By Norm Dixon
The leader of the left-wing pro-independence Basque party Herri Batasuna (HB), Arnaldo Otegi, has described the results of the October 25 Basque regional election as "a vote for peace, liberty and self-determination". He said it is a clear indication that the people of the Basque Country prefer independence. Support for the HB, standing under the banner of the Euskal Herritarrok (Basque Citizens) coalition, jumped by 30% at the expense of conservative and moderate nationalist parties.
The Bascongadas regional election (which includes three of the Basque provinces under Spanish rule, but excludes Navarre) was almost universally seen as a referendum on whether talks should begin with the militant nationalist resistance organisation, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA — Basque Homeland and Freedom), on the Basque Country's future.
On September 12, 23 political parties, trade unions and grassroots groups issued the "Lizarra Declaration" calling for multilateral talks with ETA without conditions. The meeting that produced the declaration was initiated by Herri Batasuna.
The Lizarra Declaration was signed by the main Basque nationalist parties — including the largest party in Bascongadas, the conservative Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) — the Basque trade union federation, the Basque branch of the Communist Party-led United Left and the Basque Trotskyist organisation, Zutik.
On September 17, ETA announced an open-ended cease-fire. ETA has been fighting for more than 30 years for an independent, socialist Basque homeland.
ETA set no conditions but left no doubt that its goal remained an independent Basque state. The organisation said it would suspend all armed activities indefinitely but would not give up its arms.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar immediately rejected the Lizarra Declaration, as did the opposition Socialist Party (PSOE). Aznar's right-wing Popular Party (PP) government insists it will not negotiate with ETA or Herri Batasuna until ETA renounces armed struggle.
Results for the 75-member regional parliament reflected the referendum nature of the poll. A record 71% of the 1.8 million-strong electorate turned out, almost one-fifth more voters than at the last regional poll in 1994. Most commentators agreed that these extra voters favoured the anti-independence camp.
Openly nationalist and pro-independence parties won at least 37 seats. The Basque branch of the United Left, a signatory of the Lizarra Declaration, won two seats. Altogether, signatories to the Lizarra Declaration won 43 seats and 746,000 votes while opponents of the declaration won 32 seats and 483,000 votes.
The HB-led Euskal Herritarrok increased its seats by three to 14 with a vote 17.9%, a boost of around 30% compared to the 1994 election and its highest vote in many years. This represents 63,000 more votes compared to the 1994 regional election and 69,000 more compared to the 1996 Spanish general election.
The relative strength of the Basque left vis-a-vis the conservative Basque parties has improved.
The representation of the conservative PNV — which has ruled the region for 18 years — dropped from 22 to 21 seats, with 27.9% of the vote. Despite losing a seat, the PNV's vote increased by 43,000 votes compared to the last regional poll and 32,000 in the general election.
The moderate nationalist Eusko Alkartasuna (8.7%) lost two seats and retained two despite its overall vote also increasing slightly.
Support for the United Left, whose leadership has an ambiguous position on the right of Basque self-determination, fractured under the weight of the pro- and anti-nationalist forces. It dropped from six seats to two, winning just 1.2% of the vote (a loss of 22,000 votes compared to 1994 and 46,000 in 1996).
The hard-line opponents of Basque self-determination, the PP and PSOE, won 30 seats. The PP's representation in the Basque parliament jumped from 11 to 16, with 20.1% of the vote (a gain of 103,000 votes from 1994 but just 19,000 more than in 1996), while the PSOE (17.5%) won 14 seats.
While the PSOE registered a gain of 44,000 votes compared to the 1994 poll, its support dropped by 71,000 votes compared to the 1996 general elections.
The PP and PSOE ran a virulent scare campaign against self-determination, Herri Batasuna and ETA, making it plain what these parties considered the key election issue. Carmelo Barrio, secretary general of the regional PP, reminded voters, "This next [Basque government] will be a government that has to negotiate — we are risking the future of this country".
The PSOE, which was a coalition partner with the PNV in the last three regional governments, repeatedly attacked the PNV for "collaborating" with HB and ETA.
The next regional government is likely to be a minority nationalist coalition of the PNV and EA. Euskal Herritarrok (HB) has said it will not join the government but will support it "from outside" against the PP/PSOE.