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Socialists in shock victory

Published on 15/03/2004

15 March 2004

MADRID — Spanish voters handed a surprise defeat to the ruling Partido Popular Sunday in an election overshadowed by the terrorist attacks in Madrid.

The Spanish Socialist Party, led by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, won nearly 43 percent of the vote, dealing a stunning upset to the PP, which had hoped to tack on another four years at the helm after eight years in power.

Despite the win, the socialists will have to form a coalition with more minor parties to govern since they fell shy of an absolute majority.

“Today, the Spaniards have spoken and have said that they want a government of change,” said socialist leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, for whom this was his first campaign for prime minister, on Sunday night.

He added that his future government would keep the fight against terrorism as its main priority, and he called PP prime ministerial candidate Mariano Rajoy “a worthy rival”.

Zapatero, speaking before a crowd of several hundred supporters, also called for a minute of silence for the 201 people killed in last Thursday’s terrorist train bombings, which appear to have had a significant effect on the election outcome, which the PP had been favoured to win.

With 99.71 percent of the vote counted, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) had won 164 seats in the 350-member parliament, to the PP’s 148. The PSOE won 42.64 percent of the vote and the PP 37.65 percent.

However, despite the strong showing, the PSOE will not be able to govern alone, as an absolute majority in parliament requires 176 seats.

The reversal in fortune for the PP — which had governed since 1996, and for the last four years with an absolute majority — is a result that could have far-reaching international implications, given the government’s staunch support to date for the US-led war on terrorism, in particular Washington’s post-war Iraq policy.

The socialists also appeared to have won an important victory in the region of Andalusia, which they have governed for more than 20 years, but in which they appear to have gained an absolute majority on Sunday.

The Spanish government acknowledged the opposition Socialist Party’s victory in the general election on Sunday, and Rajoy also congratulated the PSOE on its win.

Interior Minister Angel Acebes first announced at a press conference that the PSOE had won and said that he wanted to “very sincerely congratulate the Socialist Party,” adding that the government “is going to collaborate in this transition period.”

Shortly thereafter, Rajoy, accompanied by Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, also congratulated Zapatero, saying that the PP would now take on the role of “loyal opposition” and emphasising that the country’s “national priority” must continue to be “the defeat of terrorism.”

Administration spokesman Eduardo Zaplana said that “for the good of Spain, (we want) any government that forms to be a strong government,” adding that “the results must be accepted with the best attitude possible.”

Spanish voters turned out in massive numbers with some 77.24 percent of the eligible voters — some 25.7 million people — casting ballots, compared to 68.71 percent in the 2000 election.

The PP has governed since 2000 with an absolute majority in parliament, and to tumble so far in the public’s estimation — from the 183 seats it held up to now to just 148 — would surely represent a major rejection of the party and its recent policies under Aznar.

The PSOE, on the other hand, having to date held just 125 seats, is clearly in the catbird seat, evidently having increased its parliamentary representation by close to one third, a phenomenal surge in strength.

Before the train bombings last Thursday, the PP was favoured to win the popular vote by as much as 5 percentage points.

Exit polls after Spain’s general elections earlier on Sunday had showed no statistically significant difference between the PP and the PSOE.

A public television poll, for instance, earlier gave the PSOE between 154 and 158 seats in Parliament and the PP between 150 and 154.

However, two private national television networks gave the PP between 168 and 170 seats and the PSOE between 140 and 143.

The general elections took place amid tight security in the wake of last week’s terrorist attacks on commuter trains in the capital that killed 200 people and wounded more than 1,500 others.

The results of the vote seem to indicate that Spanish voters intended to punish the ruling party for supporting the Iraq war — which was overwhelmingly opposed by the general public — as well as post-war efforts in Iraq, and also possibly for being so quick to blame the ETA separatist group for the deadly bombings.

Prime Minister Aznar has been a staunch ally of the United States in the run-up to war and its aftermath, and 11 soldiers from the 1,300-man Spanish troop contingent in Iraq have died.

Also, the government initially was quick to push the politically advantageous — to the PP — idea that the Basque separatists were responsible for the horrific train bombings, but subsequent investigation has led to the arrests of three Moroccans and two Indians, a development that serves to implicate Al Qaeda rather than home-grown terrorists.

In the wake of the bombings, more than 100,000 members of the security forces were deployed to protect the polling places.

Up for grabs in the elections were all 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies and the 208 seats in the Senate.

Rajoy was seeking to replace Aznar, who decided not to run for re-election after serving two terms.

Without an absolute majority, the Socialists will have to attempt to cobble together a coalition to govern.

The moderate Catalonian nationalists of the Convergence and Union (CiU) party garnered 10 seats and 3.25 percent of the vote, while the independent Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) will control 8 seats – up from just 1 prior to Sunday’s vote — having received 2.55 percent of the vote. A handful of minor regional parties will hold the rest of the seats.

Among the other minor parties, the Nationalist Basque Party will have 7 seats, the United Left coalition 5, the Canarian Coalition 3 and the Galician Nationalist Bloc 2.

The Chunta Aragonesista, the Eusko Alkartasuna and the Nafarroa-BAI coalition will each have one seat.

Aznar, who is stepping down after eight years as premier, relied on a coalition during his first term before securing an outright majority in the 2000 elections.

Last Thursday’s coordinated blasts on four Madrid commuter trains during the morning rush hour were the worst terrorist attack in Spain’s history and turned the pre-election period upside down.

[Copyright EFE with Expatica]

Subject: Spanish news, Spanish elections