MADRID, Spain — Spanish voters have started going to the polls Sunday to elect a new government amid controversy over the timing of the election in the wake of Thursday’s terror attacks.
Polling booths opened at 0800 GMT (0300 ET) with candidates competing for seats in the nation’s lower and upper houses of parliament.
The first results are expected to come around 11 hours later, with a likely decision by 2230 GMT.
Political observers are predicting a victory for the ruling conservative Popular Party over the main opposition Socialist Party.
A recent poll gave the Popular Party a 4 percent lead over the Socialists.
But the government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has been accused of covering up the investigation of the terrorist attacks, particularly possible links to Islamic extremists.
The Spanish government was quick to sheet home blame for the attacks — which killed 200 people — on Basque separatists, but has been forced to revise this position and concede Islamic terrorist might have been involved.
The Basque separatist group ETA meanwhile has issued a statement denying any role in the Madrid train bombings that killed 200 people, the Basque newspaper Gara said on its Web site on Sunday.
A caller in the name of ETA previously had phoned Gara and Basque public television to deny any role in the attacks, Reuters reports.
Aznar — who is not standing for re-election as prime minister — was a strong supporter of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, a stance which some believe has made Spain a target for al Qaeda terrorism.
Aznar has chosen former Interior Minister Mariano Rajoy to succeed him.
Opinion polls show a majority of Spaniards did not support the decision to invade Iraq.
The Socialists have pledged to withdraw all 1,300 Spanish troops from Iraq should they win office on Sunday.
Nearly 35 million Spaniards are eligible to vote in the poll which will choose a government for the next four years.
Political campaigns typically are quiet the day before Spanish elections to allow for a day of reflection.
However, the bombings brought thousands of peace demonstrators to the streets.
Terrorism was a key issue for voters even before Thursday’s bombings.
Spanish authorities last month stopped a van carrying 500 kilograms of explosives on its way to Madrid and in December thwarted a similar attack involving multiple bombs that were to go off simultaneously on the commuter train system.
Political leaders in the Basque region in the north of Spain said they feared the attacks — and the association of ETA with them — would give the Popular Party further advantage and that a political backlash could follow the elections.
The private Spanish radio station, Cadena SER — which has connections to the opposition Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) — reported Saturday that sources in the Spanish intelligence agency said they were “99 percent sure” Thursday’s attacks were carried out by Islamic extremists who probably fled the country immediately afterward.
Spanish authorities arrested five people Saturday as part of the investigation into the bombings.
And a man appearing in a videotape claiming to be a military spokesman for al Qaeda in Europe says the terror group is behind Thursday’s 10 coordinated bombings. The tape has not been independently verified