Which nationalist party will triumph in Sunday’s Basque Country elections?

In addition to Galicia, Euskadi (i.e., the Basque Country) will hold regional elections on Sunday — and the chief question is which of the two major nationalist groups will win the largest plurality of the vote. 

As with Galicia, polls in Euskadi have been relative stable since elections were called last month, and the top two parties have been the longstanding nationalist Partido Nacionalista Vasco (the Basque Nationalist Party or the EAJ-PNV — in Basque, the Euzko Alderdi Jeltzalea), and the largest and most organized leftist Basque nationalist coalition to contest regional elections, a group of ezker abertzalea, or “patriotic left,” joined together as Euskal Herria Bildu (EHB).

The latest polls show that the Basque Nationalists would win 33.3% of the vote, amounting to between 24 and 26 seats in the  75-member Eusko Legebiltzarra (the Basque parliament) while the abertzale would win 24.5% and around 20 seats, although some polls have shown an even closer race between the two.

As such, it is expected that either the two nationalist groups will form the next governing coalition in Euskadi or, alternatively, the largest party in the Basque parliament will form a minority government, relying on external support from other parties.

The emergence of a unified abertzale is the most fundamental shift in the election from past elections, and the election will follow one day after the one-year anniversary of the ceasefire signed by the ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), ending the armed leftist/nationalist struggle against the Spanish government.  For many years, radical leftist nationalist parties were actually banned from participation in Spanish elections because of actual or potential ties to the ETA — the largest party in the coalition, Sortu, which formed in 2011, was allowed to participate in elections by Spain’s Constitutional Court only in June 2012.

The current leader of the Basque Nationalists, Íñigo Urkullu (pictured above, top), certainly seems the favorite to become lehendakari (president) of Euskadi.  The former party leader in Biscay, the traditional stronghold of the Basque Nationalists, Urkullu became party leader in 2008, and has served sporadically in the Basque parliament since the 1980s.

The leader of the abertzale coalition is Laura Mintegi (pictured above, bottom), a relative newcomer to Basque politics.  Mintegi has been a professor at the University of the Basque Country for the past three decades, and is also a Basque novelist.  Mintegi is a native of Navarre, the region neighboring Euskadi with a predominantly Basque-speaking north and a Spanish-speaking south — the union of Navarre, or at least northern Navarre with an independent Euskadi has long been the goal of the  abertzale

Given the tense background to the various nationalist movement, what’s been most striking throughout the campaign is that both leaders have emphasized a relatively calm approach to greater Basque autonomy and/or independence, especially in contrast to the populist and nearly bombastic nationalism that Catalan president Artur Mas has suddenly adopted.  In line with the traditional moderation of the Basque Nationalists, Urkullu has not called for Basque independence, but rather for ways to renegotiate a new regional deal with Madrid, and he has spoken in vague ways about the failures of Spanish federalism.  Both opposition parties have tried to draw out Urkullu for his post-election plans; although the Basque Nationalists (and the abertzale) seem keen on harnessing the energy of pro-independent Basques who are heartened by the sovereignty movement in Catalunya, Urkullu has been more subdued than coy about potential Basque independence.

For her part, Mintegi is clearly pro-independence, but she and her allies have taken pains to distance their approach from Mas’s — Mintegi has emphasized that any referendum on independence would require widespread Basque political and social consensus and would have to comply with existing legal conventions:

“There are different formulas one can use to organize a referendum on sovereignty,” she said in a recent El País interview. “What I would like to see is the international right we have put into practice, which is recognized under the UN Human Rights charter and that is also supported by the Spanish state. I want to see that possibility being put into action.”

The elections follow the dissolution of the current governing coalition — the first government in the modern, post-Franco era not to include the Basque Nationalists.  The current coalition joins the two largest federalist parties, the Partido Socialista de Euskadi – Euskadiko Ezkerra (the PSE-EE, or the Socialist Party of the Basque Country) and the Partido Popular (the PP, or the People’s Party).  Patxi López, currently the president (or lehendakari) of the Basque government, is likely to see the Basque Socialists finish in third place and the People’s Party far off in fourth — the poll I mentioned above gives the Basque Socialists 20.2% (between 16 and 18 seats) and the People’s Party 14.7% (around 12 seats).

López has become unpopular as lehendakari both for the debt that the government has incurred during his reign, putting his region at greater financial risk than other Spanish regions, and also because of his coalition with the People’s Party — never popular in Euskadi for its pro-Franco roots in the region, but especially unpopular given the increasing budget austerity of prime minister Mariano Rajoy.

While there are four ‘natural’ potential coalitions — leftist, rightist, nationalist and federalist — the federalist coalition between the Basque Socialists and the People’s Party obviously won’t work, as its dissolution has led to Sunday’s snap elections.

We also know a coalition of the nominally center-right Basque Nationalists and the People’s Party is unlikely, even if the two parties managed to win a majority of seats, given the toxicity of the People’s Party in Euskadi and, more notably, given the Basque Nationalists are significantly more leftist than a typical Christian Democratic party in Europe; they ally with the European Democratic Party in the European Union parliament rather than the broad, center-right Europe People’s Party.

Furthermore, a ‘leftist’ coalition between the outgoing PSE-EE and the abertzale seems unlikely as well, given López’s current unpopularity, even if it could command a majority.

Most likely is a broad ‘nationalist’ coalition that pulls together the various strands of Basque nationalism in the government (including groups that may have once supported the ETA) for the first time.  In some ways, that could temper the ideological hard edges of the abertzale, as well as bring the veneer of credibility to the abertzale that the Basque Nationalists have long enjoyed.

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