As he gazes out across the Bay of Biscay from a restaurant in San Sebastián, Arnaldo Otegi ponders why many Basque nationalists expect so much of him. "I think people want to see in me a reference point to cling to, someone who represents their values, their projects, their principles," he says, "but that's asking an enormous amount, that's frightening. I'm just another person who was born in this country."
Otegi though is not just another Basque. Lionised as a charismatic figure of peace by some and reviled as a terrorism apologist by others, he is Spain’s most divisive politician.
In the late 1990s, he became leader of Eta’s political wing, Herri Batasuna, until it was outlawed for its links to the separatist terrorist group in 2003. Since then, Otegi has remained the most dominant figure in the so-called Izquierda Abertzale, or Basque separatist left. “I’m pro-independence and I’m a Marxist, I have been all my life and I still am,” he says.
Now 57, Otegi’s jagged haircut has thinned and greyed, although the large stud in his ear is a reminder that he has never been part of Spain’s political mainstream.
In 1987, before entering politics, he was jailed for taking part in an Eta kidnap and since then he has been imprisoned several times.
His most recent spell in jail, for six years, on charges of attempting to re-form Herri Batasuna, ended on March 1st of this year. An international campaign to free him had been under way, on the grounds that he was a political prisoner who had in fact been trying to secure peace in the Basque Country, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Gerry Adams lending their support to him.
Pro-independence Basques tend to see Otegi as the leader the Izquierda Abertzale needs in order to recover its lustre and pursue independence. They also point to his undisputed influence in helping persuade Eta to declare a definitive ceasefire in 2011. However many Spaniards still link him to the terrorist group’s violence, which claimed more than 800 lives.
Following Otegi’s most recent prison release, a political storm was played out in the traditional and social media and in Spain’s Congress between his admirers and critics. Further controversy ensued when he visited his separatist counterparts in Catalonia last month.
As part of what he describes as "spectacularly aggressive treatment from the Spanish state," Otegi has even been declared persona non grata by several city halls across Spain in recent weeks.
That treatment, he claims, extends to an attempt to bar him from running as a candidate for Basque regional premier, or Lehendakari, this autumn, for the EH Bildu coalition.
“They will try to twist the law, as they always do, to try and ensure I can’t run as a candidate for Lehendakari,” he says. “That’s a badge of honour for me, because if I’m the candidate Madrid doesn’t want, then I’m probably the best candidate for the Basque country.”
If he does become regional premier, Otegi wants to hold a referendum on independence during the next legislature, a plan that echoes Catalonia’s current efforts to break away from Spain. “Catalonia is on a road which has no turning back,” he says. “This is the route that we Basques have to follow as well.”
He adds: “How long will it take [to gain independence]? I don’t know. When we’ve gained a popular majority, but I think a timeline of two legislatures would be good and if we can do it sooner, even better.”
Another priority for him is to consolidate peace in the Basque region. The Izquierda Abertzale and Eta have made a series of gestures in recent years to underline their commitment to politics rather than violence.
However, the Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy has consistently dismissed such moves and refuses to engage in any kind of peace process. Particularly galling for the Izquierda Abertzale has been the government’s use of a penitentiary policy which deliberately ensures the vast majority of Eta prisoners are held a long way from their families.
Otegi even accuses certain conservative sectors of wanting “to see some kind of violence return to the Basque country” so they can benefit both electorally and from security-related business interests. He does not expect any change in Spanish policy in this regard, even after the upcoming general election, because he believes Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP) will remain in power.
Otegi is adamant that a return to violence is now impossible. However pressure has been building on the Izquierda Abertzale and Eta to go further and condemn the killings and kidnaps of the past – essentially to apologise – in order to convince the many doubters and appease terrorism victims.
“We’ve maintained the same position with regard to Eta’s violence that Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin had with regard to the IRA or that Nelson Mandela had in South Africa,” Otegi says, barely hiding his exasperation. “Are we going to go back into the past to have this debate? I don’t see the sense in it. Self-criticism? Yes, of course. Are we responsible for a part of the suffering in this country? Of course.
“We have paid for it dearly, but we are responsible and we have to accept it and we have to take all the measures and initiatives possible to address the suffering there has been in this country on one side and on the other.”
The suffering he refers to on his “side” came in the form of state-sponsored death squads and cases of police torture.
However Otegi suffered a blow from closer to home recently when a group of dissidents formerly of the Izquierda Abertzale lambasted the leadership’s unilateral peace efforts of recent years and accused it of “profoundly weakening the Basque national liberation struggle”.
The episode starkly underlined the difficulty of his position – attempting to demonstrate a genuine willingness to embrace peace, while trying to persuade his radical grass roots supporters to follow him on that mission.
“It’s a difficult role,” he admits. “It’s often said that those who are most difficult to convince are your own people. We did something which I think was exemplary; we changed strategy, ending Eta’s violence, we convinced our support base that the political future lay in a different framework, which had to be exclusively democratic and that was hard.”
The Spanish government’s refusal to engage on issues such as Eta prisoners or disarmament, he explains, “has meant that some people have started to oppose this strategy”.
Then he adds: “But I’m optimistic that this strategy won’t be reversed and that it will also win over those who are not convinced right now that this is the right way.”