Bildu recasts Basque idea of political separatism


PREVIEW:With Eta seemingly in decline, a new party is making big strides as Basques go to the polls

LAURA MINTEGI is no firebrand. With her short, greying hair and quiet manner, this petite 57-year-old appears wholly suited to the academic world, in which she has forged a career as a university lecturer, rather than the rough-and-tumble of politics.

And yet, in recent weeks, Mintegi has been the face of the most irresistible political phenomenon the Basque Country has seen for years. In this weekend’s Basque parliamentary election, she is the candidate for Bildu, a new coalition of pro-independence nationalists that had to battle to be deemed legal due to alleged links to terrorist group Eta.

“We don’t know if we’re going to win in terms of votes until the day of the election, but we’ve already won when it comes to getting the message across that politics can be done in a different way,” Mintegi told The Irish Times after touring a factory in Gipuzkoa, the province that is her coalition’s electoral stronghold.

Polls suggest Mintegi and Bildu will not win Sunday’s vote. The more mainstream Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) has a narrow lead over her coalition. But even if Bildu does come in second as expected, the result will confirm its remarkable rise.

Bildu, which means “gather” in the Basque tongue, was formed in only April 2011. Previous political incarnations of the izquierda abertzale, the Basque region’s pro-independence left, had been banned since 2002 for their supposed relations with Eta.

But within weeks of its formation, Spain’s constitutional court narrowly accepted Bildu’s argument that it was not the terrorist group’s political wing, allowing the coalition to run in last year’s municipal elections. It made substantial gains, most notably by winning the town hall of San Sebastián.

With Eta in apparently terminal decline in recent years, culminating in the announcement one year ago tomorrow that it had ended its campaign of violence, the conditions have been ripe for an overtly pro-independence Basque political movement like Bildu; the fellow nationalists of PNV, while consistently pushing for greater autonomy, have been rather more ambiguous about independence.

Mintegi insists that although her coalition does share objectives with Eta, the two have no direct links. Politics, she says, is the only way to secure Basque independence from Spain and France. “There are other independence processes going on elsewhere in Europe,” she says. “Proposing a process of independence for the Basque Country isn’t crazy.”

Eta hasn’t killed on Spanish soil since 2009. But despite Bildu’s shunning of violence and the fact these elections are taking place in an atmosphere of peace, there are those who aren’t celebrating.

Gorka Maneiro, the candidate for Unión Progreso y Democracia (UPyD), highlights Bildu’s refusal to condemn Eta’s past violence.

“Bildu is harvesting the fruits of the seeds sown by Eta,” he said. “They’re Eta’s political representatives. They could get a good result [in Sunday’s election] and that would be very bad news for Basques.”

UPyD has only one seat in the Basque parliament and, like Bildu, is a relatively new political presence. But its strident anti-nationalist tone is striking a chord with increasing numbers of voters. And its suspicious view of Bildu is shared to varying degrees by Spain’s two biggest political forces, the Socialists and the conservative Popular Party (PP), who have been governing the Basque region in an uneasy partnership since 2009.

One PP leader this week even warned that Basque nationalism was driving the region “to the edge of the abyss”. Such fears have been fuelled not just by the expected outcome of this election, but also by the recent eruption of pro-independence sentiment in nearby Catalonia. Yet despite the unavoidable issue of Basque sovereignty, the economy has also dominated the campaign.

The Basque region has weathered Spain’s economic crisis better than most, with a jobless rate of 15 per cent, compared to 25 per cent nationwide.

The Socialist Patxi López, who governs the region, says his administration has been “the most solvent in Spain”.

But Basques, like most others in Spain, are increasingly feeling the pain, meaning the power-sharing Socialists and PP will probably suffer losses. With expected winners the PNV unlikely to secure a majority, Sunday’s election will almost certainly be followed by intense negotiations over possible governing coalitions.

The result and the make-up of the government are hard to predict. What is clear is that the Basque political scene is delicately balanced and deeply divided after the tumult of recent months.