Madrid bombings: “The wars are yours — the deaths are oursâ€

“The wars are yours – the deaths are ours,” read one placard on a demonstration in Madrid in the early hours, last Sunday morning. It summed up the mood of millions throughout Spain just days after the horrific bombings in Madrid had left 200 dead and 1,400 injured.

Over 12 million people turned out to participate in memorial marches the day after the bombings. Within a few short hours tens of thousands again took to the streets in spontaneous demonstrations in Madrid and other cities. This time the sombre mood had changed to anger and bitterness directed at José Maria Aznar’s government and his party, Partido Popular (PP). These events and the defeat of the PP in the election which followed have triggered a political earthquake which have had tremendous repercussions throughout Europe, the US and internationally.

Aznar’s rightwing conservative Partido Popular attempted to manipulate the bombings for its own electoral advantage. By putting the blame for this brutal attack which left 200 dead and 1,400 injured on the Basque nationalist paramilitary organisation, ETA, and withholding information, they hoped to avoid blame being heaped on themselves because of Aznar’s enthusiastic support for the invasion of Iraq.

The CWI has actively opposed the imperialist wars against Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries, which have caused the slaughter of tens of thousands of workers, peasants and others. We also condemn the bombings carried out in Madrid. Such methods only cause further suffering to working people and do not challenge ‘leaders’ like Aznar or capitalism, which is the root cause of the sufferings faced by the peoples of the world. Socialists have nothing in common with reactionary, right wing groups, like al Qaeda.

In addition to shifting responsibility from his government because of its support for the war by blaming ETA, the PP hoped to justify its ‘hard-line’ policy in dealing with increasing demands for greater autonomy in the Basque country, Catalonia and other regions.

Aznar was assisted in these objectives by the United Nations Security council which agreed to a request by Aznar to condemn ETA for the bombings on the same day they took place. Resolution 15, adopted just a few hours after the bombings “[condemned]… in the strongest terms the bomb attacks in Madrid, Spain, perpetrated by the terrorist group ETA…”

However, the working people and youth of Spain were not prepared to be duped by the government’s attempted manipulation.

Huge backlash

The attempts of the PP to cover up who was responsible for the Madrid outrage provoked a massive backlash amongst Spanish workers and youth. Demonstrators poured onto the streets and marched on the party offices of the PP as it became clearer that al-Qa’eda was probably responsible. Abdu Dujan al-Afghani, al-Qa’eda’s military spokesperson in Europe has since claimed responsibility.

As a result, a political upheaval has taken place in Spain. It has resulted in the first overthrowing of a government which enthusiastically supported the war against Iraq. The defeat of the PP now haunts and even terrifies Blair, Bush and Howard. Both now ponder if they will face the same fate as Aznar, a personal friend of Blair. The pro-war camp in Britain has reacted by arguing that the Spanish people have succumbed to terrorism. Bronwen Maddox, the foreign editor of The Times argued that it seems “…disingenuous to say, as some opposed to the war have done enthusiastically, that the shock of the result on Sunday night was a victory for democracy”. (The Times, London, 16/3/04).

This is part of an international campaign by the ‘neo-cons’ around Bush, Blair and John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister, to discredit the election results in Spain, accusing the Spanish people of buckling to terrorism. But the reality is that the majority of people in Spain made clear that they opposed the war and also that they oppose terrorist attacks.

The capitalist rulers and their spokespeople evidently find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that a pro-war government has been thrown out by the mass of the Spanish people, who were overwhelmingly anti-war and who became enraged at the government’s attempt to manipulate the horrors of the bombings to its advantage. The remarks of those commentators who are arrogantly dismissive of the Spanish election results is reminiscent of the ironical remarks by Bertholt Brecht, when he suggested that the Stalinist regimes should elect a new people because the masses were not voting to order!

The Spanish daily, El País, showed a better understanding of the situation from the point of view of Spanish capitalism. In its 15 March editorial, the paper argued that “democracy had been strengthened”. What this section of the ruling class understood was that if the PP was seen to steal the election and the truth be revealed of who was responsible for the bombings then the authority of the institutions of capitalism and its parties would be massively undermined. The prospect of major social mobilisations against an election fraud by the PP would have been posed. Better to rock the parliamentary cradle to the ‘left’ and to try to channel the anger of people through a change of government is the conclusion drawn by this more sighted section of the ruling class.

The arrest of Morrocan and Algerian suspects, and claimed al-Qa’eda involvement in the bombings, has already resulted in a racist campaign by sections of the media in France. The far right and racists will undoubtedly also attempt to use these bombings and may launch racist attacks. These threats need to be fought against by socialists and those who opposed the war and the occupation.

Before last Thursday’s bombings, the PP and most commentators had taken for granted that the PP would be returned to power, albeit with a reduced majority. Despite a massive general strike in June 2002, mass protests against the ineptitude of the PP’s governments handling of the ‘Prestige’ oil spill, increasing bitterness by the Basque and Catalan peoples towards the government’s opposition to their demands for greater autonomy and democratic and national right, the bitter strikes by some workers, including the dock workers from Cadiz – despite all this, Aznar’s appointed successor, Mariano Rajoy, seemed set for victory.

