The bodies were still being collected, and the families had just begun their anguished search through hospitals and morgues, when Spanish embassies abroad received telegrams from their government instructing them to pin the blame on the Basque terrorist group ETA, to the exclusion of all other hypotheses – ‘in order to dispel whatever doubts certain interested parties might seek to spread’ (the message from Ana Palacio, the foreign minister, was leaked to El País). Not long afterwards, against the objections of the Russian delegate, the UN Security Council was pushed into adopting a resolution in which ETA was held responsible. Foreign correspondents also reported pressure being put on them.

Of course, we all assumed it was ETA at first: why not, when they’d been caught sneaking into Madrid with 500 kg of dynamite a few weeks ago, and a bomb had been defused at another railway station before Christmas? But why, for the ruling right-wing Popular Party (PP), did it have to be ETA? After all, the PP was safely ahead in the polls, largely thanks to their economic record and lingering public distrust of a Socialist Party (PSOE) whose 13 years in office – the PP took over in 1996 – had made it lazy and corrupt. And though the talk on the streets had turned to the possibility of Islamic terrorism, there was glum acceptance among all the anti-PP forces (nationalists, republicans, the left) that this appalling action by ETA had removed the only electoral uncertainty: whether the PP would once more gain an absolute majority. For it would prove ‘beyond doubt’ that Aznar’s strong-arm policies towards Basque separatism (and, by extension, towards the centrifugal tendencies of Catalunya, Andalucía et al) were preferable to wimpy talk about dialogue, such as some Socialists were given to. The questionable logic of this assumption works better in the light of a grubby episode that made headlines at the start of the campaign, when a secret approach from ETA to various members of the opposition, inviting them to talks, was accepted only by one ingenuous Catalan politician, Josep Lluis Carod Rovira. The secret services found out. As the scandal broke, ETA announced that in future there would be no attacks in Catalunya, thus deliberately handing ammunition to the PP – ETA prefers to have the PP in power.

On the other hand, were it to turn out that al-Qaida was responsible, the spectre of the Iraq war – opposed by 90 per cent of the population – would be revived. So began a mortal struggle for the control of information or, failing that, of its interpretation, as the hours to Sunday’s vote ticked by. Fernando Savater, the philosopher and anti-ETA campaigner, thundered with renewed righteousness against those who habitually suggest that the police themselves plant the ‘terrorist’ bombs they defuse. Paranoia from the other side was reaffirmed at noon on Thursday, when a van was found containing detonators and a tape of verses from the Koran, and pro-government commentators said it was an ETA set-up, designed to sow discord at the heart of democracy. ETA’s disclaimers were lambasted by government spokespersons as proof of guilt. Others wondered what the point of such a performance would be: ETA likes to kill (more than eight hundred victims since 1968), and they had nothing to gain here by pretending they hadn’t done it, or by attacking without their usual prior warning, which shifts the responsibility for casualties onto the security forces. Yet in the confusion anything seemed possible, as clue after clue pointing to al-Qaida was confirmed by the interior minister, but obstinately downplayed until Sunday morning and beyond.

Friday night’s marches were attended by eight million people across Spain. The canopy of umbrellas that restricted the marchers’ view was like an image of the oppression that terrorism was once more bringing to the political process. I wasn’t intending to go, until I saw the photographs of Atocha station – like a crazy montage of images from Iraq superimposed on a much more familiar environment – and the short obituaries in the same newspaper of each dead immigrant, worker and student. Although the march had been called by the government and under a provocative banner that invoked the constitution (to the discomfort of republican groups, among others), everyone set aside their reservations for the sake of democratic unity and human solidarity – only for the unrest to deepen. Cries of ‘¡Asesinos!’ were fervently multidirectional; more to the point was ‘¿Quién ha sido?’ ‘Who did it?’ In Seville, where I live, several PP dignitaries had to be bundled into the nearest school building, and our demonstration, three times larger than expected, was dispersed early.

Saturday was supposed to be a día de reflexión, like every day immediately preceding a general election. But chanting crowds, from midday into the early hours, gathered outside PP offices all over the country in a display of text-messaged people power; the Socialists beamed with complacent innocence, as the PP accused them of illegally mobilising the masses.

Even so, the election result came as a surprise. At best, last-minute polls had predicted a draw. The losers, their faces as grey as their suits, seemingly unable to understand the effect of their flagrant exploitation of the massacre, blamed the emotional circumstances; the winners welcomed a deep-seated desire for change which had suddenly found expression. In reality, the result was both a reassertion of the terrorist grip on Spanish politics, and a violent bridling in the midst of grief at the ruling party’s contempt.

The good offices of terrorism need only a couple of references. The PP victory in 1996 was doubly indebted to it: the dirty war that was conducted by Felipe González’s PSOE against ETA, when its sordid details emerged, had sickened the electorate; conversely, Aznar’s survival of an assassination attempt during his campaign gave a heroic gloss to his image. The PP’s high-handedness would take longer to explain. Part of it is Aznar’s public style: his dismissive when not offensive language towards opponents; his exacerbation of every rift in the body politic; his arrogant mismanagement of the Prestige oil-tanker disaster; his overruling of the popular will for the sake of a minor seat at the big table of Blair and Bush (even some Aznar devotees blushed at his impersonation of a puffed up pekinese during the Azores summit a year ago). Then there are the lies. There have been many, most recently those surrounding the Yakovlev military air crash, when a series of government statements proved to be false. To see Aznar’s cabinet swear to ETA’s guilt, even as powerful counter-evidence emerged, was to recall their denunciations of Iraq’s elusive WMDs.

Many in Spain envied the inquiries set up to address this issue in Britain and the US. Now a massacre has altered the political landscape beyond recognition. The popularity of the nationalist left, parties such as Esquerra Republicana in Catalunya, shot up defiantly; the Communist left, Izquierda Unida, lost half its seats to the ‘pragmatic vote’ for the PSOE. Hardened abstentionists and first-time voters queued at the booths. If the election had been put off by a week, as the PP wanted, the result might have been very different. Apathy and expediency had led voters to overlook the kinds of insult to the citizens’ intelligence which the inexplicably self-defeating management of the terrorist attack brought back to mind: might they not have receded within a few days?

As people grope to make sense of the reasons, local and international, political and emotional, which have landed them in a not altogether desirable situation, there is some awareness that they may have fallen into al-Qaida’s trap by playing its game of regime change. US hawks and others complain that Spanish voters acted cravenly in punishing their government merely for putting its citizens in harm’s way. But that isn’t what they did. They reacted with an exasperated call for ‘the truth’ – whatever this might turn out to be – in the face of a culture of lies and divisiveness which, with the atrocity, had become intolerable.

The prime minister-elect, José Luis Zapatero, has had to put up with much mockery in the past for his readiness to do deals, when in opposition, over and above team loyalties; his nickname is ‘Bambi’. But though he is just another Spanish leader enthroned by terrorism, the climate is now conducive to a milder way of doing things than through the confrontations whipped up by his predecessor. ‘No more trench warfare,’ one relieved Basque politician sighed. And even I felt I was breathing cleaner air on Monday morning. The pending review of the statutes of the main autonomous regions, to which power in Spain is so uneasily devolved, may now be handled constructively, on both sides. The pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq in June, failing a UN takeover, could be an influential move. Europe, not the transatlantic alliance, will be Zapatero’s main area of engagement, which will suit most Spaniards. And the leader he has replaced might reflect on the ironies of his party’s destitution: Aznar’s campaign led on gut issues and it was a gut reaction that turned the tables.

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