Tue, Mar 16, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Anger over terror attack puts Spain's Socialists in power

REUTERS , MADRID

The winner of Spain's general election, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, said yesterday he intended to withdraw Madrid's 1,300 troops from Iraq.

Zapatero told a Spanish radio station that no decision would be taken until he was in power and without wide political consultation. "But the Spanish troops in Iraq will come home," he added in his first post-election interview with Cadena SER radio.

Spain's opposition Socialists prepared for power yesterday after a sensational election upset sparked by anger over the government's handling of a suspected al-Qaeda attack on commuter trains that killed 200 people.

Voters ousted the center-right Popular Party (PP), which until Thursday's coordinated attacks had looked certain to win a third consecutive term in power in Sunday's poll.

Zapatero, 43, will be Spain's next prime minister. He has criticized outgoing premier Jose Maria Aznar's unswerving support for US foreign policy.

"Spain punishes the PP and places its confidence in Zapatero," said El Mundo newspaper yesterday's front page, slamming the government for attempting to play down evidence of al-Qaeda's involvement in the bombing of four commuter trains.

With US President George W. Bush facing re-election later this year, the unprecedented swing in the Spanish ballot may be closely watched internationally. It was the first time in Spain's modern democratic history that a party had lost power after holding an absolute majority.

With almost all votes counted, the Socialists had won 42.6 percent of the vote to the PP's 37.6 percent as voters turned out in large numbers to reaffirm their faith in democracy amid the upheaval over the bombings which also injured 1,500 people.

With 164 seats in the lower house of parliament, 12 short of those needed for an absolute majority, the Socialists will need to negotiate alliances with smaller regional parties or left-wing allies in order to govern.

But the PP will remain by far the largest single party in the upper house, or Senate, potentially making it difficult for a Socialist government to pass legislation.

The Socialists' surprise win sparked wild rejoicing among their supporters after eight years out of power. "It's like a dream .... Now things are going to change, and change for the better in every sense," said Carlos del Puerto, a 24-year-old mechanic.

Zapatero's first thought after winning was to remember those killed in Thursday's attack and to pledge his immediate priority would be "fighting terrorism."

"Right now, I am thinking about all the lives broken by terror on Thursday," he said, asking a crowd of excited supporters to respect a minute's silence.

Hours before polling began on Sunday, the government revealed it had a videotape, purportedly from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, saying it carried out the attacks in retaliation for Spain's support for the US-led war on Iraq.

Protesters shouted "Liar" and "Get our troops out of Iraq" at PP prime ministerial candidate Mariano Rajoy when he voted.

"The government has paid the price for its involvement in the war in Iraq, for Aznar's relationship with Bush and [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair. The vote has been a reaction to this," said Carlos Berzosa, rector of Madrid's Complutense University.

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