On March 11, 2004, al-Qaida-inspired bombers killed nearly 200 Madrid commuters on rush hour trains. It was Europe’s worst act of Islamist terrorism and it came just three days before an election that Spain’s conservatives were expected to win.
The government quickly blamed the attack on Basque separatists, but hours later, it became clear that it was Islamist militants.
“It got people mad about the government,” says political scientist José Ignacio Wert.
Wert says Spaniards thought the government was covering up the Islamist link in order to keep the public from thinking the bombings were retaliation for Spain’s involvement in the Iraq war — which was already deeply unpopular. Millions of Spaniards took to the streets, outraged.
“The anger was provoked by the discovery that they had been cheated, with so many corpses around,” Wert says.
The conservatives’ 10-point lead evaporated in three days, and the underdog Socialist candidate, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, became prime minister. His first official duty was to attend funerals of those that died.
A New Era
Zapatero rallied Spaniards at a time of tragedy, and then he rallied them around his political agenda: Within a month he pulled troops out of Iraq, Parliament legalized gay marriage and liberalized abortion laws. He struck peace with Basque guerrillas and as the years wore on, he presided over a construction boom that gave Spaniards their biggest-ever jump in quality of life.
José Manuel Calvo, from El País newspaper, says people started doing things they simply couldn’t afford before like change cars every few years, sending kids to the U.S. and going on a multiple vacations.
“This society, that had been going on in France, in Germany, in the United Kingdom — at last was in Spain,” Calvo says.
But after all that, Zapatero will be remembered for “disaster” says businessman Rony Nissim. He says he’s happy with the Socialists’ progressive stance on lifestyle, but that it is all been overshadowed now.
“To many people, gay marriage, there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s secondary to the economy,” Nissim says. “I think Zapatero is to blame. We’ve seen other countries go through the same crisis, but not in the way Spain does.”
When that crisis hit, Spain’s credit and real estate bubbles burst, and the country was left with Europe’s highest unemployment rate — more than 21 percent. That hurt Prime Minister Zapatero, who leaves office this week with the lowest approval rating of any Spanish leader since the late 1970s.
Taking over as prime minister is Mariano Rajoy, the man Zapatero defeated after the train bombings. Rajoy is a graying bureaucrat who’s jumping in to fix the economy, and there’s a sense here that Spain’s era of youthful optimism is over.
“We are now waking up from this wonderful dream, and we wanted more,” says José Manuel Calvo. “You thought it was forever — because it’s so sweet, prosperity.”