One down, two to go.
The deciding issue in Spain's election was government deceit over war in Iraq and terrorism at home, especially the bomb blasts that rocked Madrid three days before the balloting. In a country (like ours) where major TV channels routinely echo government propaganda, grassroots activists defeated Aznar's Popular Party by reaching swing voters and young voters through mobile phones, the Internet and creative, nonviolent protests.
For weeks polls had showed Aznar's hand-picked successor comfortably ahead of Spain's uninspiring Socialist party, which had been voted out of office in 1996 amid corruption scandals. Then came Thursday's terror attacks, killing 200 Spaniards and injuring 1500.
The conservative government that had brought Spain into the Iraq war (despite overwhelming opposition) by echoing U.S./U.K. lies on WMDs immediately blamed the Madrid terror attacks on Basque separatists -- before there was any evidence, and continuing in the face of evidence pointing to Islamist terrorists. Antiwar Spaniards had long warned that aligning with the U.S./U.K would intensify the threat of foreign terror.
By election day, government manipulation had become the salient issue in the minds of millions of shell-shocked swing voters. But the seeds of doubt about Aznar's government had been planted by the antiwar movement. After all, intelligence on Iraq had been manipulated; now it seemed Spain was manipulating the truth about who had murdered hundreds of Spaniards. It leaked out that, within hours of the terror attacks, Spain's foreign minister had written ambassadors: "You should use any opportunity to confirm [Basque] ETA's responsibility."
In his vivid street-level account from Madrid in the hours before the election, writer Paul Laverty described a mass nonviolent revolt. One grandmother told Laverty that she had voted conservative the last time, "but I can't vote for these thugs again who led us into a war nobody wanted. They lied about the weapons in Iraq, and they're lying again today. How dare they manipulate the dead?"
With suspicions mounting that the government was holding back the truth about the terror attacks, and that mainstream TV couldn't be trusted, "thousands of mobiles were on the go flashing messages between friends" about independent news and spontaneous protests that became massive the night before the election. In cities across Spain, protesters gathered outside Popular Party headquarters, chanting: "We want the truth before we vote," "Our Dead, Your War," "Liars, Liars, Liars...Don't play with the Dead."
Then, at a time established through mobile messaging, came "cacerolada" protests -- banging of pots and pans -- from balconies and porches and spreading into town squares. After midnight, Madrid protesters marched to Atocha train station, near ground zero of the terror attacks, and the huge crowd went silent for a vigil and prayers and tears.
On election day, the New York Times quoted a Madrid voter as saying: "I never would have gone into the streets for a demonstration like yesterday except that I felt like they were not telling us everything."
Voter turnout was very high. Late-deciding voters (and many who hadn't expected to vote at all) swung hard against the government, and in support of the Socialists, who campaigned on a pledge to withdraw Spain's troops from Iraq.
AP quoted a Barcelona voter: "I wasn't planning to vote, but I am here today because the Popular Party is responsible for murders here and in Iraq." A law student told the BBC: "It's the first time I voted. I feel very happy because the government had to change...because of the Iraq war." As Prime Minister Aznar cast his ballot, protesters shouted: "Manipulator!"
After winning, Socialist Prime Minister-elect Zapatero called for "self-criticism" by Bush and Blair: "You can't bomb people just in case...You can't organize a war on the basis of lies."
There are lessons for Americans seeking regime change here at home:
* A winning issue is government deceit and manipulation; late deciders can be won over if the Bush administration's basic honesty is in question. With enough swing voters questioning Bush's honesty, even a late-breaking "October Surprise" could backfire against him. John Kerry was caught on mike accurately referring to the Bush team as "the most crooked, lying group I've ever seen" -- if only the Senator would add some principle and bite to his policy statements.
* Take the offensive against the administration for failing to defend our citizens on the homefront on Sept. 11 and in Iraq and beyond. Despite all the pundit blather, Bush has been a "security" failure. 9/11 victims' families need not be alone in expressing anger at a White House that politically manipulates 9/11 while taking no responsibility for its failure and stonewalling the investigation. Bush could continue to lose faith with veterans and their families for cluelessly sending U.S. soldiers and National Guard into Iraq unprotected -- as thousands return home badly wounded to inadequate health and veterans' services.
* Use creativity and all available means of communication to reach out to undecideds in swing states until the very last vote is cast. In the weeks before Nov. 2, disinformation about Kerry will be flowing furiously in mainstream media while accurate information about Bush will be blocked. We need to use everything from email and door-knocking to paid ads and rock concerts to reach folks who aren't getting the full story.
* Don't cast a risky vote this year for a 3rd party or independent presidential candidate. In our winner-take-all elections, only Kerry can retire the most dangerous and extremist regime in recent U.S. history. A cautious, mainstream Democrat like Kerry may be as uninspiring to some of us as the often-vacillating Socialists are to activists in Spain. But the demise of Madrid's conservative regime has electrified peace and progressive activists worldwide. Imagine the elation we'll feel if Bush is retired next November.
Jeff Cohen is a columnist, media critic and TV pundit.