Basque elections: Spanish establishment suffers blow

Arnaldo Otegi after his release from jail in March.

Regional elections took place in the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country on September 25, registering an overall rise in support of parties that favour Basque self-determination at the expense of Spanish centralists. At the same time, the combined vote of broad left forces rose.

The elections were meant to decide whether the incumbent centre-right Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) would continue to govern in the Basque Country, an autonomous region in the Spanish state where a long campaign for self-determination has been waged.

After the final count and inclusion of postal votes, the elections resulted in a plurality of votes and seats for the right-nationalists of the PNV. It increased its number of seats from 27 to 28 (out of 75), and received 37.2% of the vote.

Left vote

The left-wing pro-independence party Euskal Herria Bildu got 21.1% of the vote, but lost three seats, dropping to 18. The entrance into Basque politics of Elkarrekin Podemos — a new coalition of left groups including all-Spanish anti-austerity party Podemos — met with mixed results. The coalition gained 11 seats and 14.7% of votes.

The biggest loser of the night was the Socialist Party of the Basque Country (PSE-EE), the Basque affiliate of Spain’s main social democratic, pro-Spanish centralist party, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE). The PSE-EE saw its seats nearly halved to just nine, winning only 11.9% of the vote.

The right-wing Popular Party (PP), which has been in power federally, also suffered a modest drop in its support, losing one seat for a total of nine. The neoliberal party, Citizens, failed to gain any seats, securing a minuscule 2% of the total vote.

The results can be assessed by looking at two dominant political divides within the Basque Country — “self-determination versus Spanish centralism” and “left versus right”.

The parties that support independence, or at least the right to self-determination include the PNV, EH Bildu and Elkarrekin Podemos. Collectively, these forces secured a total of 57 seats, against the 18 of the anti-independence ones (PP, PSOE and Citizens).

At the same time, the left gained ground overall. The two forces to the left of the PSE-EE — EH Bildu and Elkarrekin Podemos — won 29 seats. This is a rise in the left-of-PSE-EE vote, with EH Bildu winning 21 seats in 2012.

PNV holds ground

Above all, the results delivered a clear victory for the incumbent PNV and its leaders. The PNV ran on a platform of political and economic stability relative to the rest of the Spanish state.

Indeed, raw figures show that the Basque country has withstood the eight-year economic crisis better than most regions of Spain. The region recorded a 2.8% growth in its GDP last year, while the latest unemployment level stands at 13.9%, compared to the Spanish average of nearly 20%.

The GDP per capita (€30,459 last year) is also higher than in any other region.

However, all of this has been underpinned by a history of austerity and pro-business economic policies pushed by the PNV government since 2008. According to the Lucha de Classes website, the overall social and public spending by the regional government has been significantly cut since 2008.

Spending on health fell from 5.3% to 4.8% of Basque GDP since 2008 and education fell from 4.3% to 3.6%. Other social initiatives, such as housing and other types of complimentary government assistance stood at just 0.85%.

Labour insecurity also remains a major problem. Those on temporary and insecure contracts now make up a total of 43% of the total workforce.

Historically, the PNV has been the de facto party of the Basque establishment, with a social Christian orientation of the Jesuit Catholic Church on one hand, and pro-business regionalist, devolutionist economic positions on the other. It has effectively been in power since the first elections in the region in 1980, usually forming a coalition government with either the PSE-EE or independent left-wing parties.

The latest results, however, deliver an uncertain outcome for the future of the PNV government. According to the rules of government formation, the ruling party needs to either secure an absolute majority of 38 seats, or otherwise win the plurality of seats and obtain either the support or abstention of enough parties to pass that electoral barrier.

With 28 seats, and being able to rely on the abstention of the PSE-EE’s nine, PNV has only 37. This means PNV must seek the abstention of any of the other three remaining parties — Elkarrekin Podemos, EH Bildu or the PP.

Since abstention effectively signifies political support, the PNV will be forced to choose between the viciously anti-independence right-wing Popular Party, or the left-wing, anti-austerity alternatives of EH Bildu and Elkarrekin Podemos.

