With radicals out of picture, Socialists enter Basque frame


The banning of radical parties could lead to the the Basque Nationalist Party being ousted from power in the region, writes PADDY WOODWORTH.

NEXT SUNDAY, Spanish Basques will elect their regional parliament with a very significant gap on their ballot papers. For the first time since 1980, they will have no option to vote for the izquierda abertzale (“patriotic left”) – that is, for parties close to the thinking of terrorist group Eta.

This is the outcome of a bitter process that began with the banning of Batasuna, Eta’s long-term political ally, in 2002.

Surrogate parties popped up repeatedly. In 2005, the bizarrely titled and hitherto unknown Communist Party of the Basque Lands (PCTV) took nine of the Basque parliament’s 75 seats.

The PCTV was itself outlawed last year, and two new radical nationalist parties were banned by the Spanish supreme court earlier this month. A UN special rapporteur on human rights, Martin Scheinin, had already expressed “concern” over the “broad application” of Spain’s controversial anti-terrorism legislation last December.

The unprecedented exclusion of such parties has created a further unprecedented prospect. Opinion polls suggest that the moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and its current coalition partners will not get the 38 seats needed to form a government in the parliament the PNV has dominated for 30 years.

Among Basque nationalists in general, this would be seen as “taking power away from here and putting it in Madrid”, as one PNV leader said. The likely beneficiary will be the Basque section of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), which is in government in Madrid.

The PNV is likely to remain the biggest single party, but the PSOE will be a close second. On that basis, it could form a government with the support of the third largest (legal) party in the region, the conservative and strongly Spanish nationalist Partido Popular (PP).

This opportunity, however, is a poisoned chalice for the Basque Socialist leader, Patxi López. For one thing, the idea of Basque institutions being controlled by two parties traditionally hostile to Basque nationalism makes even lukewarm supporters of the PNV queasy.

Ironically, Eta and the izquierda abertzale might well welcome a PSOE victory, precisely on the basis that it would drive moderate nationalists into the arms of the radicals. (Eta displayed its own contempt for democracy by bombing a PSOE office – and several adjoining private homes – last Tuesday.)

Between disgruntled moderates and disenfranchised radicals, López would find the Basque Country a hard place to govern.

López would have to swallow hard before seeking support from the PP, which has been almost hysterically critical of his participation in a peace process with the radicals during Eta’s 2006-2007 ceasefire. And that’s saying nothing of the conservatives’ current embroilment in a national corruption scandal.

López has yet another problem: the PSOE government in Madrid often needs the support of PNV deputies at national level. The prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, may well pressure López into doing a coalition deal, which would leave the Basque first minister’s office once again in the hands of Basque nationalists.

Damned if he does, then, and damned if he doesn’t.

But if López thinks politicians should reflect public opinion, he might reconsider the PNV coalition option.

The opinion polls that show him surging up the field towards the nationalists also show that a PNV-Socialist government is the electorate’s preferred option, with less than 10 per cent backing a Socialist-PP partnership.

There are good reasons for this. The PNV, under its current leader, Juan José Ibarretxe, is often caricatured in Spain as irresponsible because it advocates Basque “sovereignty” and is seen as being soft on Eta.

But his party has managed the Basque economy and institutions pretty efficiently.

The prosperous region is weathering the global economic crisis exceptionally well as a result. Ibarretxe has run a good election campaign on this platform, while muting his pro-independence rhetoric.

Typical Basque voters want to maintain a strong sense of cultural identity, as well as a healthy bank balance, without engaging in big political adventures. They also desperately want Eta to hang up its guns, but after the 2006-2007 talks fiasco they despair of any politician achieving that goal.

So a government led by moderate Basque nationalists with good business heads, plus Socialist Party partners to tone down any ideological extravagance, looks as good as it gets to many Basque punters.

But, as always, there are dark horses. No one knows whether the izquierda abertzale will, as directed by their leaders, spoil their votes. But many of them might vote instead for Aralar, a small radical nationalist party that is critical of Eta.

Then the PNV might be able to reconstruct an exclusively Basque nationalist government, and leave the PSOE – and the PP – out in the cold for yet another term.

Paddy Woodworth is the author of The Basque Country(OUP, 2008)