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Basque ceasefire offers Zapatero illusion of a lifeline

James Badcock examines the political implications of ETA’s latest ceasefire and sees little room for manoeuvre on the part of the Socialist government.


ETA's latest ceasefire announcement has failed to convince the political mainstream. Photo: kontrainformatu

The latest ETA ceasefire has the look of a Trojan horse. All previous truces have ended in a return to bloody violence by the Basque terrorist organisation. But in Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s mind, a little spark of optimism has surely been reignited at a time when he and his governing Socialist Party are in desperate need of a positive development. Yes, that very “optimism” which Zapatero expressed just hours before ETA ruptured its previous ceasefire, detonating a car bomb at Barajas airport and leaving two dead in late 2006.

The prime minister has since spoken of his upbeat attitude towards the peace talks in Switzerland of that autumn as his biggest mistake. But lagging badly in the polls after being forced to wield the neoliberal axe to Spain’s public deficit, the idea of slipping back into smiling peacemaker mode constitutes a spectacular temptation.

Not only will past experience make Zapatero wary, but he knows that he will have the opposition Popular Party scrutinising the behaviour of the national government, the regional Basque authority (led by the Socialists with PP support) and the security forces for any signs of laxness when it comes to ETA and its political milieu.

“ETA might be observing a ceasefire but that doesn’t mean the state should be,” is the phrase already ringing out from conservative circles regarding the need to keep up the police pressure that has seen so many ETA leaders detained over the past few years. They also fear that banned Basque nationalist abertzale parties will try to ride piggyback on the ceasefire to regain legal status in time for next year’s local elections.

Having seen how Mariano Rajoy’s PP hounded the government during the last peace process -demanding that secret contacts be revealed and explanations of what deals were on the table- the same sort of disloyal approach is a safe bet this time around. Indeed, Rajoy may be the most concerned about the contents of this political Trojan horse, wondering perhaps if the Socialists are again going to snatch re-election from the jaws of defeat, buoyed by promising developments in the Basque Country and an eventual upturn in the national economy.

The next general election is slated for 2012, although it could come sooner if the Socialists run out of parliamentary partners to get legislation passed. Having lost the leftist parties and with the Catalan nationalists also having burned their bridges, Zapatero’s last port of call is with the Basque nationalists of the PNV. He has appealed to them to form a partnership to see through the rest of the legislature, a break from the minority Socialist government’s policy of seeking support from different groupings on a case-by-case basis. The timing may be fortunate. The last thing the PNV would wish to see is a PP government in power, which might throw away an opportunity for peace in the Basque region, as indeed the Aznar government was perceived to have done by not pursuing any kind of settlement during a previous ETA ceasefire.

Realistic demands?

Rajoy or no Rajoy, however, there can be little doubt that Zapatero will demand more assurances up front this time. ETA’s claim that it decided “several months” ago to silence its guns has a whiff of sour grapes at the effectiveness of Spanish and French security forces in disrupting its operations. With ETA in a bind -as its desperate daylight robbery of showroom cars which led to its only killing this year, that of a French policeman, clearly demonstrates- pressure should continue to be applied. Only when it deposits its weapons in a safe place and accepts international verification of the ceasefire, something its own political wing Batasuna called for two days before the organization’s weekend announcement, ought the government to listen. Then, a deal on ETA prisoners can be struck, with the transfer of inmates to jails near their relatives a logical first step.

What else could Zapatero offer? The suggestion of a self-determination referendum is anathema to the mainstream Spanish body politic, and the ceding of further autonomy to the region is already an issue that will be on the table when the Socialists sit down with the PNV to negotiate the 2011 budget package.

Reading the ceasefire declaration, you just have to hope that the terrorists don’t really believe in the vision of a Basque homeland “free” of the “strategy of negation and annihilation” they say is practised by Madrid 35 years after Franco’s death. The worry is that the future of this peace process in large part depends on individuals who joined ETA and killed in its name long after the region began enjoying genuine autonomy.

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Published: Sep 6 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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