By Alyssa McMurtry
Basque voters will participate in regional elections in northern Spain Sunday as memories of terrorism fade away, while opinion polls suggest people are turning away from traditional separatism but continue to remain hopeful for autonomy.
The elections come at a critical time for Spain, which has gone through an unprecedented nine months without a proper functioning government. The country continues to recover from its financial crisis and an independence movement in Catalonia is moving full steam ahead.
Despite the fact that politicians have until Oct. 31 to avoid the surreal possibility of third elections in just over a year, Spanish national leaders have been more publically focused on the Basque and Galician elections, which are also on Sunday, than on national-level negotiations or discussions.
Could the results in these regional elections break the political deadlock in the country that has endured more than nine months without a functioning government? While there is no obvious answer, politicians are standing by, with far-off glimmers of hope.
Acting Premier Mariano Rajoy hopes the Basque National Party will win a minority, but their usual coalition with the Socialists will be unfeasible due to a lack of seats.
Unlike in the national parliament, the Basque region allows any party to govern with a minority. Still, to improve functionality, a majority is the desired option. If that is the case, the Basque National Party, whose support in Spanish parliament is desperately needed, might be willing to negotiate—perhaps it would get national support in exchange for regional support.
If the Basque National Party supported Rajoy, he would be tantalizingly close to forming a government, just one seat away from the majority.
The Socialists, which is the main opposition party nationally, hope that their Basque party will produce a better-than-expected performance and maintain their alliance with the Basque National Party. While the Socialists have not publically announced this option—the only semi-feasible coalition, not formally attempted, is the Socialists with Podemos and different nationalist parties.
This week, the Socialists announced they would attempt to form a government again, but have ruled out negotiating over any referendums for independence.
According to Inaki Gabilondo, a Spanish journalist, the deadlock in forming a government in Spain was likely to continue despite Sunday’s regional elections.
“In Spain, we have one thing clear—in the next two years, at least, we aren’t going to have stability in the government. Either we aren’t going to have a government, or we’ll have an extraordinarily precarious one,” Gabilondo said on his video blog for El Pais on Thursday.
Autonomy or independence?
Over the last few years, the Basque Country has witnessed a lot of changes. Nearly five years have passed since the ETA, a Basque separatist militant group, signed a permanent cease-fire that continues to hold.
While many who live in the Basque Country come from Spain or abroad, the Basque people are considered an indigenous ethnic group. They have unique customs and a language so ancient and singular, that its origins continue to puzzle anthropologists.
A recent opinion poll by Ikerfel for Bilbao daily El Correo, suggests that while 49 percent of voters want more autonomy for the region, only 18 percent are vying for full independence. In Catalonia, according to a June poll by the Catalonian government, 48 percent of the population wants to get out of Spain.
Inigo Urkullu Renteria, Basque president and leader of The National Basque Party (PNV), said in this era it was quite “impossible” for a state to declare independence.
“Independence in the 21st century is like speaking of images of the past. It’s impossible that today a state can declare independence.
“We aren’t conscious that more than 80 per cent of any country’s legislation comes from European directives,” Renteria told Spanish daily El Pais Tuesday.
Opinion polls suggest Urkullu and the National Basque Party will win re-election Sunday with a minority government.
Juan Blas, a writer from Bilbao, said a complete break from Spain could be “inconvenient”.
“We are seeing that the Catalan independence adventure is resulting in uncertainty and is full of hurdles, dangers and dead ends. On the other hand, the recent Brexit has revealed how inconvenient it is to leave the European Union,” Blas told Anadolu Agency.
Another major difference between Catalan and Basque movements is that the Basque Country has a deal with Madrid to grant it special privileges, such as a unique tax system with fiscal autonomy, while Catalonia cannot say the same.
“I envy you, but only partly, because otherwise in Catalonia we wouldn’t have had that tipping point that set events in motion,” Hadar Auxandri, a speaker from the National Catalan Assembly, recently said at pro-independence discussion in Bilbao, according to El Pais.
- EH Bildu looks for independence
The far-left nationalist party, EH Bildu, is the only major party hoping the Basque Country will follow in Catalonia’s footsteps towards a declaration of independence, or at least a referendum.
This party is currently the second strongest political force in the country, and opinion polls predict it will maintain its position, although this year the leftist Podemos is also challenging that standing.
EH Bildu was born out of a mix of left-wing political groups, including the outlawed Abertzale party. However, Jon Inarritu, a member of the EH Bildu Coaltion, told Anadolu Agency, the new group had been founded on three principles of “rejection of all violence in favor of human rights, sovereignty for the Basque Country and social justice.”
Inarritu said although the “utopia” would be to change Spain’s attitude towards the Basque Country, EH Bildu considers the best option to be a “Basque Republic”.
“The Spanish state is in the process of recentralization and every day they are encroaching more. But if that’s not enough, the impositions, negations and prohibitions coming from Madrid are constant and they go against the democratic decisions passed by Basque institutions.”
Also, EH Bildu ‘s Arnaldo Otegi, was released this year from prison after a six- year stint for his connections to the ETA. Although Spanish law prevents him from running in these elections, Otegi is considered the party’s symbolic leader.
Otegi is also credited for bringing an end to ETA’s violence by persuading members to sign the cease-fire.
Political tensions persist
The militant campaign of ETA had raged for more than five decades and resulted in the deaths of 829 people, many in the Basque country. But while there is no such violence now, political tensions persist.
“Compared to the last Basque elections in 2012, the peace process has progressed but there are still a lot of issues to discuss including what to do with political prisoners, recognizing the victims and disarmament,” Inarritu said.
“People are freer now than they were five years ago. Now, people don’t kill each other or use extortion for that war that only existed inside the heads of fanatics,” Blas said. “From my personal position, I avoid relations with people who supported ETA. They believe we’ve overcome everything but we shouldn’t forget. It was too cruel and morally vile.”
Javier Fernandez Sebastian, a political science professor at the University of the Basque Country who is Spanish by birth, said he lived in the Basque Country for years and was aware that many of his university colleagues were at one point sympathetic to the ETA.
“Of course, we can’t dwell on the past, but one thing is healthy forgetfulness and one thing is putting makeup on it and pretending it never happened,” Sebastian told Anadolu Agency. “The deaths were the responsibility of everyone who supported ETA, not just the assassins.”