Back in December 2004, the admittedly-biased World Socialist Web Site reported
that the Aznar government engaged in massive fraud by claiming that ETA, not al-Qaeda, lied on a massive scale by claiming that ETA was responsible. That Basque terrorist group specifically, and Spain's regional nationalities and nationalisms in particular, were serious issues for the Aznar government; al-Qaeda involvement would have threatened the Popular Party's hold on power.
Zapatero confirmed allegations first published in the Spanish daily El Pais on December 13 that the former Popular Party (PP) government led by José María Aznar ordered the destruction of computer records dealing with the key period between the Madrid train bombings and the general election held three days later that it lost to Zapatero's Socialist Workers Party (PSOE). El Pais reported that a specialist computer company was paid $12,000 to erase the computer records, including back-up security copies.
Zapatero confirmed the allegations during questioning at the inquiry, "In the prime minister’s office we did not have a single document or any data on computer because the whole cabinet of the previous government carried out a massive erasure."
"That means we have nothing about what happened, information that might have been received, meetings or decisions that were taken from March 11 until March 14," he added.
Since then, it has emerged that Aznar and his cabinet office in fact erased all records covering their eight years of government. According to the New York Times, a Spanish official said every file had been wiped out on the hundreds of computers at the presidential complex, known as the Moncloa Palace. "Not a single trace of any files was left behind," the official said. "Zero, nothing."
Knowledge that the files were destroyed only came to light because the commission had requested the minutes of Aznar's Cabinet Office crisis meetings on the day of the bombings. Officials from Zapatero's government could not produce them, nor any other document of the time, including conversations held by Aznar with the heads of the Spanish media, foreign envoys, what reports he received or what instructions he gave.
[. . .]
At the commission, Zapatero confirmed previous testimony from the intelligence services and police that within hours of the attack officials had concluded the “sole responsibility” for the Madrid bombings rested with Islamic terrorists and not ETA. First, a tape of verses from the Koran was found in a van near the station where the trains started their journey. Then it was discovered that the explosive used to make the bombs was Goma-2 and not titadyne, the material favoured by ETA.
Commentator Edward Hugh once disbelieved
this damning argument, but he has since changed his mind
since the end of the hearings which ended with all parties but the Popular Party agreeing
with this basic story.
In the first place the Spanish government appeared to be much more open with information, with almost hourly press conferences from the Interior Minister, and a detailed explanation of the 'evidence' almost as if 'we' the public were the investigating judge. Only as events moved forward did we discover that this apparent 'openness' was to a great extent a charade, and that behind the curtains a furious row was taking place between the security services and the government.
Hugh's conclusion is worth repeating:
Of course the biggest difference between Spain and the UK, is that the Madrid bombs lead to a change of government, while the London ones clearly will not. But then, while there may be ’information control’ the UK government is not engaged in an act of ’fundamental deception’ of its people, the Spanish government was. On the bigger question, as to whether Blair will in fact eventually go the way of Aznar, only history will judge.
It's not a sign of Spanish weakness that a mobilized Spanish electorate rejected Aznar and the Popular Party. Rather, it's a sign of Spanish strength, of Spain's willingness to confront leaders who were casually lying in order to escape blame for their unpopular policy. It speaks volumes about Spanish democracy that it was able to resist such partisan manipulations.
If you believe that the War against Terror takes precedence over everything else--the quality of democracy, the honesty of elected officials--this is a sign of weakness. More's the pity for you.