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Aznar, investigation commissions and democracy

It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err” (Mahatma Gandhi)

Spain’s ex-president managed to turn yesterday’s 11-hour long testimony before the parliamentary commission investigating 11-March bombings into a personal victory as he brushed off all criticism, denied that he had ever tried to mislead public opinion into believing that the terrorist group ETA was behind the Madrid bombing for electoral reasons, and accused the opposition and a “sector” of the Spanish media of having used the terrorist attacks to gain an electoral advantage themselves and to “intoxicate” public opinion against him. He even insinuated that he still did not believe that the intellectual leaders behind the attacks to be Islamic terrorists and he said that the bombing was intended to affect the outcome of the elections. In particular he made direct references to the Cadena Ser – the first radio channel to question the government’s insistence that ETA had planted the bombs – accusing its reporters of lying to the Spanish public in an attempt to discredit the Popular Party (today the Cadena Ser publishes a detailed answer to Aznar’s accusations.

It was always doubtful that Aznar’s appearance before the parliamentary commission would throw any new light onto the lead-up to or aftermath of the terrorist attacks. And it was always likely that Aznar would be totally unrepentant of any decisions he made while in office. The former Spanish president has never been known for his ability to admit mistakes or to give any credit at all to arguments which disagree with his ideology and his theories of power and government.

It was precisely this attitude of superiority, dogmatism and arrogance which isolated such a large percentage of Spanish public opinion during the Prestige crisis, the Yak plane crash and the participation of Spanish troops in the invasion of Iraq.

All three major events were handled badly by the PP government, but neither president nor ministers ever accepted any criticism. Nor did they explain, and much less apologise for, serious mistakes made during their management of all three crises. Their complete disregard for opinions which challenged their policies, and their failure to acknowledge difficulties and try to reconcile their decisions with the opposition through parliamentary debates was bound to make them vulnerable sooner or later to the wave of mistrust which swept across Spain after the March terrorist attacks. In the same way as their contempt for the demands of regional parties for greater autonomy powers ultimately strengthened the position and the electoral performance of the main Basque and Catalan separatist parties in both regional and national elections.

A democratic state is not designed in the long term for leaders whose loss of respect for the people they serve drives them to dictate policies under the complete conviction that they are totally right and that all who disagree are completely wrong, either to the point of being ridiculous (and unfit to govern) or a traitor to their country. Leaders of established democracies like the US and the UK understand this, as the appearances of Bush and Blair before their respective parliaments illustrated. However unpopular the invasion of Iraq was with some sections of public opinion (and his own party in the case of Blair), nobody could accuse them of not listening to their critics, taking them seriously enough to argue their case, explain their reasons and put their decision to go to war to long parliamentary debates and parliamentary approval.

Leaders of new democracies tend not to grasp the importance of debate and reason. Felipe Gonzalez didn’t understand it when the GAL and corruption within his government was uncovered. Aznar has never understood it either. When Rodriguez Zapatero became president it looked like at last Spain had a leader who understood the need to dialogue and to seek consensus before pushing through policies. Unfortunately his government has made so many blunders lately at home and abroad that he is rapidly losing the credibility required to lead meaningful debates on important issues. If his government does manage to find its feet at all, a new style of presidency would certainly be welcomed by many Spaniards.

No country can be completely protected against the evil of modern terrorism, but in the event of a strike such as the one which hit Madrid last March, government, security forces and society are obliged to launch a thorough investigation afterwards, if only to find out what – if anything – went wrong and what measures should be taken to prevent a similar tragedy from ever happening again. For an investigation to draw useful conclusions, members who participate must tell the truth and yes, even question their own actions. Humility is not a sign of weakness. Just as arrogance is not a sign of strength or wisdom. If witnesses called before the commission see their testimony as a chance to justify their actions, or use their appearance as a platform from which to attack their political opponents, then the investigation loses all sense of being. This commission has been used as a political football by Spain’s main political parties ever since it was created.

After Aznar’s extraordinary performance yesterday, and with José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero scheduled to declare later this month, one wonders if the final conclusions reached by this investigation commission will have any credibility at all.

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