Basque regional elections will be a crucial test for struggling Podemos

Party hopes to do well as voters focus on jobs and regeneration rather than independence

Podemos  leader Pablo Iglesias (centre) at an election campaign rally in the Basque Country with party candidate Pilar Zabala (in white, on his left). Photograph: Miguel Tona/EPA

Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias (centre) at an election campaign rally in the Basque Country with party candidate Pilar Zabala (in white, on his left). Photograph: Miguel Tona/EPA

 

It is raining in Bilbao as politicians from the Podemos party prepare for a campaign event on the banks of the Nervión river ahead of tomorrow’s Basque regional election. A handful of purple Podemos-logoed balloons bob in the drizzle but no party supporters are present because the brief ceremony is just for local media.

This low-key scene is a far cry from the rousing rallies and promise of upheaval that have made the party a force on the Spanish left since it emerged two years ago.

But the Basque Country has become a stronghold for Podemos, which won the most votes here in December’s inconclusive general election and its June rerun. The northern region is fertile ground for Podemos’s message of political and economic regeneration and is home to many of the party’s archetypal voters: young urbanites who are frustrated by a lack of economic opportunities.

Instability

Pilar ZabalaThe Irish Times

Currently governed by the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), the region avoided the worst of the economic crisis which hit Spain between 2008 and 2013. But the success of Podemos here in the last two general elections reflects the fact that many Basques feel left behind by the country’s fragile recovery.

However, Podemos also seems to have benefited from the fact that it is removed from the separatist-unionist debate that has long been a part of Basque politics. It’s a debate that for four decades fuelled the terrorism of Eta, until the separatist group announced a definitive ceasefire in October 2011.

“Podemos is a political force which was born after the end of the violence,” says Zabala, a 48-year-old dental surgeon who is new to politics. “It’s a party that doesn’t have baggage from the past.”

Apart from the moderate nationalists of the PNV, polls suggest Podemos’s main rivals in tomorrow’s election are EH Bildu, a pro-independence leftist coalition born from Eta’s political support base. That coalition’s chosen candidate, Arnaldo Otegi, has been banned from running due to his imprisonment for allegedly trying to re-form Eta’s outlawed wing, Batasuna. He was released from jail in March.

Although Podemos is free of baggage from the years of violence, Zabala has painful memories of that time. In 1983, when she was 15, her brother José Ignacio, a suspected member of Eta, disappeared. His body was eventually found alongside that of another Eta suspect, José Antonio Lasa – both had been tortured and killed by one of the state-sponsored death squads which murdered nearly 30 people in the 1980s.

Disarmament

Popular Party

To remedy this, Zabala wants to see both the disarmament of Eta and what she calls a “social disarmament”, in which residual divisions from the years of violence are closed and a truth commission is set up to look at the abuses of both sides.

The terrorism issue hit the headlines last week, when, in a televised campaign debate, the PP’s candidate for premier Alfonso Alonso clumsily said that Zabala could not be classed as a terrorism victim – the suggestion being that Eta’s terrorism was worse than that of the death squads. After receiving a frosty stare from Zabala, he corrected himself with a hasty tweet after the debate.

“In the Basque Country it’s clear there was a problem which led to the killing of lots of people, deaths which were caused by different kinds of terrorism,” Zabala says. “The terrorism of Eta is the most well known, but there have been other kinds of violence, political violence, which have always been more hidden.”

But in the current climate both the peace issue and the debate over independence are overshadowed by social and economic concerns. The PNV’s candidate, Basque premier Íñigo Urkullu, has played down his party’s traditional ambitions of gaining independence from Spain and the separatists of EH Bildu have focused more on social policy than sovereignty in this campaign, perhaps mindful that only 21 per cent of Basques want independence, according to one recent poll. Zabala refuses to be drawn on whether she supports independence, while her party wants to see a referendum on the issue.

Regional ballots tend to have a distinct dynamic to general elections in Spain and Podemos is not expected to defeat the PNV tomorrow. However, the election will be crucial for a party which, by its own admission, is having something of an existential crisis on a national level.

Podemos joined forces with the communist-led United Left (IU) for June’s general election, but between them the two parties lost a million votes, triggering a very public debate over strategy. This week, it was played out on Twitter, with Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias demanding a return to a harder line and contradicting his deputy, Íñigo Errejón, who had called for the party to “seduce” voters with a softer message.

Podemos is also running in a regional election in Galicia tomorrow, as part of the En Marea leftist coalition. Both contests are seen as potentially significant in helping unblock the country’s ongoing political stalemate in Madrid, which is threatening to lead to a third general election in a year. But they could also reveal a lot about the much-queried health of Podemos.

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