Did Al Qaeda achieve regime change?

George Bush's stalwart ally, Jose Maria Aznar is out of power. Did Osama bin Laden claim his scalp?

Did Al-qaeda achieve regime change?

By Quentin Langley, International Correspondent of Campaigns and Elections

Dateline 10 March 2003

“Three percent?” gasped Tony Blair in amazement. His Iraq war ally, Jose Maria Aznar had just told him what proportion of Spaniards supported their government’s backing of the American-led coalition in Iraq. “Three percent? That’s fewer than the number of people who believe Elvis is still alive”.

There is no doubt that Aznar’s support for the coalition was unpopular at home, but a year on it did not seem likely to bring his government down. Until, that is, the bombings in Madrid changed everything.

But if the Iraq war was so unpopular, why was Aznar favored to hold onto power just days ahead of the March election? Perhaps we can find the answer in the Azores summit. While British and French voters expect their leaders to be treated respectfully, and accepted almost as equals by American Presidents, the Spanish do not. From the 1930s to the 1970s Spain was ruled by the dictator Francisco Franco, something of an international pariah ever since his supporters from the Spanish civil war – Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini – had been defeated in the Second World War. Even as democracy bedded down and Spain joined first NATO then the European Community (now the European Union), Spain was still seen as a middle-ranking European power.

But in the Azores – Spanish territory – three members of the UN Security Council, Bush, Blair and Aznar, gathered to tell the world their plans. Perhaps significantly, Italy, another coalition supporter, but not, at that point, a member of the Security Council, was not invited. Spain may not have liked Aznar’s policy, but it was flattered to see its leader dominating the global agenda.

Aznar stood by his pledge to observe voluntary term limits, and was standing down at this election. His party was backing Mariano Rajoy to become Prime Minister. Aznar’s Popular Party had been much tougher on the Basque terrorists, ETA, than its Socialist predecessor; the economy performed very well under Aznar, and the Socialists, swept from power eight years ago in a torrent of corruption scandals, were not popular. Everyone expected Rajoy to triumph.

But the terrorist bombing of commuter trains just days before the election was a turning point. The mass protests on the streets represented popular solidarity, a feeling which might have been expected to benefit the government, if it had not been for a crucial miscalculation which seems to have extended to Aznar himself.

The Popular Party had been tough on ETA. So, ran the thinking, if the bombs were planted by ETA, people would rally to the government. But if the bombs were planted by Al-qaeda, then the Socialists would allege that Spain had made itself a target by supporting America. Within hours of the bombs the Prime Minister himself was briefing newspapers that ETA was responsible. Spanish embassies carried the same message to governments around the world. The White House and CIA, by contrast, were not so hasty to draw conclusions.

Despite clear similarities between the types of explosives used and those found in the possession of ETA terrorists in the past, the line that ETA was responsible soon began to unravel. The arrest of Islamic militants leaves it looking fragile, to say the least. Detailed polling analysis of the last minute surge in turnout – 10% up on four years ago – or the late swing to the Socialists has yet to be carried out. And judging by the wide variance between the results of the exit polls, Spanish polling may not be the most reliable. But it seems reasonable to suggest that a growing uneasiness took hold of the electorate. Was the government using the bombings for party advantage? Worse, did the government try to deceive people about the bombings?

The question is, with one of America’s key allies gone, how much difference will this make? Perhaps not that much. The new government will want to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq, but the numbers are small and they will probably be there until the coalition authorities hand over to an Iraqi government anyway.

Any tipping of the balance in the European Union will be strictly temporary. The EU was split down the middle by the Iraq war. Eight out of fifteen countries, led by Germany and France, were distinctly hostile to the American policy. But the seven remaining countries, led by the UK, Spain and Italy, represented a majority of the EU population. However, in May this year ten new countries will join the EU. Eight of those ten are former communist countries, liberated by the allied victory in the cold war. They are all staunchly Atlanticist.

In NATO the balance was always very different. Some of the most anti-American countries in Europe – such as Sweden and Ireland – have never been members of NATO, while Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined some years ago. In NATO there was always a strong majority backing the coalition. On the key issue of whether to support Turkey in the event of an attack from Iraq, even Germany was willing to stand by its clear treaty obligations, with only France, Belgium and Luxembourg voting against.

And Germany could be the next European power to see a change of government. While in France and the UK the opposition parties supported the government’s line on Iraq, Germany, like Spain, was sharply divided. Land (state) elections in Hamburg saw the anti-American Social Democrats soundly defeated in their strongest heartland. A Federal election is not due until 2006, but the upper house in Germany’s parliament is chosen by the Laender – just as America’s Senate used to be chosen by state legislatures – and the Christian Democrats have a strong and growing majority in the upper house. The Social Democrat-Green coalition has a wafer thin majority in the lower house, and further humiliations like Hamburg could make it hard to hold the coalition together.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 10 March 2003

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