Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

Do Terrorists Win Elections?

Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

Do Terrorists Win Elections?

Article excerpt

A bomb blast in Spain, just before the country's election, destroyed several commuter trains, killing hundreds and wounding thousands. Three days later, Spanish voters turned out the conservative Popular Party and Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, inserting the Spanish Socialist Party leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as Aznar's replacement.

Several months later, a cryptic message was delivered to the offices of al-Jazeera in Pakistan. Within hours, American audiences were watching Osama bin Laden's videotape. An initial poll from Newsweek magazine claimed that incumbent President George W. Bush jumped to a six-point lead as a result of the reaction to al-Qaeda's message. A few days later, President Bush and the Republicans prevailed over the challenger, Senator John F. Kerry from Massachusetts.

In both these cases, the media claimed that terrorists determined the outcome of the elections, an opinion that is commonly held. 1 If this opinion is true, it implies that terrorists have power over the fundamental workings of democracy. But is the opinion true? Did the terrorists in fact win at the ballot box in 2004? To answer this question, I analyzed survey results from before and after the votes were cast, as well as relevant material from the literature and results from focus groups. The analysis shows that the terrorists did little, if anything, to change the outcome of either election.


On March, 11, 2004, roughly 200 people were killed and 1,500 were wounded in bomb attacks on Spanish commuter trains. The attack took place just three days before the election. 2 This case is often used by the media as a textbook example of how terrorists influence elections. 3 The incumbent party, the conservative Popular Party, was defeated at the polls. 4 Given this center-right coalition's support for Operation Iraqi Freedom, knocking Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar from power and the subsequent Spanish withdrawal from Iraqi was counted as an al-Qaeda victory. 5

Such a simple cause-and-effect analysis is questionable. A post-electoral survey of Spaniards by El País revealed that 70 percent of the people did not feel the 3/11 attacks influenced their vote choice. 6 In the same survey, 86 percent of respondents felt that the terror attacks had influenced the rest of the electorate. Clearly the commuter train bombings did not sway the average Spanish voter. Nevertheless, voters themselves felt it influenced "somebody else," feeding into the myth that terrorists altered the outcome at the ballot box, despite the absence of evidence in this case. Moreover, the terror strikes did not create anti-Iraq war feelings in Spain; those attitudes were present long before the train bombings. "Had this vote been held a year ago, the outcome would have been similar - polls last March found that as much as 90 percent of Spanish voters opposed their government's support for the war in Iraq." 7

If there was a reaction among voters to the bombings on 3/11, it appears to have been a reaction to the government's attempt to pin the blame for the attack on ETA, a Basque separatist group, "despite evidence pointing to radical Islamists, ETA denials, and al-Qaeda claims of responsibility." 8 Since an ETA attack "would likely have swelled support for the ruling party and its hard line on the separatists," 9 the government's claim of ETA responsibility looked like a cynical attempt to take advantage of the attacks.

Furthermore, claiming the attack was a victory for terrorists assumes we know what the terrorists intended the attack to accomplish. Was the goal of the attack to make Spain withdraw from Iraq, knock Spain from the war on terrorism, or reestablish the Islamic foothold in Europe from pre-1492? 10 Attacks continued after the new prime minister promised to withdraw from Iraq, 11 implying that the terrorists had interests other than the election. …

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