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A shift in the Basque Country despite Sortu’s prohibition

The Spanish High Court recently ruled that a new Basque nationalist party should not be allowed to run in upcoming elections due to its alleged links to ETA. However, while the tribal tone of politics in Madrid made that ruling inevitable, there are signs that there are many in the Basque region – and the judiciary itself – who disagree.


Political stalemate in Madrid is not helping the Basque Country move closer to peace. Photo: www_ukberri_net (flickr).

On the face of it, the Supreme Court’s March 23 decision to deem the new Basque nationalist party Sortu illegal was yet another instance of Spain’s justice system refusing to give an inch to those it suspected of having links to the terrorist group ETA.

Sortu had hoped to represent the birth of new hope for those wanting an independent Basque Country. The new formation unveiled itself in February, insisting it was not simply a continuation of Batasuna, ETA’s outlawed political wing. To prove this, the party’s statutes explicitly rejected the use of violence, including that of ETA, an unprecedented move for a group representing the izquierda abertzale, or radical Basque left.

But on receiving Sortu’s request to be registered, the government expressed scepticism, and the state lawyers’ office deemed the party’s rejection of terrorism “cosmetic and rhetorical…but not real”. ETA, it asserted, was guiding this new formation, which was simply a cynical ploy for the terrorist group to be represented in May’s local elections. When the Supreme Court agreed, it effectively prevented Sortu from taking part in the upcoming elections.

This looked like business as usual for a judiciary and political system that, even in the democratic era, have rarely been willing to give radical Basque nationalism the benefit of the doubt. The same court had previously banned seven different incarnations of the izquierda abertzale as it sought to find a way into Spain’s political system.

And yet, recent developments – including the Supreme Court’s ruling itself – highlight how much the Basque political scene has shifted lately.

Rather than being unanimous in its vote, as has always been the case with these rulings in the past, the court was deeply split over whether to allow Sortu to be registered. Of the 16 magistrates who voted, seven opposed the party’s prohibition, after a 10-hour deliberation. Documents released after the ruling showed that these dissident judges were deeply troubled by what they hinted was a knee-jerk decision by their colleagues to ban the party, due to mere suspicions that it was an ETA puppet, rather than any hard evidence.  “There should be no room for preventive illegalisation,” noted the courtroom’s rebels.

Despite the determination of the Socialist government in Madrid to remain stony-faced when confronted with Sortu, fellow Socialists in the Basque Country were more upbeat, calling for the new party’s anti-violence statutes to be “celebrated” officially. That resolution fell flat, as the conservative Popular Party (PP) insisted that this would be akin to patting ETA on the back after a four-decade campaign of violence that has killed over 800. “Sortu is ETA,” was the flat assessment of the PP’s María Dolores de Cospedal.

And it is this kind of political pressure from Madrid that helps explain why it is so difficult for Sortu to be legalised, despite signs that ETA itself is close to extinction.

ETA’s clumsy moves

The terrorist group is extremely weak in operational terms. Continued police pressure and cooperation with security forces in France, where members of the group have traditionally taken refuge, have ensured a steady string of arrests of its leaders in recent years. With its leadership in disarray, it has not carried out a planned killing since 2009. Perhaps just as importantly, its relationship with the izquierda abertzale (now embodied by Sortu), which it used to control, has changed.

Over the last year, the izquierda abertzale has been taking the initiative, publicly calling on ETA to give up its armed struggle. ETA has responded to that appeal in typically clumsy fashion, announcing in September 2010 a vaguely worded ceasefire before declaring a more concrete “permanent, general and verifiable” truce in January.

Neither announcement seemed to go quite far enough and both were coolly received, especially by the Socialists and PP, which for much of the last five years have been locked in a hostile political two-step that has often had anti-terror policy at its heart.

Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has been on the back foot on this issue ever since ETA broke off its last ceasefire – and a stuttering peace process – in December 2006 by detonating a bomb in Madrid airport’s car park that killed two people. Despite the enormous number of arrests the police have carried out under his administration, the PP and the more frenzied right-wing media have insisted Zapatero’s government is weak on terror and determined to negotiate with ETA. The April 9 march through Madrid organised by the AVT terrorist victims’ group and supported by the PP had the slogan “For the defeat of terrorism: ETA out of elections”, but the chant often heard throughout was “Zapatero, resign.”

The curse of elections

Sortu, with its “anti-violence” statutes and shift towards mainstream politics, is (or was) clearly capable of contributing substantially to the Basque Country’s quest to bury separatist terror. But its timing could hardly have been worse. General elections are scheduled for spring 2012 and Zapatero, discredited by his handling of Spain’s economic crisis, has announced he will not run. The favourite to succeed him as the Socialist candidate is Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, a revered veteran who holds the Interior Ministry post and is also deputy prime minister.

Despite enjoying a huge lead in polls, the PP clearly fears Rubalcaba as an electoral foe and the conservatives are already attacking him over the ETA issue, accusing his ministry of warning terrorists of arrests and the minister himself of negotiating with ETA after the 2006 ceasefire was over. With the opposition determined to put not just the economy, but also ETA, at the centre of the upcoming electoral campaign, the coming months are unlikely to see the kind of mature political unity needed if the Basque Country is to take the opportunity being offered to it.

The lack of unanimity in the Supreme Court’s recent ruling shows how the top echelons of Spain’s judiciary have changed their view of ETA’s relationship with the izquierda abertzale. Sortu’s own efforts suggest that opinion is justified and even ETA seems at last to be considering moving with the times. But the politicians in Madrid remain locked in their tribal dance.

A version of this article has been published by Open Democracy.

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Published: Apr 11 2011
Category: Politics, Featured
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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