Spanish parliament approves law to ban political wing of ETA


SPAIN: The lower house of the Spanish parliament last night approved a controversial law which is likely to result in the banning of a Basque political party.

More than 90 per cent of deputies voted in favour of the measure, which updates regulations for registering political parties for elections, but devotes many of its clauses to the thorny question of dissolving parties which already exist. It is clearly aimed at Batasuna (formerly Herri Batasuna), a party which supports Basque independence, and is widely regarded as the political wing of the terrorist group ETA. The Senate has still to vote on the law but its approval is a formality, since both the governing Partido Popular and the Socialist Party opposition support it.

The law will ban any party whose members are shown to repeatedly support a terrorist group through words or actions. Many Batasuna members have been convicted of terrorist offences, and slogans supporting ETA are common at their meetings and demonstrations. The government accuses Batasuna councillors of funnelling public funds to ETA.

The Spanish Prime Minister, Mr José María Aznar, has made the bill a personal crusade, and reacted with blunt hostility to its critics. Last week the Catholic bishops in three Basque provinces issued a pastoral in which they strongly condemned ETA, but also expressed fears that the law would only sharpen social division and confrontation in the already deeply polarised Basque Country. The Spanish government protested to the Vatican, and on Monday Mr Aznar accused the bishops of "perverse logic".

A Basque PP leader, Mr Carlos Iturgaiz, said the pastoral showed that the "Lord of the Basque bishops is not God, but Xabier Arzalluz." Mr Arzalluz is the leader of the Basque Nationalist Party, the biggest political force in the region, which rejects violence but has shifted towards supporting ETA's aim of independence in recent years.

Mr Javier Arenas, who concluded yesterday's debate for the government, denied the law was criminalising ideas.

He was supported by the Socialists' Mr Diego López Garrido, who described it as a project to improve the quality of Basque life, "which has degenerated to the point of crisis through the use of violence for political ends."

However, the small minority opposed to the bill in the Spanish parliament made a strong case against it. "This is putting out the fire with petrol," warned one Catalan Left Republican. Several speakers said that laws already existed to charge members of Batasuna directly involved with ETA, and accused the PP of using the law as a vote-catching rhetorical exercise.

"Democracy is well established here, and has sufficient powers in itself to outvote totalitarian parties without recourse to banning them," said a leading Basque nationalist. Several speakers supported the bishops' claim that the law would sharpen divisions in the region rather than resolve them.

"Deeper divisions?" responded Mr Arenas. "Could there really be deeper divisions than now exist?"