Terrorist tactics cannot triumph
March 12 2004
The Financial Times

The bloody massacre of at least 190 innocent railway passengers caused by the terrorist bombs in Madrid yesterday is a terrible reminder of man's insanity to man. No political cause, however desperate, can justify such actions. The only possible purpose must have been to create the maximum public panic and confusion just three days before Spain's general election. The most effective answer to such brutality is therefore calm determination.

It is clearly right that the Spanish poll should go ahead on Sunday in spite of national mourning. All political parties in the country will support the decision to suspend campaigning in the interim. Spain is now a mature democracy, and reinforcing that system remains the best possible defence against terrorism.

If Eta, the Basque separatist movement, proves to have been the organisation behind the atrocities, it will simply confirm that it has long ceased to be anything more than a gang of murderous thugs. Indeed, thanks to closer co-operation between the Spanish and French police, the threat from Eta has been greatly reduced. The Madrid bombings may yet prove to be a desperate attempt by a dying movement to get back into the headlines.

The bombings are very unlikely to change the political outcome of the election. The ruling Popular party, led hitherto by José María Aznar, seemed set to win the poll, although possibly without an absolute majority. If anything, the terrorist attacks are likely to bolster support for the government and Mr Aznar's successor, Mariano Rajoy. Mr Aznar has been a fierce defender of Spanish unity and an opponent of further devolution. The PP is perceived to be tougher on terrorism than the rival Socialist party.

Mr Aznar's government is also likely to be rewarded for Spain's successful economic performance over the past eight years. Unemployment has been substantially reduced with some 4m new jobs created; gross domestic product is up 30 per cent and the budget deficit is under firm control.

He can, however, be criticised for his inflexible attitude towards Spain's self-governing regions, including both the Basque and Catalan autonomous territories. Mr Aznar has refused to countenance demands for more autonomy from the 17 regional authorities. In so doing he has alienated moderate Basque nationalists who are fierce opponents of the violent tactics of Eta. His government's success in countering terrorism with police tactics has been at least partially undermined by its failure to win more political support from those most affected.

The most ghastly terrorist atrocity does not alter the fact that countering terrorism requires both ruthless pursuit of the perpetrators and political action to remove their popular support. Finding the right balance will be the challenge for Mr Rajoy. But Eta, if proved responsible for the massacre, will have forfeited any right to a seat at the table.