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Parliamentary Election - March 2004

Polls one month before the 14 March 2004 Spanish general election continue to point to victory for the Popular Party and Aznar's successor as party leader, Mariano Rajoy. The PP hoped not just for a plurality, but for an absolute majority. Were the PP to fall far short of an absolute majority, coalition formation would prove troublesome. Most polling consistently showed the PP hovering just short of the absolute majority threshold. Socialist leader Rodriguez Zapatero has sought to breathe new life into his campaign by exploiting the Iraq/WMD controversy, criticizing Aznar for joining the Iraq coalition. Most analysts believe the Iraq issue will not be a major factor unless Spain's 1300 troops in Iraq suffer large casualties.

The ruling Popular Party (PP), led by Mariano Rajoy, pledged to continue the PP's commitment to a strong transatlantic alliance, supporting a Spanish military role in Iraq peacekeeping efforts and maintaining close ties with the United States in the War on Terrorism. The PP also promised to keep the strong economy on track and to preserve the integrity of the Spanish state from growing nationalist pressures in Catalonia and the Basque Country.

The Spanish Socialist Worker's Party (PSOE), led by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, agreed to maintain the Spanish presence in Iraq until the end of the current commitment (June 30), but advocated the withdrawal of Spanish forces after that date unless the UN is in control of peacekeeping. Zapatero had been a relentless critic of Aznar's Iraq policy and what he saw as Aznar's "subservience" to the Bush Administration. But Zapatero had been unable to turn popular opposition to Aznar's Iraq policy (which brought millions of Spaniards into the streets in February and March 2003) into support for his candidacy. While the PSOE stated a desire for a constructive transatlantic alliance with the US, it stressed the primacy of Spain's relationship with the European Union. The PSOE pledged to maintain full Spanish cooperation in the War on Terrorism. The PSOE also proposed to increase social programs without raising taxes.

Despite polls that showed that a majority of Spaniards favored the idea of a change in government, the PP enjoyed a solid lead for months. The Socialists, as a consequence of their disunity and weak leadership, have been unable to capitalize on a general desire for change. However, there are a few wildcards that have the potential to change the equation. These include possible large Spanish casualties in Iraq and a possible backfiring of Rajoy's cautious approach to campaigning and his unwillingness to debate Zapatero.

Spanish parliamentary elections on March 14, 2004 came only 3 days after a devastating terrorist attack on Madrid commuter rail lines that killed 191 and wounded over 1,400. The 3/11 attack was the worst terrorist attack ever in an EU country. The March 11 terrorist attacks on Spanish commuter trains had been the decisive factor in the Socialist (PSOE) victory over the PP. The Madrid train bombings came as a terrible shock to a country that felt it was accustomed to dealing with terrorism (in the form of its 30-year conflict with ETA) and considered itself a bridge between the Islamic world and the West. Voters punished the then-ruling Popular Party after the attacks out of resentment over President Jose Maria Aznar's decision to ignore strong public opposition to the deployment of Spanish forces to Iraq, and for the government's mishandling of the investigation into the train bombings.

With large voter turnout, PSOE won the election and its leader, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, took office on April 17, 2004. Carrying out campaign promises, the Zapatero government immediately withdrew Spanish forces from Iraq but has continued to support Iraq reconstruction efforts. The Zapatero government has supported coalition efforts in Afghanistan, including maintaining troop support for 2004 and 2005 elections, supported reconstruction efforts in Haiti, sent troops to UNIFIL in Lebanon, and cooperated on counterterrorism issues and many other issues of importance to the US.

Zapatero's main internal challenge was an effort by the Basque Regional Government (comprised of moderate Basque nationalists opposed to ETA violence) to increase its autonomy from Spain's central government. Most other regions of Spain strongly oppose increasing the Basque Region's already considerable independence, unless they too are given greater independence.

In 2004, the PSOE beat the PP by 1,260,000 votes (43 vs. 38 percent of the vote). There was 76 percent voter turnout (turnout in 2000, when the PP won 45 to 34 percent, was 69 percent). Conventional wisdom says PSOE voters lack the discipline of PP voters and need strong motivation on election day. The 2004 upset is often attributed to the March 11 train bombings (which one study claimed sent an extra 1.6 million voters to the polls). Some argue the PSOE must generate participation at or above 70 percent to win. The PP was heartened by the May 2007 municipal elections in which it polled slightly ahead of the PSOE, but it may be misleading to extrapolate too much from the local to the national scene.

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