| Demonstrators raise a toilet in protest outside the Popular Party headquarters in Madrid. (Reuters)
Madrid, March 14 (Reuters): Traumatised Spaniards voted in droves today in a general election thrown wide open by a new claim that al Qaida rather than Basque separatists was behind the Madrid train bombs that killed 200 people last week.
If Osama bin Laden’s men did mount their first direct strike in the West since September 11, 2001, and if, as claimed, it was an act of reprisal for Spain’s support of the US in Iraq, it could cost the ruling conservatives dear in an election they were widely expected to win before Thursday’s bloodshed.
Shock at the carnage, and mounting party political rancour, were evident across Spain. Sombre voters, many wearing the black ribbon that has become a symbol of national grief, turned out in numbers well in excess of the last parliamentary poll in 2000.
“The Iraq war is the reason for all this, and the government has some blame,” said Javier Rumbo Ortiz, a 22-year-old student who lost two friends in the attacks on commuter trains.
Other Spaniards were more vitriolic in their accusations against Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar over Iraq and for “manipulating” public opinion by spending three days blaming the bombs on the Basque militants ETA, despite the group’s denials.
“Liar!” and “Get our troops out of Iraq!” protesters shouted at Mariano Rajoy, the man who will take over from Aznar if their Popular Party (PP) does succeed in winning a third term.
Just hours before polls opened, three Moroccans and two Indians were arrested and the interior ministry revealed a video tape in which an Arabic speaker claimed the bombings were al Qaida’s punishment on the government for siding with Washington.
Opinion polls up to a week ago had forecast a PP victory as Aznar goes into retirement claiming credit for a solid economy and greater clout for a country restored to the international mainstream three decades after Franco’s dictatorship ended.
Had the attacks been by ETA, that would probably have helped the PP due to its tough line against the group.
“Now it’s anyone’s guess,” political analyst Juan Diez said. Overnight, thousands swarmed round PP headquarters across Spain to denounce government “misinformation”. Banging pots and pans, they chanted: “Before we vote, we want the truth.”
Turnout was high among voters determined to stick up for democracy after the worst guerrilla attack in Europe since the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of a US airliner killed 270 people. At 1715 GMT, turnout reached 62.9 per cent compared with 55.5 per cent at the same stage in the last election in 2000, officials said. “We are not going to allow the terrorists and fanatics...to divide and damage our freedom,” Aznar said as he cast his vote.
Rajoy’s main challenger for the Premier’s job is Socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who opposed Aznar over the Iraq war but has backed him in the fight against ETA.