Basque coalition talks look difficult


The negotiations for the formation of the next Basque government, which will be expected to bring the fledgling peace process here to maturity, began as soon as the votes were counted late on Sunday night.

Yesterday, however, the discussions were still at the level of megaphone diplomacy, as each of the big parties set out their stalls at press conferences.

Yesterday morning, the leader of ETA's political wing, Mr Arnaldo Otegi, insisted that he would not lead his party into a government whose legitimacy he rejects, despite his good showing in Sunday's election. He would only support a minority nationalist government on an issue-by-issue basis.

This leaves the conservative Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) in a decidedly awkward position. The PNV emerged, as expected, as the biggest party in Sunday's elections, and the other parties have conceded that it is responsible for opening the negotiations. They have the satisfaction of knowing that the PNV faces unenviable choices.

"The Basque Country has once again shown itself to be essentially plural and diverse," the conservative Spanish Interior Minister, Mr Jaime Mayor Oreja, said yesterday. His worst enemies, of which he has plenty among his native Basque electorate, would have to agree with him. In a 75-seat parliament, four parties with drastically different policies all got 14 seats or more.

Out of these badly matched patches, the PNV, with 22 seats, has to sew together an alliance strong enough to govern a region which, until ETA's ceasefire last month, was on the verge of full-scale civil conflict.

Though the PNV was one of the main partners in the conversations which led to ETA's surprise decision, it has not benefited electorally from its efforts, having lost one seat on Sunday. The main beneficiaries were Mr Oreja's often stridently anti-nationalist Partido Popular, which took 16 seats, five more than in 1994.

The other winner on Sunday were the PP's polar opponents, ETA's political wing, formerly Herri Batasuna and now renamed Euskal Herritarrok. Their peace dividend was an extra three seats, rising to 14. The Socialist Party (PSOE) which largely shares the PP's hostility to Basque nationalism, but is the conservatives' main rival in Spain as a whole, also took 14 seats, an increase of two.

For the last three Basque legislatures, the PNV, Basque Solidarity (a small, slightly more radical nationalist party) and the Socialists have formed coalition governments, increasingly uncomfortably. The Socialists left the most recent coalition in acrimonious circumstances in June, accusing their partners of wanting to take Basque self-rule well beyond the limits set by the Spanish constitution. But it is precisely this willingness to move towards self-determination which has brought ETA's supporters in from the cold.

The PNV's dilemma is that a minority government supported on a conditional basis by Euskal Herritarrok would be inherently unstable. But the alternative is to invite one of the two parties hostile to the direction of the peace process to take cabinet seats.