MADRID — Two weeks after a bombing by the Basque separatist group ETA brought a fledgling peace process to an abrupt halt, the government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is confronting political strife as vicious as any seen in Spain's three decades of democracy.
Saturday, an estimated 200,000 Spaniards took to the streets to protest ETA's bombing of a multi-tiered parking lot at Madrid's Barajas airport, which killed two workers. But at this anti-ETA demonstration, unlike all others since Spain became a democracy in the 1970s, a major party refused to participate.
The center-right Popular Party denounced the protest as a government attempt to garner support for its strategy of negotiation with the group, sparking criticisms that parties are politicizing the fight against terrorism for their own benefit ahead of upcoming local and national elections.
"It's every Spaniard's civic duty to support the victims and show we're united against violence and terrorism," said Martín Moreno, a computer consultant marching Saturday with his 9-year-old daughter, Sara. "It seems that opposing the government is more important to the Popular Party than fighting ETA, and that's terrible, just terrible. With that attitude, we all lose."
When three hooded ETA members appeared on a videotape aired on Basque television in March to declare a "permanent" cease-fire, many Spaniards harbored cautious optimism that 40 years of separatist violence might finally end. ETA had not launched a fatal attack in over three years, and this, along with the government's own assessment of the group's intentions, led Mr. Zapatero to request and receive permission from Parliament to begin discussions. Although negotiations appeared to have stalled in recent months, the prime minister himself declared on Dec. 29 that within a year the ETA situation would be "better than where we are today."
The following day's bombing, ETA's most materially destructive yet, dashed those hopes.
"I wasn't surprised by the attack," says Professor María Sagrario Morán, author of several books on ETA. "Things were happening, like kale borroka [low-level street violence and vandalism] and the discovery of the weapons cache in France, that also preceded the rupture of [ETA's previous] 1998 cease-fire. You could tell that things weren't going well."
Nevertheless, not all believe the Barajas bombing was meant to demolish the peace process. "In the past, ETA has always given advance notice that it was breaking a truce," says Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca, an ETA expert at Madrid's Complutense University. "They didn't give warning that the cease-fire was over this time because they didn't think the bomb would kill anyone. So they didn't think of it as a rupture."
ETA did place several warning calls about the car bomb, and police attempted to evacuate the area before it exploded, but two Ecuadorean men sleeping in their cars failed to hear the announcements and were killed.
Batasuna, ETA's political wing, told the press that it had not expected the attack, leading many to wonder about a rift between ETA and Batasuna.
"I'm sure that there's disagreement between them," says Professor Sánchez-Cuenca. "Batasuna has nothing to gain by the attack. And in these kinds of processes, there are always hard-liners and moderates."
But both ETA and Batasuna seemed to agree that the peace process was still in effect. At a press conference on the day of the bombing, Batasuna spokesperson Arnaldo Otegi blamed the government for "not making a single gesture in nine months of truce," and insisted that the peace process remained intact. On Jan. 9, ETA claimed responsibility for the bombing and criticized the government for not upholding its end of the bargain, but insisted that "the permanent cease-fire ... is still in effect."
Within the Socialist Party, there was no such agreement. Zapatero's initial statement that the peace process was "suspended" contrasted sharply with Interior Minister Alfred Pérez Rubalcaba's declarations that it was definitively over, and that "ETA had lost all credibility."
No rift has been as bitter as that between the Socialist government and the Popular Party (PP). Although the PP lent grudging support to Zapatero's investigation into the seriousness of ETA's declared intentions to abandon violence, the party has since renewed its relentless attack on the government for negotiating with ETA.
The PP declined to participate in Saturday's march, says PP senator Ignacio Cosido, because, "It was clear to us that the intent of the demonstration was to support the government in its strategy to negotiate. "There is profound division in Spain over how to end ETA's terrorism," he adds. "Zapatero's plan is to negotiate. The PP's plan is to destroy terrorism." Minister of Labor Jesús Caldera blamed the PP for politicizing the event. "The PP has made a strategic decision to use its absence as a political weapon," he told press at the march. With local elections in May, and national ones in 2008, the stakes are high for Zapatero, who has planted his political fortunes squarely on achieving peace.
Eoin O'Broin, spokesman for Sinn Fein, says he saw something similar in the early stages of Northern Ireland's peace process. "Much of the present political difficulties arise from the fact that Zapatero's calculations in relation to the Basque question have been made on the basis of electorial concerns rather than on a strategy for peace. John Major made exactly the same mistake, with the consequence that the Irish process collapsed in 1996 and he subsaquently lost the elections in 1997." [Editor's note: The original version misquoted Mr. O'Broin.]
In a speech before parliament on Monday, Zapatero called for a unified antiterrorism policy and admitted that he had made a "clear mistake" in being too optimistic last month when he said that the peace process would be farther along in a year. Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy, however, was not satisfied with that position. He said Zapatero had lost all credibility, and demanded that the prime minister admit his mistake in negotiating with ETA.
At the march, Celeste Echegaray summed up the feeling of many participants. "This is a time to come together, not a time for political bickering," said the law student. "The parties have politicized the demonstration, but in the fight against terrorism, here in the street, people are united."