Tension surrounds Basque election


The final meetings and rallies of the Basque regional elections took place yesterday across the Basque Country before campaigning ended at midnight. The deadline gives voters a day of reflection before they cast their votes.

When the polling stations open tomorrow morning the electorate will face a frightening dilemma. They are confronting the possibility of voting out of office a nationalist party which has governed the region for more than 20 years, and possibly replacing it with one or two Madrid-based parties, a scenario which could provoke even more violence and turmoil.

The Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which came to power in the first regional election in 1980, has presided over a boom in the economy, low unemployment and record foreign investments, the envy of many other regions in Europe. But it has seen an escalation in terrorist violence which threatens its very future and could even catapult the Basques into a state of civil conflict.

PNV has never enjoyed an absolute majority in the 75-seat parliament in Vitoria, and has depended on support from other parties. Until three years ago its partner in government was the Basque Socialist Party (PSE), which gave a balance between Basque nationalists and non-nationalists.

But this coalition collapsed, and after the 1998 elections PNV was forced into an alliance with an uncomfortable bedfellow in the form of Euskal Herritarrok (EH), ETA's political wing.

This pact broke down at the end of last year, leaving PNV forming a minority government before parliament was dissolved.

Opinion polls published this week show that PNV-EA could win 29 seats. It had 21 in the outgoing parliament, and its election partner EA, which stood alone in 1998, had six.

The Spanish ruling Partido Popular (PP) hopes for a dramatic jump from 16 seats to around 22, with the PSE retaining its current 14.

ETA's terror tactics and its decision to break off a 14month ceasefire last year could rebound against the movement. EH is expected to lose much of its support and fall from 14 to only eight seats.

While Mr Juan Jose Ibarretxe, the outgoing Lehendakari or president, claims he would not consider relying on EH support again in parliament, EH's eight seats could well prove a valuable bargaining point.

ETA has committed 30 murders since ending its ceasefire, most recently a PP politician in the Aragon region only a week ago, and the nightly episodes of street violence have terrorised the population at large.

Over 12 people were injured late last night in a suspected Basque car-bomb attack in Madrid.

The explosion happened on the corner of two busy avenues, shortly after fire services received a telephone warning from a person claiming to be from ETA.

Those injured were two security guards and ten passers-by. Police immediately sealed off the area as medical teams rushed to treat the injured.

The fire service said one of the security guards, who was guarding a bank, had been trapped under debris close to the explosion. The ten passersby were hit by flying glass.