Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

World press: After the rain

ETA's announcement of a permanent ceasefire sparked debate in Spain's political and media circles, writes Serene Assir

Basque Separatist group ETA's unprecedented announcement of a permanent cease-fire in Spain this week rendered the media a default actor in the national political forum. Its perceived role became not only to keep the public informed but also involved and in general agreement with the fast-paced formulation of new policies and rhetoric on developments vis-à-vis the group that was once Madrid's nemesis. So much so, indeed, that an interesting dynamic emerged among Spain's leading broadsheets -- so often guilty of portraying verbatim the demands of the head of the party they lean to, this time they were keen to observe the reactions of opposing party heads just as closely and to represent them as fully. There was little of the generally consistent bantering even the more serious papers exercise, particularly on their editorial pages, and surprising attempts at more balanced debates, apparently seeking, for once, to weigh up the situation in as level-headed and constructive a way as possible.

Of course, the papers didn't really have much of a choice but to finally jump on a more conciliatory wave that only seemed ludicrous to a sizeable proportion of a population whose hatred for Basque separatist group ETA has become second nature to them. The sheer psychological weight of self-proclaimed anti- terrorist lobbies and groups -- particularly those composed by families of bombing victims -- meant that, until the group pronounced its cease-fire, there was little sympathy for centre-left President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's attempts at dialogue over recent months with ETA. So much so, in fact, that he was derided in the centre-right and rightist press for such an attempt -- one which to them seemed to amount to little more than the two greater evils, terror and the left, conspiring together against the Spaniards' long-term interests.

Now, however, articles such as "A Rational Spain" by Benigno Pendas in the rightist ABC daily discreetly laud the achievement of a permanent cease-fire, and call for respect for the government's manoeuvres based on principles of the rule of law. "When national interests are at stake, personal ambitions, the desire to settle accounts, the discharge of overwhelmed consciences and listeners' and readers' agendas are of no concern," he writes, making a particularly pointed statement to the national press. For him, the fact that the cease-fire came under Zapatero's rule is little more than an accident of fate, and it remains the case that the right-wing Popular Party, led by Mariano Rajoy, must respond to the demands of the bereaved. However, he calls for a respect of the rule of law and for the opportunity that the event unleashed, one that must be taken regardless of political affiliation. "Decent people want to see the end of ETA," he adds. "Many people, far more than it may seem, call for moderation and common sense. They are neither cold nor cowardly. They are citizens who are moved by their convictions. And by decorum. And above all -- let it be clear -- by their patriotism."

And as the first arrests were announced following the cease- fire proclamation, party heads Zapatero and Rajoy were thrown into the somewhat uncomfortable position of having to come to a consensus on anti-terror tactics despite significant differences in their rhetoric, particularly on this issue. As Rajoy prepared to meet with the president Tuesday, he was cited by El Pais as saying that he intended to show "a constructive yet circumspective spirit". He was reported as saying that he was not satisfied with Zapatero's planned text for a new anti-terror pact. The reaction belied an undercurrent among some rightist circles that tends towards distrusting Zapatero's intentions, and is not willing to believe that the agreed cease-fire that ETA announced is anything more than a tactical move accepted by the ruling PSOE party for tactical reasons of its own.

But other papers portrayed the two figures as having achieved a sort of harmony they have simply not entertained before -- with anti-terror strategies on the top of both their agendas. Perhaps the so-called "peace process" with ETA -- by now a moribund group living on little more than a once bloody history and a terrible reputation -- has provided Spanish politics with the bridge the two main parties needed to enter into some kind of agreement over public policy. A report by Spanish news agency EFE signals that Rajoy and Zapatero are "prepared to work together" on this issue, in a rare show of "introspection" and, perhaps, maturity. Then again, given that ETA has been high on the Spanish collective political imagination's agenda for almost three decades now, it seems that it is high time that some dialogue, a little irreverence and less moralism take over.

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