Australian election

Ask any Spaniard for his or her opinion on the forthcoming election in Australia, and the response is invariably two-fold. The first is an earnest disavowal of any desire to meddle in, or even offer an opinion on the preferred outcome of any election held overseas. Far from the apathy characterising so many democracies across the world, Spaniards consider democracy as something akin to a sacred duty, having only again become a democracy in 1975 after decades of dictatorship.

In Spain there are no tabloid newspapers, no Herald Sun, no Daily Mail and no New York Post to sensationalise the issues. Instead, the future direction of the nation is taken very seriously. Although voting in Spanish elections is a voluntary process, voter turn-out is high—76 per cent at the most recent national election in March. Having had no control over the political destiny of their country for almost 40 years, Spaniards exercise their democratic rights with a sense of responsibility. At the same time, they hold fast to the principle that the only people who have the right to determine political outcomes are the inhabitants of the country in question.
It was thus with considerable dismay that Spaniards emerged from the grief of the terrorist bombings on 11 March to learn that they had been charged with the crime of appeasement for voting out a government barely three days after 191 people were killed. When Alexander Downer blundered into the fray during July with his attack on Spain and other countries for withdrawing their troops from Iraq, his comments simply reinforced the idea among Spaniards that their votes had been cast wisely. Indeed the ruling Socialist Party has, since being elected, grown ever more popular, something not possible if the election result had been solely a knee-jerk reaction to profoundly unsettling, but temporary events.

The second Spanish response to news that Australia is having an election is a genuine concern that the Spanish election result—coming so soon as it did after the bombings—does not encourage terrorists to seek a similar outcome elsewhere. Far from being blissfully unaware of the implications of Spain’s vote for change, many Spaniards freely acknowledge that terrorists could take confidence from their apparent ‘success’ in Madrid. However, they resolutely refuse to accept that the election result constituted an act of appeasement, pointing out that the terrorist cause has been aided far more by the invasion of Iraq than by a democratically expressed desire to disengage from a war which 90 per cent of the Spanish population opposed.

That the Spanish government remains wholly unrepentant about its withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq was confirmed on 9 September when Prime Minister Zapatero called for other countries to do likewise, stating: ‘Nothing justifies terrorism, but there are responses to terrorism that reduce violence and other responses that multiply it’.

Among the people, Alejandro, a film producer in Madrid, summed up the prevailing mood in the following terms: ‘Of course we worry that terrorists will, during an election somewhere else, try and do what they did in Spain. We know what it’s like to suffer from terrorism and would not wish that on anyone. But I’m still convinced that we did the right thing. It was necessary’.

On another level, there are many similarities between the issues of concern to Spaniards and those which will play a role in the Australian election, indeed many parallels between Australian and Spanish society. There is a deep concern here about the independence of public broadcasters, an uneasiness about terrorism and the most effective way to fight it and a preoccupation with issues such as health and education that impact more immediately upon people’s lives. Spain, like Australia, rarely elects one-term governments, preferring each party, of whichever shade, to be given at least two periods in office to prove its worth. Indeed, since 1978, Spain has, like Australia, had just three governments, each serving at least eight years. One of the many pan-European jokes which regularly does the rounds claims that Italians elect governments to reflect the feeling of the moment, the French demand change and then vote out any government which tries to effect it, while the Spaniards elect a government and then require damned good reasons to kick them out.
Spaniards, also like Australians, view patriotism with suspicion other than in a sporting context. Apart from adorning government buildings and sighted at football matches, Spanish flags are rarely displayed and most people associate more with their local barrio than they do with any jingoistic sense of national identity.

Perversely this sentiment was tested by none other than Australia, when the wrong Spanish national anthem was played—a 1930s-era anthem that had survived just a handful of years—at the 2003 Davis Cup Final in Melbourne. At first, I considered the uproar in Spain over the error to be quaint and chided my Spanish friends for their preciousness. That was until they pointed out that it was the equivalent of playing ‘God Save the Queen’ to honour Australia.

And so Spaniards will watch the Australian election with interest and a sense of common feeling, even from afar. Events such as the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta are met with great sadness but no Spaniard will accept for a moment that he or she is somehow responsible. Beyond that,  most will consider the election to be none of their business, something which, it seems, we have yet to learn.



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