“New Labourised” PSOE

Although facing opposition the PP seemed to be maintaining its support because of the economic growth in Spain. Moreover, PSOE (Spanish Workers’ Socialist Party), which was ‘New Labourised’ before ‘New Labour’, was not seen as an alternative by the younger workers. The party remained scarred by its time in government, during which there were a series of corruption scandals, attacks against workers and the setting up of GAL, a legal ‘hit squad’ to assassinate known ETA activists. It was seen as a pro-capitalist party, which made up part of the Establishment. The Communist Party dominated United Left party, Izquierda Unida, also failed to offer an alternative and sat in coalition with PSOE at local level, implementing cuts. A low turnout in the elections seemed most likely to reflect these factors.

However, all these questions were overridden by the anger and rage which swelled up amongst the masses against the government following the bombings. The much higher turnout of over 77% can largely be attributed of the anti-war youth turning out to drive the PP from office. The PP’s share of the vote fell from 44.52% in 2000 to 37, 08%, with the loss of over 690,000 votes. PSOE increased its share of the vote from 34, 16% to 42, 64%, winning 10,909,687 votes – its largest absolute number of votes ever. Most of the increase in PSOE’s vote came from young first time voters – 2 million voting for the first time – the vast majority of whom had opposed the war. Izquierda Unida saw its vote fall from 5.96% to 4.96%, and its number of MP’s reduced from 9 to 5. The IU has suffered a decline in each election since 1996.

El País gave credit to the new PSOE Prime Minister Zapatero and proclaimed that he had defeated Rajoy. In reality, it was Spanish workers and youth who drove the PP from office rather than vote PSOE into office. The Spanish masses voted to punish the government.

The brutal Madrid bombings particularly hit working class people and youth. The largest numbers of dead was on a double-decker train in the working class suburb of El Pozo. Large numbers of economic migrant workers from Latin America and Eastern Europe also live in this area. Amongst the dead were many trade union activists, students and workers.

Like millions of others in Spain many of the victims had marched against the war. 92% of Spain’s population opposed the war, which was enthusiastically backed by the Aznar government. Messages left at the Atocha central station, a scene of one of the bombings, by relatives and friends of the dead, bear this out and made links to the election. One read: “I leave this to be the voice of those we lost yesterday. We will not forget because I have also died a little. Tomorrow I will vote with you against the parties who supported the war and violence.” (El País 15/3/04).

Two others notes from relatives read: “The reply of Iraq and Afghanistan is here” and “Yesterday, no to war; today no to terrorism. Tomorrow – what? Enough!!”.

The PP provoked such anger because of its attempts cover up who was responsible for the bombing atrocities and because it tried to exploit the situation for its own advantage. In doing so, the PP unleashed all of the resentment felt towards the government, especially because of its support for the war in Iraq. The PP’s actions also reawakened bitter memories of the Franco dictatorship. A powerful fear griped many Spanish people, that the PP could win the election and only later would the truth seep out.

During the bombings crisis, the PP government manipulated the state television channel, Televisión Espanola. Following the bombings people searched in vain for rolling news programmes only to find the main channels were only showing ‘Lion King’ and science fiction films. Information services were blanked out. One voter, Noelia Almenaria, summed up the mood: “They are keeping things from us. It’s like a nightmare from an American film” (El País, 15/3/04).

Even during the mass rally in Madrid to commemorate those killed mistrust began to build up. The government’s slogan on the lead banner read: “In defence of the constitution.” This immediately angered the Basque, Catalan and other peoples who are demanding a change to the constitution.

This fear was undoubtedly fuelled by the past association of sections of the PP with the former dictator Franco. The government’s attempted cover-up had all of the signs of the government manipulation and distortions organised under the old dictatorship. Indeed, Aznar was a former member of the FES (Student Union Front) – the youth wing of the fascist ‘Falange’.

On polling day, the anger and revolt against the government was shown on the streets and directed against the PP leaders. Mariano Rojoy, the PP leader who was groomed to succeed Aznar was faced with a group of protesters chanting, “You are fascists; you are the real terrorists”, when he arrived to vote at his local polling station.

Those areas recording the largest swing against the PP were the Basque Country and Catalonia. The PP government has reacted to the demands of the Basque and Catalan peoples for greater autonomy and independence by refusing to even negotiate with the nationalist parties. The Esquerra Republican de Catalunya (Left Republican Party of Catalunya) has been the target of a campaign by the PP because it held talks with ETA. It was later revealed that the PP had known in advance about these talks and only denounced them afterwards. The ERC made important gains in the elections.

In the Basque Country, the PP government refused to negotiate with the capitalist nationalist PNV, which is demanding greater autonomy. The Basque nationalist party Herri Batasuna, which won 20% of the vote in 1999, was banned because of its links with ETA. The party was then re-launched as Batasuna, which was also banned.

