MADRID, Spain – The brazen murder of a Basque politician two days before elections threw Spanish politics into turmoil Friday, conjuring painful memories of the last national ballot – when a bombing onslaught by Islamic radicals killed 191 people on Madrid trains.
The Basque separatist group ETA was believed behind the assassination, which brought an early halt to campaigning for Sunday’s parliamentary elections and left politicians from both main parties scrambling to show solidarity.
After the bombings in 2004, voters threw out a conservative government. It’s unclear whether Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero will be punished this time. At the least, the death of former city councilman Isaias Carrasco is a setback for the Socialist leader, who has vainly tried to reach peace with ETA.
The killing occurred about 1:30 p.m. in the Basque town of Arrasate, as Carrasco left the home he shared with his wife and children. Witnesses said a gunman wearing a false beard fired five shots, then sped away in a gray car as Carrasco’s wife and daughter screamed.
There was no claim of responsibility, but the government was quick to blame ETA, which set off a series of small bombs ahead of the vote and killed two Spanish policemen just across the border in France on Dec. 1.
A grim-faced Zapatero cut short a campaign swing through the southern city of Malaga and rushed back to the capital, vowing to use every means at his disposal to hunt down the killers.
“We knew that ETA could still cause irreparable damage and pain to Spaniards,” he said in a televised address. “Today they have added another victim to their long and ignominious list.”
Zapatero’s main rival, Mariano Rajoy of the conservative Popular Party, issued a call for unity, saying politics must be put aside in the fight against terrorism. But he also took a swipe at the government’s effort to negotiate with ETA, saying the only way to deal with the group is through force.
Before the killing, three opinion polls gave Zapatero a slight lead. With campaigning over and a ban on further surveys before the ballot, it will be impossible to determine the effect of the violence on voters until they go to the polls Sunday.
Ramon Cotarelo, a professor of political science at Madrid’s Complutense University, said the fact that the victim was from Zapatero’s Socialist party might spark sympathy for the prime minister.
“But it could go the other way,” he added. “People might say: ‘Iron fist. The Socialists are no good. Look, they negotiate and it does no good. You have to vote for the right.’ “
In an urgently called meeting of parliament, the Socialists and conservatives briefly put aside their years-long argument over how to deal with ETA and joined with other parties, labor unions and business federations in condemning the killing and vowing to fight the separatists.