Magazine article The Spectator

Peace without Honour

Magazine article The Spectator

Peace without Honour

Article excerpt


Few election results are wholly unpredicted. Punditry is a trade that places a premium on being counter-cyclical. As soon as a consensus begins to emerge around a particular outcome, someone - often Mark Steyn - begins to forecast the opposite. If he is proved right, he can justifiably swank about it afterwards; and if not, no one much minds.

But if any commentators foresaw that the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) would win last Sunday's election, they kept very quiet about it. The result took everyone by surprise - not just the journalists and politicians but the voters, too. In the 72 hours before polling day, I was unable to find a single person who expected José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the saturnine socialist leader, to form the next government. Believe me, it wasn't for lack of asking. Spaniards are much easier to engage in conversation than Englishmen, since they do not avoid eye contact. I polled away like mad, in shopping queues and tapas bars, in buses and lifts. I even sampled a group of old ladies leaving Mass. Everyone said the same thing. The Partido Popular (PP) had been comfortably ahead even before Thursday's atrocity; now it was a dead cert.

This conviction was especially deeply held on the Left. The day before the general election, I chatted to a group of socialist voters, members of a local taurine peña. They were not happy men. In fact, they were furious. They were bitter, of course, about the attack itself. They were angry, too, that four scheduled bullfights had been cancelled in its aftermath while the general election was going ahead. But what made them truly incandescent was the suspicion that the government was lying about the bomb.

'Everyone knows they are suppressing the intelligence reports,' said an old man, whose face was lined like the map of a mountain range. 'They are telling the people it's Eta and, fuck it, the people are going to believe them. Then, the day after polling day, they'll say it was the Moors.'

'This was their war,' added one of his friends. 'Aznar's and the Americans' - and, hombre, yours too. Your war. But our dead.'

On paper, this was an election that the PP could not lose. I remember being told by an American psephologist that, in the end, all election campaigns boil down to just two messages. Regardless of which country they are in, what the issues are, or how they begin, by the final week only two slogans have any traction: 'time for a change' and 'don't let the other lot ruin things'.

This time, Spanish politicians had cut out the foreplay and got straight to the point. 'We deserve a better Spain,' proclaimed PSOE posters on half the billboards in the country. 'Together we can go on to more,' answered PP posters on the other half. Within these parameters, José María Aznar's administration should have been unassailable. No recent visitor can have failed to notice the boom in Spain. The restaurants are the most fashionable in the world. The trains are sleek and beautiful. Virtually every city seems to boast queerly shaped buildings by trendy foreign architects. Thanks to the euro, interest rates are at a record low. Having been elected on a promise to reduce unemployment, the PP created some 4.5 million new jobs. No wonder the conservatives were ahead in the polls.

Then came the monstrous attacks in Madrid, now referred to in Spain by their date: '11-M'. This was widely expected to boost the PP further. For one thing, a sense of insecurity tends to benefit the governing party. For another, it tends to cause a swing to the Right. This is especially true when, as in Spain, it vindicates the Right's narrative. Ever since the Iraq war, Spanish conservatives have tended to play up the threat of terror, while socialists have sought to depreciate it. Mr Aznar's relative alarmism ought to have worked to his benefit once voters in fact became alarmed.

On top of this, there was a peculiarly Hispanic reason to expect the killings to help the conservatives. …

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