Madrid blasts tear hole in record of Spanish right

Agence France Presse, 13 March 2004

MADRID (AFP)—Spain's governing rightwing Popular Party (PP) had hoped to go into Sunday elections on the strength of its economic record, but this week's bombings in Madrid have torn a gaping hole in its calculations.

Outgoing Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar will not stand in the poll which he hopes will be won by handpicked successor Mariano Rajoy, who has promised to chase ‘full employment’ in a country whose jobless rate remains the highest in the eurozone.

After Thursday's carnage which killed 200 people, the state of the jobs market and three years of zero public sector deficits will count for very little.

While investigations continued into the worst killings in Europe since the Lockerbie plane bombing in 1988 which killed 270 people, Aznar's government was still insisting Saturday it believed Basque separatist group ETA was responsible despite competing claims Islamic fundamentalists were to blame.

But whoever is responsible, the only issue engaging Spain's 34 million electorate will be which government can best deal with the aftermath of the four coordinated train bombings which brought death and destruction to the capital in what the media termed “Spain's own September 11.”

Ironically, Aznar only last week told El Mundo that he believed history would look kindly upon his eight years in power which have seen joblessness fall by half to around 11 percent.

“I am leaving the stage pleased with my country and honestly satisfied to be leaving it, I think, better off than I found it,” Aznar wrote in a front page editorial alluding to the major recent strides that the country has made infrastructurally, funded, at least in part, by EU grants.

But, almost presciently in retrospect, he added: “Things can degenerate quicker than you think.”

Those comments followed on from an interview to British daily The Times in which he opined that “ETA is weaker than ever, and I have no doubt about its final defeat.”

Under Aznar, more than four million jobs have been created in eight years—some 40 percent of the total in the whole of the European Union (news—web sites) over the period—though critics say many are low wage and temporary.

Average wages have, however, risen from 78 percent to 87 percent of the European Union average, while Spain is registering public sector surpluses and far stronger growth than among its laggardly neighbours.

Prior to Thursday the PP had looked unlikely, despite its economic record, to reproduce its performance of four years ago when it managed an absolute majority.

That achievement looked likely to prove its electoral high water mark as the party has consistently enjoyed only a slim lead over main rivals the Socialist Party (PSOE) in recent opinion polls.

One reason the Socialists had remained in the hunt was the foreign policy issue of Iraq (news—web sites), Aznar's support for the US-led intervention meeting with almost blanket popular rejection.

The other is the belief that the Spanish ‘economic miracle’ may either not last or that it is a mirage with around a third of young workers on short-term contracts.

The powerful UGT union has also slammed the PP's social and economic policies, saying “their strategy is storing up problems for Spain,” while also noting it was the Socialists under former prime minister Felipe Gonzalez who embarked on labour market reform a decade ago.

Spain had been additionally worried about losing out amid the EU expansion eastwards as the labour force frets at increasing incidences of foreign firms switching production to newer, cheaper markets.

But now, on the eve of the election, another issue has come to the fore and is set to exclude everything else.

“This is all that matters now—this is a one-issue election,” said Juan, astudent among the 11 million people who took to the streets on Friday.

Opinion is still, however, divided on whether the events of Thursday will derail the PP project or whether as the self-styled party of national unity it can boost its vote by taking the fight to the bombers.

“This should, logically, benefit the Popular Party as they are held to be the toughest on ETA,” according to Jose Alvarez Junco, political scientist at Madrid's Complutense University.

But Mavi Peralta, demonstrating in the rain on Friday in Madrid, was less sure.

“The PP may gain but this tragedy has brought the people out … and young voters are more left wing.

“In the States they said once that ‘it's the economy stupid.’

“But that's not the case in Spain in 2004,” she added.