Spain's Basque region to hold elections in October


THE BASQUE government has announced that the region will hold early elections in October, the first such vote since terrorist group Eta declared the end of its campaign of violence nearly a year ago.

The elections will be held four months earlier than scheduled, due to the conservative Partido Popular’s withdrawal from a governing alliance with the Socialist Party in the spring following a dispute over spending policy.

“We have done what we promised. We have ended terrorism; we have brought normality back to the Basque Country,” Patxi Lopez, the Socialist who has been premier of the northern region since 2009, said yesterday on announcing the election date.

“Just seeing everyone walking freely through the streets, being able to express themselves freely, this alone has made the Socialist government in the Basque Country worthwhile.” The date of the election, October 21st, is seen as no coincidence. The eve of the vote, the so-called “day of reflection”, will mark exactly one year since Eta announced it would no longer use violence in its bid for an independent Basque state.

Prior to that, Eta had already made a series of lukewarm ceasefire announcements and it has not carried out any fatal attacks in Spain since 2009.

Mr Lopez also highlighted the Basque economy’s relative success in riding the ongoing recession. The region has the lowest jobless rate in Spain at just under 15 per cent, compared to nearly 25 per cent nationwide.

However, tensions related to Basque sovereignty remain despite Eta’s low profile.

A convicted Eta kidnapper, Iosu Uribetxeberria, is on hunger strike as he waits to discover whether the High Court will release him from prison on humanitarian grounds because he has cancer. Other Eta prisoners have joined the hunger strike and the case has prompted nationalists to take to the streets to demand his release.

The October election will also mark the first time that a new pro-independence coalition seen as close to Eta will field candidates in a regional vote. These radical nationalists are expected to compete with the more moderate Basque Nationalist Party for control of the region’s parliament, thus unseating the Socialists.

Analysts believe such a result could see renewed political strife between the Basque Country and Madrid as nationalists seek increased autonomy from the conservative central government.

An echo of that tension has been apparent this week, with bullfighting at the heart of a new controversy. The mayor of San Sebastian, Juan Karlos Izagirre, on Monday said he would not renew a contract allowing bullfights to be held in the Basque city.

Mr Izagirre, a radical nationalist, cited animal rights as his justification, although critics claim this is a political move aimed at distancing San Sebastian from the Spanish state, given that bullfighting is a traditional national pastime.

Antonio Basagoiti of the Partido Popular contrasted the reluctance of Mr Izagirre and his colleagues to condemn Eta killings in the past with the mayor’s current defence of animal rights.