SOCIALISTS WIN GENERAL ELECTIONS

SPAIN'S opposition Socialists, fresh from a sensational election victory, vowed this morning to make good on a campaign promise to pull troops out of Iraq. In a setback to U.S. President George W. Bush's efforts to maintain international support for his Iraq campaign, Spain's prime minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero repeated his determination to get Spain's 1'300 troops home. Zapatero's election upset was sparked by anger over the Popular Party (PP) government's handling of a suspected al Qaeda attack on Madrid commuter trains that killed 200 people last Thursday. The Socialist leader, a centre-left moderate who had criticised outgoing premier Jose Maria Aznar's unswerving support for U.S. foreign policy and the war in Iraq, called the Iraqi war a disaster. He told a Spanish radio station no decision on troops in the U.S.-led force in Iraq would be taken until he was in power and without wide political consultation. "But the Spanish troops in Iraq will come home," he added in his first post-election interview with Cadena SER radio. "The war has been a disaster, the occupation continues to be a disaster, it has only generated violence," Zapatero said. El Mundo newspaper slammed the outgoing government for entering the Iraq conflict and playing down evidence of al Qaeda's role in Thursday's bombings. "Spain punishes the PP and places its confidence in Zapatero," the paper said on yesterday's front page. It was the first time in Spain's modern democratic history a party had lost power after holding an absolute majority. The Socialists' surprise win sparked wild rejoicing among their supporters after eight years out of power. "It's like a dream...Now things are going to change, and change for the better in every sense," said Carlos del Puerto, a 24-year-old mechanic, during the Sunday night celebrations. With almost all votes counted, the Socialists had won 42.6 percent of the vote to the PP's 37.6 percent as voters turned out in large numbers to reaffirm their faith in democracy amid the upheaval over the bombings, which also wounded 1'500 people. With 164 seats in the lower house of parliament, 12 short of those needed for an absolute majority, the Socialists will need to negotiate alliances with smaller regional parties or left-wing allies in order to govern. But the PP will remain by far the largest single party in the upper house or Senate, potentially making it difficult for a Socialist government to pass legislation. On the streets of Madrid, the mood was cautious as Spain woke up to the prospect of a change of government. "The PP lost simply because of what it has done in Iraq, otherwise it would have won," said Jose Pais, 63, a shoemaker."Let's wait and see if this is good for Spain." Spain's stock market opened down more than two percent as investors fretted over the evidence of al Qaeda's involvement in the bombing and uncertainties about Zapatero's economic agenda. But in a reassuring sign to investors in Spain, Zapatero lined up a well-known free-marketeer as his chief economic advisor. Miguel Sebastian, who was until recently head of research at Spain's second largest bank, was expected to take charge of Europe's fifth largest economy. Zapatero pledged his immediate priority would be «fighting terrorism». Hours before polling began on Sunday, the government revealed it had a videotape, purportedly from Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda, saying it carried out the attacks in retaliation for Spain's support for the U.S.-led war on Iraq. Many Spaniards thought the government was not being open about the probe into the attacks while initially blaming the armed Basque separatist group ETA, which denied involvement. Three Moroccans and two Indians were arrested on Saturday in connection with the attack.

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