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Voters punish Aznar on Iraq

By CNN Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman

Aznar insisted the elections were solely about local issues.
Aznar insisted the elections were solely about local issues.

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MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- Voters in Sunday's local elections in Spain appear to have taken the opportunity to punish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar for his support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Although Aznar's allies and his wife claimed victory in municipal races in the capital, Madrid, on the national level the opposition Socialist Party were leading Aznar's ruling Popular Party.

With more than 97 percent of the vote counted, the Socialists had 35 percent to 34 percent for the Popular Party.

The local elections were widely seen as a referendum on Aznar and his conservative government.

At stake were 68,000 offices, mainly mayoral posts and town council seats.

Though Aznar insisted the elections were solely about local issues, such as crime and housing, the campaign focused largely on the prime minister, who appeared at dozens of campaign rallies to defend his stance on the war.

Opinion polls had shown that up to 90 percent of Spaniards opposed the war, and Sunday's elections were their first chance to voice their opinions in voting booths.

The government said some 68 percent of Spanish adults voted, four percentage points more than turned out for 1999's local elections.

A coalition of Socialists and Communists appeared to emerge victorious in regional government elections around Madrid, and exit polls indicated that leftist parties could take control of the government in the northern city of Zaragoza.

But in the capital, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon -- Aznar's candidate for mayor of Madrid -- declared victory after returns reversed an early lead for the leftist coalition.

Aznar's wife, Ana Botella, was expected to win a seat on the Madrid council and was likely to run the city's social services department.

Many Spaniards see her run as a local version of Hillary Clinton's 2000 debut in politics that led to her winning a U.S. Senate seat from New York.

Aznar, 50, was not on Sunday's ballots, and he had announced long before the war that he would not run for a third term in next year's general elections.

Opposition boost

Many analysts said the results of the local elections for all of Spain's 8,000 town halls and for 13 of its total 17 powerful regional governments could show whether the Socialist Party has rebounded after seven years in the opposition to Aznar.

Other than the war, the focal point of the elections was the unprecedented ban on the leftist, pro-independence Batasuna party, linked to the outlawed Basque separatist group ETA that is blamed for more than 800 killings since 1968.

The ban means that dozens of mayors and hundreds of town councilors from Batasuna cannot be re-elected in Basque towns.

Batasuna got 200,000 votes, nearly 20 percent, in the last local elections, and a key question was which party would receive those votes this time, and whether that might improve the prospects for peace in the troubled Basque region, home to about 2 million of Spain's total 40 million population.

The moderate Basque Nationalist Party, which favors independence but disavows ETA's violence, made overtures during the campaign to the more radical Batasuna voters, offering to represent their interests.

But one Batasuna leader, Arnaldo Ortegi, Sunday rejected such a move, holding up to television cameras a bogus ballot bearing the names of the banned party candidates.

His ballot did not count officially, but some Batasuna leaders -- as well as three masked ETA spokespersons in a controversial video released during the campaign -- called for Batasuna supporters to defy the courts and cast their ballots anyway for the banned party candidates.

Aznar's party currently runs seven of the 13 regional governments up for grabs; the Socialists run five of them. The 13th is in the hands of the regional Canary Islands party and is not expected to change.

Local issues have been important in some regions.

In northern and eastern Spain, the issue of water rights has been a key topic. In northwestern Spain, many voters are still angry about the huge oil spill off the coast last November.

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