This has been coupled with repression directed against ETA and also against the Basque and Catalan peoples. In Pamplona, following the bombings, a baker was shot dead by the police for refusing to put up a poster “against terrorism” in his shop window.

Polling intimidation

Repression and intimidation were also attempted elsewhere, including in Madrid. Voters who arrived at polling stations were on occasions stopped by the police and representatives of the election commission and told to take off anti-war stickers. Some had their names taken. El País reported one group of friends from a local football team who had lost a friend in the bomb blast. The youths arrived at the polling booths wearing number 14, the team number of their friend, and began to sing an anti-war song. The police stopped them from doing so outside the election booth because, the police said, they were “attempting to influence the way people would vote”.

Demonstrators in Madrid demanding the government’s resignation were faced with the riot police after the protests were declared illegal on election day.

However, these attempts to prevent the anti-war mood of the mass of the Spanish people being expressed in the election completely failed and backfired, as the tide of revolt swept the PP from office.

The new PSOE government, led by Zapatero, has been compelled to reflect the mood which swept Spain. These events have already had international repercussions. The election of Zapatero has complicated the situation facing Bush and Blair and will help strengthen opposition to them in both Britain and the US. Zapatero has been compelled to reflect the anti-war mood at home and denounced the war on Iraq and the occupation as ‘disastrous’. He has also threatened to withdraw Spanish forces from Iraq if power is not transferred to the UN and the ‘Iraqi people’ by the end of June. Spain’s military presence in Iraq is minimal but should his government withdraw it will strengthen the opposition to the occupation. It could increase the pressure on some other countries with a small military presence, like Poland or even Italy, to follow suit. It can also help strengthen the mood to withdraw in the US and in Britain, especially as the conflict in Iraq worsens. Blair, Bush and John Howard in Australia, will all feel increased pressure following these developments.

The defeat of Aznar will also be felt within the inter-state relations of the EU. Spain may now be more likely to compromise on its voting strength inside the EU and ally itself more closely with France and Germany.

Within Spain, it is also possible that Zapatero will begin negotiations with the nationalist parties in the Basque Country and in Catalonia. Whether they will be able to reach an agreement is problematical. On a capitalist basis they will not be able to resolve the demands and aspirations of the peoples in these areas.

However, these changes in policies do not represent an attempt to challenge capitalism by PSOE. Neither are they an attempt to introduce reforms in favour of the working class and the poor. PSOE and its leaders wholly embrace capitalism. Rather, these changes in policy are put forward to try and manage the interests of capitalism better than the ultra-conservative policies of Aznar who, like Blair, adopted a subservient attitude towards US imperialism. Although the new PSOE government may attempt some cosmetic measures, such as strengthening the legal rights of temporary contract workers in order to win support, it will undoubtedly also move to attack the working class and implement more neo-liberal policies. The vicious attacks of the Schroeder government, in Germany, against the working class, follow the social democratic SPD’s election victory, which was, in part, due to Schroeder’s apparent anti-war policies. This acts as a warning of what will unfold in Spain.

The neo-liberal agenda of PSOE was reflected the day after the election. Miguel Sebastián, the new finance Minister, and the former head of the research department at BBVA, Spain’s second largest bank, assured international investors that the new government would be “rigorous and orthodox” in its new economic policies. He promised a budget based on “…an orthodox economic programme based on budgetary stability, further liberalisation and a big overhaul of the tax system…We will be a market friendly government.”

Izquierda Unida has announced that it will be ‘loyal’ to the new government and has clearly signalled that it will not offer any alternative to the ‘market friendly government’.

Spanish workers and youth undoubtedly see the defeat of the PP government as a big victory. It has had significant repercussions internationally and is a warning to Bush, Blair, Howard and others who backed the war against Iraq.

However, the statement of the new government on the economy is a warning to Spanish workers and youth. Zapatero will move to implement policies defending the interests of capitalism. Further privatisations are planned, along with other attacks against the working class. PSOE was defeated in the 1996 general election after years of implementing pro-capitalist anti-working class policies. The assurances given by Miguel Sabastián to the finance markets indicate that Zapatero’s government will take the same road. Following the defeat of the PP, the task facing workers and socialists is to build a genuine socialist alternative to the existing pro-capitalist parties – for a party that will continue the struggle against the occupation of Iraq and that will fight for:

  • No to terrorism and no to imperialist war
  • Withdrawal of all imperialist forces from Iraq and the Middle East
  • No to racism and racist attacks
  • No more privatisations and for re-nationalisation of all privatised companies in Spain
  • For a democratic socialist plan of production based upon the nationalisation of the major monopolies and banks, run and managed democratically by the working class.
  • Full national and democratic rights for the Basque Country, Catalonia, Galicia, Navarre and all other peoples.
  • For a democratic, socialist Spain and a voluntary socialist federation of the Iberian peninsula, with full democratic and national rights for its peoples, including the right to greater autonomy or independence, if the people so wish it

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March 2004