Engaging ETA

 

THE 10-year sentence for ETA membership handed down by a Madrid court last Friday to Arnaldo Otegi, leader of the banned Batasuna party, has predictably drawn very different responses. The Spanish prosecutor-general, Cándido Conde-Pumpido, described the sentence as “a contribution to peace”. The Basque Nationalist Party, no supporter of Otegi but convinced his commitment to a peace process is genuine, said it was “an absurdity and a scandal”.

The irony is that Otegi and some Batasuna colleagues were on trial for their participation in the debate that led ETA to announce its current ceasefire. During the trial, Otegi said that “a bomb would destroy our strategy and leave us without credibility for generations”. He also said that ETA was now an “unnecessary hindrance”. However, the Basque terrorist group has failed to make an expected announcement of its own dissolution. The court ruled that Otegi’s statements were merely tactical, a ruse to enable the greatly weakened group to re-arm while its political supporters make political gains. Bildu, a new coalition that endorses Batasuna’s shift towards peaceful methods, gained 25 per cent of the Basque vote in last May’s local elections.

The sentence has a particular resonance in Ireland. Since the late 1990s, Otegi has claimed to emulate the current Sinn Féin leadership in removing the spectre of terrorism from a political conflict. The collapse of two ETA ceasefires in this period and the bloody consequences have severely undermined his credibility in this endeavour with the Spanish public, and indeed among many Basques.

The timing of the sentence, which will be appealed to the Spanish Supreme Court, is significant. Today the Spanish Constitutional Court hears arguments on the banning of Sortu, a Basque pro-independence party alleged to be the successor of Batasuna as ETA’s political wing. Meanwhile, Spain is approaching general elections, called for November 20th. All polls predict that the deeply conservative Partido Popular, hostile to any concessions to Basque radicals, will oust the current Socialist Party government.

In one sense, the court’s sentence is a supreme test for Otegi’s strategy. If ETA responds with any violent action, support for Bildu will collapse and he will be in prison for a long time. But if ETA were to announce its disbandment, his position would be greatly strengthened, and it would be difficult for any Spanish government not to engage with a Basque peace process.