Conservative allies could sink new Basque socialist leader


The first Socialist Party premier of the disputed region must plot a very careful course, writes PADDY WOODWORTH

PERHAPS HOPING to pump some colour into his image as a bland bureaucrat, Patxi López (39) has let it be known that his morning alarm clock is programmed with Bob Dylan’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door.

But he found himself in a less than blissful position yesterday, when he became the first-ever Socialist Party premier, or lehendakari, of Spain’s Basque Autonomous Region. This is not only because he, and his ministers, will take office in the shadow of death threats from Eta, the greatly weakened but still lethal pro-independence terrorist group. That is the grim price long paid by those courageous enough to take a high-profile anti-Eta stance, especially if they also reject Basque nationalism in general.

López’s additional discomforts derive from his insecure mandate. His majority in the Basque parliament depends entirely on a Faustian bargain with the conservative Partido Popular (PP) – a deal he repeatedly said he would never do while campaigning for election in March.

In Madrid, the PP is locked in bitter ideological warfare with the Socialist Party’s national leader, Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. In the Basque Country, the Socialists and the PP are united only in the face of Eta’s threats, and by their mutual distaste for Basque nationalism, which has dominated the regional parliament for three decades. And even on these issues they differ quite sharply. The PP vehemently opposed the Socialist Party’s dialogue with Eta during the 2006-2007 ceasefire.

And López’s party has traditionally shown some sensitivity to Basque cultural identity, especially towards the revival of the Basques’ unique language, Euskera, while the Basque PP generally expresses unalloyed Spanish nationalism.

Meanwhile, López finds the whole gamut of Basque nationalism and radicalism ranged against him, from the relatively moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) to parties associated with Eta.

The PNV has presided over all eight Basque governments since Madrid conceded extensive self-government to three Basque provinces in 1980. And it did very well in the March elections, winning five more seats than López’s Socialists. The outgoing lehendakari, Juan José Ibarretxe, surrendered power with bad grace yesterday. López’s government, he said, “does not represent the majority of Basque society”.

This is a serious accusation, but it reflects a disturbing reality. López will govern with a parliamentary majority but on the basis of a “sociological minority”, as even local conservatives have recognised. Only the banning of parties broadly aligned with Eta has made his victory possible, as 100,000 spoiled votes by so-called “left patriots” make it clear.

The Socialist-PP pact, Ibarretxe continued, “represents a serious attempt to destroy Basque identity”. This is a travesty of López’s intentions. His own speech yesterday was laced with promises to build on the substantial legacy of the PNV, not to tear it apart. However, his pact with the PP makes this aspiration devilishly problematic. The pact’s published terms are generally bland generalities. But the conservatives certainly read them as an agreement to undermine Basque nationalist identity.

This can be expressed in something as apparently trivial as the weather maps on Basque TV. The PNV authorised maps showing Navarre, historically Basque but now with a Spanish nationalist majority, as part of the region. But for the PP, and a sector of the Socialist Party, Navarre is now exclusively Spanish, and must be removed from the maps.

López must be aware that antagonising moderate Basque nationalists on issues like this could lead to a new radicalisation of the region. It might even rescue Eta from the grave this increasingly unpopular group has been digging for itself recently. But if he fails to keep his PP allies happy by Basque nationalist bashing, they will happily pull the plug on him. Damned, then, if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.

Finally, the PNV leaves office with a set of socio-economic statistics that any European government would envy at the moment, and Zapatero would surely die for. Nevertheless, the global crisis must bite soon in the Basque Country. López may get the blame for that as well, however unfairly.

On several counts, then, he is likely to find himself closer to purgatory than heaven.

Paddy Woodworth is author of The Basque Country(Oxford 2008)