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Basque Country enters an era of uncertainty

The announcement of early elections was a chance for the Basque premier to highlight how far the northern region has come in recent years. But despite the decline of ETA, the political horizon now looks decidedly tense.


Patxi López

Socialist Patxi López could be left out in the cold after October's Basque election. Photo: PSE.

The announcement on Tuesday by the Basque premier, Patxi López, that the region will hold early elections on October 21 was a reminder of how much things have changed since he took power in 2009.

Since López entered a governing partnership with the conservative Partido Popular, the terrorist group ETA has been increasingly weakened, culminating in last autumn’s announcement by the group that it was laying down its arms for good.

The date of the scheduled elections – a year and a day after ETA’s announcement – is no coincidence. López himself was not coy about underscoring his government’s part in the new atmosphere of peace that the northern region is enjoying.

“We have done what we promised. We have ended terrorism, we have brought normality back to the Basque Country,” said the lehendakari as he named the date.

And the sight of politicians, journalists and other public figures wandering the streets of cities such as San Sebastián and Bilbao without the security guards who once protected them from ETA’s hitmen is an enormous step forward after 40 years of violence, even if the organisation itself still exists.

But attributing the end of ETA’s campaign of violence to López’s own regional government, or the Spanish Socialist Party as a whole, is overreaching somewhat.

ETA took its decision to stop its killing due to a number of factors: constant police infiltration and arrests over a decade, a subsequent lack of coherent leadership, internal disagreement over long-term strategy and sliding public support in the Basque region. López and his Socialists helped encourage those developments, but they were far from solely responsible.

And while the threat of violence has subsided to the point of extinction, the future in the Basque region is far from rosy. As López pointed out, the Basque economy has ridden the economic crisis better than most of its neighbours. But the withdrawal of the Partido Popular’s support for López in May following a clash over public spending led to a political vacuum and meant early elections would have to be called. The result of the October vote could see tensions between the Basque Country and Madrid, which had been calmed over the last three years, inflamed again.

The Socialists can merely hope to be kingmakers at best in the election, with little chance of leading the new government. Instead, the radical nationalists of the newly legalised izquierda abertzale coalition will compete with the more moderate Basque Nationalist Party to control the regional parliament.

With the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy in Madrid, the cards are stacked for an unhappy relationship between Madrid and Vitoria over the next four years.

With the izquierda abertzale coalition in power, in particular, the issue of increased autonomy would almost certainly to come to the fore. Terrorism victims’ groups and hardline conservatives in Madrid are already accusing Rajoy of being weak on terror due to his government’s handling of the ETA prisoner issue, and he will be reluctant to show his conciliatory side to a new nationalist government in the Basque Country.

The Basque region has, as its outgoing lehendakari López proudly proclaimed, become a safer, more democratic place in the last three or four years. But what he didn’t acknowledge is that its politics have become much more complex and much less predictable.

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Published: Aug 22 2012
Category: Politics, Featured, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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