Bombs backlash seals Socialist win

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The Independent Online

Spain's Socialists won a sensational victory in yesterday's general elections, in a vote that confounded the polls and inflicted a huge punishment on the Popular Party government for supporting the war in Iraq.

Voters believed that José Maria Aznar's support for President George Bush had put Spain in the front line as a target for Islamist radicals, and directly produced the devastating terrorist attacks in Madrid on Thursday. Additional discontent was caused by the strong suspicion that Mr Aznar's government was hiding information pointing to al-Qaida's possible involvement, through fear that it would rebound against it in the poll.

José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who will become Spain's new Prime Minister, won 43 per cent of the vote, which gives him 164 seats in the 350-seat chamber. He can count on the support of other left-wing or regional parties, enabling him to form a government without holding a majority of seats.

He said last night: "Today Spaniards have spoken with a massive voice. They have said they want a government of change. Thank you for this confidence."

One of the main planks of Mr Zapatero's platform was his promise to bring home the 1,300 Spanish troops now serving with the coalition in Iraq. This is a position supported by all the other parties in opposition to the Popular Party.

After acknowledging his victory, Mr Zapatero called for a minute's silence, reflecting the grief and shock that overwhelmed the nation after the bomb attacks. "I think of all those lives broken by terror," he said. He was flanked by the scarlet and gold Spanish flag, draped with the black ribbon of mourning, and the starred blue EU flag, presenting an image that elegantly marked a distance from the previous government's fervent pro-Americanism.

The street outside the Socialists' headquarters in Madrid was awash scarlet and white flags. "Za-pa-tero Pre-si-dente!" ecstatic supporters chanted. Cars drove around the capital with their horns honking in triumph until the early hours.

Mr Zapatero was conciliatory to his opponent, Mariano Rajoy, whom he described as a "worthy rival". The incoming Prime Minister said that the result was "a victory for us all".

Mr Rajoy was equally well-mannered. "I've just called Mr Zapatero to congratulate him on his victory. The results show he's won the confidence of the majority of Spaniards, inexorably marked by the tragic consequence of the last few days," said the People's Party leader. An ashen-faced Mr Aznar was by his side.

The terror attacks that killed 200 people and injured 1,500 in Madrid last Thursday produced a dramatic mobilisation of the electorate. Turnout reached 74 per cent ­ 9 percentage points more than in the last election in 2000, which produced an absolute majority for the Popular Party.

The electorate was swelled by some 2 million first-time voters. They are thought to have flocked to the Socialist cause. In addition, Socialists who were widely thought to have stayed at home last time came rolling back in their determination to teach the government a lesson.

Last night's vote is a crushing defeat for the combative and remote political style of Mr Aznar, who had hoped to hand over power seamlessly to his handpicked successor. Mr Aznar tried to wrench Spain away from its loyalty to Europe and pledge it instead to the Atlantic alliance that took it to war, and ­ in the eyes of the voters ­ to Thursday's tragedy.

The lesson will not be lost on Tony Blair. Mr Blair has lost his most reliable pro-Bush European ally. Now isolated in Europe but for the mercurial Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, Mr Blair must be contemplating the prospect that his absolute majority may, like Mr Aznar's, melt away.

Mr Zapatero benefited from the power of a socialist-led coalition in Catalonia, which was elected last December. That coalition includes the pro-independence Republican Left party, which won eight seats last night; previously it had none. It seems that a secret meeting of its leader, Lluis Carod Rovira, with Eta separatist leaders did the party no electoral harm. When the meeting was revealed, in January, the Popular Party called on Mr Carod, and the Catalan Socialist leader Pascual Maragall to resign, and even threatened criminal proceedings against Mr Carod.

Mr Zapatero pledged himself to be just as determined in the fight against terrorism as Mr Aznar. He said he wanted the "maximum unity of all political forces to pursue that struggle". His style was not triumphalist, not demagogic; for someone renowned for his oratory, remarkably low key. He said he wanted a "tranquil change" and promised, as if in an afterthought, "that power will not change me".

¿ British Muslims are deserting Labour over war in Iraq, according to a new ICM poll for The Guardian. The proportion of Muslims supporting Labour has fallen from 75 per cent in 2001 to just 38 per cent today.

Eighty per cent say they are opposed to the Iraq war, and while the majority (73 per cent) are opposed to terrorist groups such as al-Qa'ida, around one in eight (13 per cent) believe further attacks would be justified.