Through the Smoke of Atocha: A Reflection on Spanish Politics

Nunca respondas al necio según su insensatez, para que no seas tú también como él.
Responde al necio según su insensatez, para que no se estime sabio en su propia opinión.
— Proverbios 26:4-5

The language of hyperbole and cliché generally counts for too much in a lot of political analysis, but in the case of the Spanish state it would be fair to say that the recent election of a PSOE (Socialist Party) government has sent shock waves throughout the international political world. That the Socialists, led by their fresh young leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero – and that one can be fresh and young at the age of 43 must stand as something of an indictment of mainstream politics – won the election against all prediction was surprise enough. That the defeated incumbent, José María Aznar, leader of the neoliberal, neoclerical Partido Popular, had been a key international figure, along with Tony Blair, in the preparation and carrying out of Bush’s war in Iraq added to the novelty an international dimension. And that, within days of assuming office, Zapatero, completing the first fulfilment of his election promises, ordered the immediate withdrawal of the Spanish state contingent of the occupying forces in Iraq prompted many commentators to speak of a global realignment of the political stage.

Of course, to say that the election had been held in extraordinary circumstances would be to put it mildly. Just three days before, the campaign had been brought to a crashing halt as a series of holdall bombs – timed to explode simultaneously in the giant terminus of Atocha – ripped through early-morning commuter trains in Madrid, leaving around two hundred dead and five times as many maimed and injured.

Up to that point it had been clear that there was no possibility whatsoever of the PP losing the election – the only doubt in people’s minds was whether it would be able to maintain its absolute majority or not. But that there was any serious possibility of the Socialists winning was regarded, outside of the party’s headquarters in the Calle Ferraz in Madrid – and even by some within this sanctum, already sharpening their knives in anticipation of the power struggles ahead – as absurd.

So before we look at the specific circumstances of the election itself, the prospects for the new government, and the ramifications of its election both within and without the Spanish state, it would be worth first reflecting on why its victory had been regarded as so improbable in the first place. And in order to do that, it will be necessary to take a step back from the immediate conjuncture, and take a rather longer term view of the political make-up of the Spanish scene as it has unfolded since the death of the dictator Franco in 1975.

More (pdf: 448KB): Through the Smoke of Atocha

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