The bodies were barely cold from the attacks of "11-M" in Madrid, the ballots from Sunday's national election barely counted, but American pundits were already competing furiously to heap insult upon injury. The unexpected victory of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) over the more conservative Partido Popular (PP), which had backed the war in Iraq, was widely and roundly denounced as a clear case of capitulation to terror.
"What is the Spanish word for appeasement?" asked David Brooks rhetorically, before delivering a tongue-clucking lecture to the Spanish electorate. Iberian political expert David Frum quickly dubbed the result a "swift and abject surrender to the attackers," while muy macho Mark Steyn decried "an exercise in mass self-gelding."
Now, perhaps Americans possessed of "moral clarity" in the war on terror also have a special insight into Iberian political psychology—even if many of them do think Aragón is a character from The Lord of the Rings. But this facile, if morally satisfying, reading seems to elide some of the peculiar details of the Spanish elections.
The PP was indeed projected to win a majority in the Spanish Parliament in all the major polls before the March 11 terrorist attacks, which killed over 200 Spaniards and injured more than 1,600. But they were also clearly, already, losing ground relative to their vote totals in 2000, a shift largely attributed to Prime Minister José María Aznar's support for a war in Iraq opposed by as many as 90 percent of Spaniards. The same polls that showed a likely PP victory also showed that over 60 percent of Spanish voters were uneasy with the prospect of the party, regarded even by some supporters as arrogant and unwilling to compromise with others in Parliament, securing an absolute majority. The PP's relatively strong—though still depressed—showing in May's municipal elections relied on the predominance in the public mind of the local, domestic economic issues that are the PP's unquestionable strength. With some 30 percent of Spanish voters polling undecided or refusing to give a preference as of early March, the PP advantage was already somewhat shaky.
So what happened on March 14? A point seldom noted is that, in terms of absolute votes, the PP did only slightly worse than in 2000, when it won 10.3 million ballots. The 9.6 million votes it earned this year would still have been enough, in 2000, to give it the majority. The difference this time around was a massive increase in turnout, an unsurprising response grounded in a sense of national solidarity following the attacks. This meant millions of young voters, overwhelmingly PSOE-sympathizers, turned out who might otherwise have stayed home. It's also worth noting that the PSOE seems to have bled several percentage points away from the far-left Izquierda Unida party.
What of those who did switch their votes? Western commentators seem to assume that the issue of government attempts to disingenuously insist that ETA was responsible for the 11-M attacks is a kind of electoral fig leaf. This is a mistake.
The idea that the PP government manipulates the media for political gain has long been a part of the opposition narrative. Government-owned media such as TVE have been widely criticized, both in Spain and abroad, as biased and subject to political pressure, especially following their coverage of a 2002 general strike. The PP has also resisted opposition requests for documents on the crash of a Yakovlev-42 airliner in which over 60 Spanish soldiers died. Many believe the PP was attempting to cover government negligence in light of complaints about the safety of the craft.
The behavior of the Aznar government in the wake of the attacks seemed to confirm the worst of this view. Mere hours after the attack—an attack lacking many of the hallmarks of an operation by ETA, which nearly always phones in notice of its bombings—the government was acting as though the Basque terrorist group's culpability was an established fact, and took the unusual step of pushing through a UN Security Council resolution pinning the blame on ETA. In a memo obtained by El Pais, Foreign Minister Ana Palacio instructed ambassadors: "You should use any opportunity to confirm ETA's responsibility for these brutal attacks, thus helping to dissipate any type of doubt that certain interested parties may want to promote." Aznar even telephoned the editors of major publications repeatedly in an attempt to pressure them to avoid any suggestion that groups other than ETA might have been responsible.
All this despite the fact that, even on the day of the bombing, a van containing Arabic language materials and detonators was found by police. The most serious blow to the administration story came after the foreign press began reporting on Saturday that authorities had arrested several Morrocan nationals in connection with the attacks. An SMS text-message campaign quickly mobilized a protest outside PP headquarters, where young people demanded "Tell us who really did it!" On Monday, after the elections, the government finally dropped claims, ill supported from the outset, that ETA had been responsible. In short, it became abundantly clear to most Spanish voters that the Aznar administration was cynically attempting to spin a horrific tragedy for political advantage. A backlash should scarcely be surprising.
All this notwithstanding, it's clear that some voters turned against the PP because they felt that Aznar's undemocratic march to war had exposed Spain to terrorist retaliation. But does such a shift necessarily constitute "appeasement"? Aznar had defended the war in Iraq as measure necessary to "guarantee the security of Spaniards from any internal or external threat," and his government sought to dismiss claims that a Spanish club was targeted for bombing in Casablanca because of Spanish participation in the war. Meanwhile, PSOE officials had suggested that Spain, Britain, and the U.S. were "kicking a wasp's nest," that "the war in Iraq was going to provoke more hatred and rancor and, therefore, the threat of more instability." Transparently, Aznar was mistaken and the opposition was correct. Are Spanish voters to be tarred as cowards if they now hold Aznar accountable for his miscalculation? A few especially glib commentators have suggested that the Spanish should "blame the terrorists," not the PP. But why can't they blame both?
The election has brought to power a candidate who now says that "beating terror" will be his top priority—hardly a clear victory for Al Qaeda, except for those unable to distinguish between the war on terror and the occupation of Iraq. The electoral motives that led to this result are ambiguous and complex. So why have so many been quick to cry "appeasement"? Appeasement, after all, is largely a matter of perception: What really matters, in terms of encouraging or discouraging future attacks, is not so much whether Spanish voters were trying to appease terrorists, but whether the terrorists themselves perceive the result that way. By insisting that the election results constituted capitulation to terror, the hand-wringers are perversely, irresponsibly bringing about the very result they pretend to decry. Why?
Among the more naive, this rush to judgment may simply be impelled by the smug sense of moral superiority it affords. But this is not the only possible motive. David Frum tips his hand when he writes that "the voters of Spain have indelibly associated the anti-Iraq position with one motive above all: fear," and goes on to suggest—one might say hope—that a vote for John Kerry will also come to be seen as cowardly capitulation to terror, as appeasing Al Qaeda. It is hard to suppress the suspicion that much of the criticism of Spaniards we're now seeing is ultimately, if indirectly, about the U.S. election. Fail to support Bush, whispers the subtext of these critiques, and you might as well be some sort of Spaniard.
I'll take that as a compliment.