Arnaldo Otegi

One of the most important features of the Basque elections was the decision to bar Arnaldo Otegi Mondragon from standing. The secretary of Sortu, which is part of EH Bildu, Otegi is a major figure in the Basque left-wing independence movement.

Between 2010 and March 2016, Otegi was held as a political prisoner of the Spanish state. He spent nearly six years in jail on the charge of “glorifying terrorism” and seeking to rebuild the Batasuna political party (traditionally considered the political arm of the armed Basque independence group, ETA).

Otegi has played a key role in pushing forward the peace process, in which ETA has officially ended its armed campaign and begun disarming.

Despite being prevented from standing for the election, Otegi still played a major organising role during the campaign. The ban against him served as a rallying cry for EH Bildu and its supporters against the anti-democratic machinations of the Spanish courts and government.

The final results showed a moderate drop in their electoral support — most likely due to the new presence of Elkarrekin Podemos. However, the campaign helped fortify Bildu’s position as the largest left-wing party in the Basque Country and the region’s second largest political force.

It also strengthened Otegi’s leadership role within the Basque left-wing independence movement and solidified his position inside EH Bildu.

The vote of the Elkarrekin Podemos coalition experienced a stark drop compared with a similar coalition that ran in the June Spanish-wide elections. In the June elections for the Spanish Congress, the Unidos Podemos/Elkarrekin Ahal Dugu coalition got 335,740 votes (29.28%), compared to the 156,671 (14.7%) for the Basque parliament.

There are key differences between the Basque and Spanish elections, but a number of factors impeded the anti-austerity force from achieving a better result.

First, transferring electoral tactics from the federal elections to the regional ones is no easy task. At the local level, political organising normally takes place on a local village-to-village and town-to-town basis.

Both the PNV and EH Bildu have an established base of support and electoral experience, while Podemos and its allies are still a relatively new entrant within the Basque context.

Secondly, it was a monumental challenge for the Elkarrekin Podemos lead candidate, Pilar Zabala, to match the credibility and recognition of Otegi as the most respected left-wing leader in the Basque Country. During the debates, Zabala found herself outmatched by Miren Larrion, EH Bildu’s lead candidate in the place of Otegi.

Finally, the result confirms that Podemos’ established “All or Nothing” electoral strategy of charging into elections over the corpses of the PSOE (or its regional affiliates) has failed. The main challenge for Podemos now is to focus its energy and political capital on building concrete organisational structures across society — outside of tight intellectual circles in Madrid.

PSOE crisis

The results of the Basque elections, alongside the results of the Galician regional elections the same day, were most damaging for the PSOE. By winning only nine seats, its regional affiliate scored its worst result since Basque elections began.

A significant number of the party’s supporters appear to have abandoned it in favour of Podemos. Its electoral campaign also featured a number of policies and messages that damaged its support among the Basque-speaking population —its message of a “party of social justice” rang hollow.

The results were a key trigger for the PSOE’s national crisis and have served to further shatter the party’s base of support across the country.

The PP weathered the election with its small base of support untouched by PP-pushed austerity, anti-independence policies and ongoing corruption scandals. Most of this could be attributed to the support it has received from the countryside and the older, Spanish-speaking generation. This sector sees it as the main political bulwark against left-wing governments and “separatism” — viewing the PP as more consistent and trustworthy on these issues than other Spanish centralist forces like the PSE-EE or Citizens.

Finally, Citizens, a relatively new neoliberal party, failed to enter the Basque parliament with just 2% of the vote. This signified its complete irrelevance beyond its base of support in Catalonia and the more conservative and centrist communities around Spain.

Instability

The significance of these results for Spanish politics overall has been overshadowed by the apparent disintegration of the PSOE at the all-Spanish level. But the attempt to form the next Basque government could well determine the future of the region’s struggle for self-determination.

Would the PNV dare to form a government with the Basque affiliates of two Spanish establishment parties — the PP and PSOE — or would EH Bildu and Podemos manage to come up with an alternative solution and a possible left-wing government?

All of this demonstrates the instability and the incredible strain that the political establishment is feeling across Spain — especially in the continuous absence of a reliable and stable European Union-approved government in Madrid.

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