Terrorism in Spain
A winning streak for Zapatero
Aug 2nd 2007 | MADRID
From The Economist print edition
How the government benefits from the collapse of a controversial ceasefire
THE Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, has bounced back with remarkable speed. In May, his Socialist Party narrowly lost municipal elections to the People's Party (PP). But with a general election due early next year, recent polls give the Socialists a renewed lead of 3.5-6.5 percentage points.
What explains the turnaround? Surprisingly, perhaps, the reason appears to be terrorism and the end of a 14-month ceasefire by the Basque separatist movement, ETA. The collapse of Mr Zapatero's attempt to negotiate peace with ETA would normally count as a failure. But now Mr Zapatero's opponents can no longer accuse him of being soft on terrorism by talking to the gunmen.
In the renewed fight against ETA, the government has, moreover, been doing rather well. Apart from a couple of harmless explosions as the Tour de France cycling race passed through the Navarre region, ETA has been unable to inflict much damage since it took up arms again on June 6th. Meanwhile, hardly a week has gone by without the government trumpeting some new arrest or the foiling of another bomb plot.
The latest arrests on July 26th, of ETA's alleged head of logistics and two helpers, brought to at least 18 the number of ETA members rounded up in the past two months. Like many others, Juan Cruz Maiza and his alleged henchmen were detained in France, where ETA's leadership is based but is increasingly harassed by French police. The group has twice abandoned bomb-making equipment (once in a taxi near Torreblanca, in the east, and once in a car near the Portuguese border at Ayamonte, to the south-west) as its members feared being caught.
The end of the ceasefire has robbed the PP of its strongest weapon. It had spent the whole of the ceasefire period angrily denouncing the prime minister for betraying ETA's victims. The PP leader, Mariano Rajoy, beat the same drum at a state-of-the-nation debate before the summer parliamentary break, but to little effect. His demands that Mr Zapatero hand over the minutes of any meetings with ETA did not get far. Polls showed Spaniards felt Mr Zapatero won the debate hands down. “Waving around the ghosts of terrorism no longer brings electoral advantages,” the pro-Zapatero El País newspaper noted.
Mr Zapatero has learned the hard way that dealing with terrorists is an unpredictable business. Last December he told Spaniards the peace process was progressing well. A day later ETA set off a bomb that killed two people at Madrid's Barajas airport, in an unequivocal sign that the process was collapsing long before the formal end of the ceasefire. The prime minister is now careful not to sound triumphant. “We are not without risk,” he says. “We must keep working in order to obtain results like those of recent weeks.”
Mr Zapatero knows, too, that a successful terrorist attack can provoke a sharp change of mood in the electorate. His own election in 2004 came immediately after the killing of 191 people on Madrid's commuter trains by Islamist radicals.