Snap Basque elections may return nationalists back to regional government

With Europe expected to face its most tense times yet this autumn in its three-year-running eurozone crisis, and with Spain expected to seek a bailout from the European Union in the coming months, the Basque Country — a key autonomous region in Spain — is headed to the polls in October.

Patxi López, the president (or lehendakari) of the Basque government (pictured above), called early elections Tuesday.

The election for the 75-member Eusko Legebiltzarra (or Basque parliament) will be held on October 21.

So what’s likely to happen? And what will it mean for Spain?

Essentially, the fight will come down to a four-way fight: (1) López’s federalist Basque socialists, (2) the federalist conservatives, (3) the traditional Basque nationalists and (4) a new leftist coalition of Basque nationalists.  For now, at least, the chances that López will continue as lehendakari of the Basque Country currently seem slim.

López became lehendakari after the 2009 regional elections, when his party, the Partido Socialista de Euskadi – Euskadiko Ezkerra (the PSE-EE, or the Socialist Party of the Basque Country) joined in a coalition with the Partido Popular (the PP, or the People’s Party).  The López-led coalition marked the first time in the three decades of democratic elections in the Basque Country that the region had not been governed by the Partido Nacionalista Vasco (the Basque Nationalist Party or the EAJ-PNV — in Basque, the Euzko Alderdi Jeltzalea).

That coalition unraveled after the PP won the Spanish general election in November 2011 — the local PP leader Antonio Basagoiti demanded that López not use his position to oppose newly-installed prime minister Mariano Rajoy, who has accelerated budget cuts at the federal level.  López, however, has opposed Rajoy’s planned cutbacks, especially as regards health and education.  Without PP support, López’s government commands just one-third of the seats in the Basque regional parliament.

The election will be held the day after the anniversary of the permanent ceasefire agreed with the ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), an armed Basque nationalist group that had engaged in many shootings, bombings and kidnappings.  That ceasefire, agreed by then-prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, a political ally of López, was one of the final landmarks of the Zapatero government before the Rajoy government replaced it.  López is certainly hoping that voters will have that ceasefire on their minds on voting day, and that they will give his regional government credit for greater security and stability.

In 1978, the Basque Country — like Catalonia and Galicia — was granted the status of a nationality within Spain, as Spain wrote its new constitution, lurched toward democracy and began to emerge from the brutal and federalist four-decade dictatorship of Francisco Franco.  But sentiment for autonomy and/or independence runs strong in the Basque Country, and that sentiment has all too often turned violent in the past, even after 1978.

Notably, López has been considered a potential successor to Zapatero as a possible candidate to lead the federal counterpart to the PSE-EE.

Traditionally, those three groups have dominated Basque politics since the 1980s, sometimes with a more leftist group of Basque nationalists (typically referred to as the ezker abertzalea, or “patriotic left”) vying for power.

As it happens, a coalition of leftist Basque nationalists launched the Euskal Herria Bildu (EHB) in June 2012 as a coalition of various ezker abertzalea groups, and the leftist Basque nationalists have shot to the top of polls.  It is expected that the abertzalea will do especially well, given that this is the first political election since the ceasefire (thus bringing formerly banned radical Basque nationalist parties back into the political mainstream) and given that the abertzalea are the most anti-austerity party, as among the four major groups.  Leftist Basque nationalists won seven seats in the November 2011 federal election, and they’ve chosen as their local leader Laura Mintegi, a respected author and professor.

Right now, those polls show that López is set to come in third — the Basque Nationalists seem likely to return to power, although the abertzalea is running a close second.  For example, a June 25 poll for La Razón forecasted the following result:

  • The Basque Nationalists (EAJ-PNV) polls 30.6%, which would give it between 22 and 24 seats in the Basque parliament (it currently holds 30).
  • The abertzalea (EHB) polls 25.1%, which would give it between 21 and 22 seats (its predecessor components now hold just five seats).
  • The Basque Socialists (PSE-EE) polls just 19.5%, which would give it between 15 and 16 seats (it currently holds 25).
  • The People’s Party (PP) polls 16.7%, which would give it around 14 seats (it currently holds 13).
  • A small leftist party, the Izquierda Unida (IU, United Left) would win 3.8% (it currently holds one seats).
  • Another small progressive party, the Unión Progreso y Democracia (UPyD, Union, Progressa and Democracy) would win 2.3% (it also currently holds just one seat).

Taken together, it seems likely that either the Basque Nationalists (EAJ-PNV) or the abertzalea (EHB) will be most likely in a position to form a government, in coalition together or with the Basque Socialists (PSE-EE).  In either case, it seems unlikely that López would be in a position to lead the government after placing second or third.

With the conservative Rajoy government busy in Madrid trying to keep Spain’s budget under control prevent a spook among foreign bondholders, it seems likely that negotiating over points of autonomy will not be high on Rajoy’s agenda.  Nonetheless, it seems certain that Basque-federal relations will not flow quite as smoothly as they did during the Zapatero government.  A Basque Nationalist government, and especially a abertzalea-led government will be sure to clash with Rajoy over autonomy issues.  Rajoy has taken some criticism already for his handling of the touchy issue of the release of ETA prisoners from Spanish jails, and recently met with Basque Nationalist party leader Íñigo Urkullu to discuss steps to dismantle the ETA permanently.

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