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Security fears tip Spanish election

The pitfalls of politicizing national security

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Analysis The terrorist atrocity in Madrid last week claimed 200 souls, and affected the outcome of a national election held only days later. The conservative Popular Party, a Washington tributary outfit led by Prime Minister José María Aznar, had maintained a slim lead over its Socialist opposition, led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, until a group of terrorists struck.

The electoral math quickly changed. Voters appear to have blamed the atrocity on Aznar's alliance with the Bush administration, and Spain's official support of the war against Iraq in spite of popular disapproval. Suspicion that Aznar's service to American priorities might have made Spain a target for Islamic jihadists effected a change in electoral momentum. Voter turnout was exceptionally strong at nearly 78 per cent, and the opposition received a clear mandate from the people. With 80 per cent of the vote counted, the Socialists had won 164 seats to the Popular Party's 147.

Terrorism has many definitions, but among those most prevalent is: violence directed at civilians to intimidate a government, or intimidate a populace in order to affect government. If we accept that much, then we may have to accept that terrorists have won in Spain. Mass murder by outsiders seems to have yielded political pay dirt - an apparent validation of terrorism as a political weapon.

Not so fast

Many commentators will decry the symbolic victory of terrorism implicit in the Spanish election. We will be warned that the Spanish result will embolden terrorists to strike just prior to national elections in other parts of the world, looking for a similar result. But a far more fruitful line of inquiry would be to assess the election outcome, not as a product of terrorism, but as a consequence of political maneuvering around the attack.

Within hours of the atrocity, the Popular Party struggled to focus the blame on Basque separatist outfit ETA, while the Socialists struggled to pin it on al-Qaeda. The attack quickly spawned a political spin contest, though neither had much factual basis for their assertions. Aznar's message, that ETA had struck, was calculated to garner support for his tough-on-terror stance. Zapatero's message, that al-Qaeda had struck, was calculated to persuade voters that Spain had stupidly picked a fight with people it had no beef with, and was paying the price.

To date, the evidence of responsibility is contradictory. Certain aspects point toward ETA, while others point away; some point towards Islamic jihadists, while others point away. It's impossible to predict when we will know who did this awful thing, but it's certain that no one in Spain knew it on election day. Yet it was politicized immediately, so that whatever assumptions voters took to the polls, they were working from speculation and spin, not facts.

In the end, the Zapatero spin overtook the Aznar spin, and a government lost its grip. Whether this should ultimately prove to be in Spain's best interests we don't know, but certainly hope.

Spin kills

But this is no victory for terrorism. It is, rather, a defeat for democracy brought about by the cheap politicization of national security. One candidate promises to keep us safe from mean, angry people; another promises to keep us safe from the ineptitude of the first. National security too often becomes a search for what people wish to hear, followed by a crowd-pleasing performance enacted for political advantage.

If there is a lesson here for other countries, it is not that terrorists can affect the course of government, but that politicians can and will exploit a terrorist atrocity, often with unpredictable results. A Tony Blair or a George Bush, splendid in their counterterrorist armor, might be brought low following even a moderate attack if it should be as cleverly timed as the one in Madrid; but if they are brought low, it will not be by the acts of terrorists. It will be by the empty rhetoric of their opponents, suddenly given weight in comparison to the hollowness of their own, abruptly deflated, triumphalism and unrealistic promises. ®

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