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Monday 15th March 2004

Spain's surprise election result

Spain's centre-right Popular Party has suffered a surprise election defeat. Now, there's a question whether the result was swayed by last week's rail bombings in Madrid.

The Socialist Party, led by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, won 42% of the vote, while the ruling Popular Party polled 38%, according to official results.

Despite their election win, the Socialists have failed to gain an absolute majority, and now face the task of forming a coalition in order to take power. Mr Zapatero said in his victory speech that his immediate priority will be to fight all forms of terrorism.

The late swing in favour of the Socialists raises the possibility that Spanish voters wanted to punish the government for its response to last week's devastating bomb attacks in Madrid which killed 200 people and wounded 1,500.

Jose Maria Aznar's Popular Party government has faced criticism for immediately insisting that the Basque separatist movement ETA was the prime suspect for the attacks.

As more potential links between the bombings and Islamic extremists emerge, there's also a question whether some of the electorate felt Spain's support for the US-led invasion of Iraq, despite heavy public opposition to the action, made the country a target for Al-Qaeda sympathisers. And did the bombers time the atrocity in an attempt to affect the result of the election?

The focus of investigations into the bomings shifted after a video tape featuring a claim of responsibility by a man identifying himself as al-Qaeda's military spokesman in Europe was found on Saturday following an anonymous tip-off to a Madrid television station.

In the video, a man speaking Arabic with a Moroccan accent says the attacks were revenge for Spain's "collaboration with the criminals Bush and his allies".

Three Moroccans and two Indians are being held in connection with the attacks.

The 77% turnout in the Spanish election was larger than expected. Analysts said people had voted in bigger numbers than predicted in order to defy the bombers.

Mariano Rajoy, who is taking over the job of leading the Popular Party from Mr Aznar, congratulated the Socialists on their victory and pledged to give the new Prime Minister his support. "We will have the interests of Spain at heart," he said.

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