Did José María Aznar's government really try to help its party at the polls by pinning blame for the Madrid attacks on Basque terrorists and downplaying al-Qaeda's possible role? That's the question that threw Spain into an uproar and secured the defeat of Aznar's ruling Popular Party (PP) in the March 14 election. Even now Spain is asking itself: What did Aznar know about the people behind the Madrid blasts, and when did he know it?
A week before the vote, the last official opinion surveys put the PP ahead of the Socialists (PSOE) by four points. But on Wednesday night, just hours before the bombings, results leaked from private PP and PSOE polling showed the parties in a dead heat, according to the veteran Madrid journalist José Antonio Martínez Soler. With the country in crisis after the attacks, the government persisted in blaming the Basque terrorists of ETA even after news broke of an al-Qaeda connection, reviving the issue of Aznar's support for the war in Iraq, which 90% of Spaniards opposed. On election day, the Socialists surged to an astounding 5% lead over the PP.
Last week the outgoing government tried to restore its credibility by releasing documents meant to prove it did not dissemble in the three days between the attacks and the vote. Interior Minister Angel Acebes declassified, among other documents, a "note of information" from Spain's National Intelligence Center (CNI), presented to the government at 3:51 p.m. on the day of the bombing, stating, "It is almost certain that ETA is the author of these attacks." By basing its argument on ETA's previous attempts to bomb trains and disrupt elections, however, that document made a purely circumstantial case. The same note says there was still no expert analysis of the explosive used. Yet at noon of the same day, the government was claiming hard evidence falsely, as it turned out based on police reports that the dynamite involved was "habitually used by ETA." At 5:29 p.m. Foreign Minister Ana Palacio sent a message to all Spanish embassies stating that "the Interior Ministry has confirmed the responsibility of ETA."
But the evidence was not so clear cut. By Thursday afternoon, police knew that a van found that morning contained detonators and an Arabic language tape, an indication that the ETA theory might not be watertight. Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the Socialists' point man on terror, told TIME that contacts within the CNI informed him they were "profoundly pursuing the path" of radical Islamic terrorism at that time. Police found an unexploded bomb on one of the trains, but the government's account says bomb disposal experts weren't called to inspect it until 2:40 a.m. on Friday. Thanks to that fortuitous find, police arrested two Indians and three Moroccans, some with suspected al-Qaeda links, late on Saturday afternoon. Yet at 2:30 p.m. that afternoon, while police were actively pursuing the leads to those suspects, Acebes admitted there were two lines of inquiry, but said "ETA is the priority of the investigation." By 5:00 p.m. on Saturday the PP's lead was crumbling, according to a poll by the Demoscopia organization, yet it still had the votes to eke out a relative majority, says Demoscopia president José Juan Toharia. By 8:00 p.m. Acebes announced the arrests of the Moroccans, and the PP's support collapsed. The perception that the government lied helped turn the election.
"I don't think it was conscious manipulation," says Jesús Barquín Sanz, director of the University of Granada's Criminology Institute. Blaming ETA "was the result of a pre-established mind-set." And for some, the Socialists were the ones who twisted the truth. "For me, the coup d'état was from the left, which took advantage of the pain of the Spanish people after the attacks," says David Vila, 23, a student in Madrid. "It was a victory of fear." It will never be possible to untangle the twin motives of fear and anger that moved voters to oust the PP. But the combination drove out the government that had kept Spain in the Iraq alliance.