Spanish elections: History made as pro-Basque coalition formed in Navarre

Uxue Barkos, leader of Geroa Bai.
Friday, June 26, 2015

Regional elections held in Spain on May 24 installed an historic pro-Basque state government in the Basque autonomous community of Navarre for the first time. It ended 16 years of rule by the pro-Spanish, centre-right Navarrese People's Union (UPN).

The UPN won only 15 seats, down four from 2011. Its ally, the right-wing Spanish People’s Party (of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy), won two, half of its quota in 2011.

Instead, Uzue Barkos, leader of the pro-Basque coalition Geroa Bai (“Yes to the Future”), approached other pro-Basque parties to negotiate a coalition government after her party won nine seats. Geroa Bai is itself a coalition of centre-left Basque nationalist association Zabaltzen and the centre-right Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV).

Navarre is part of the Basque Country, which cuts across the Spanish and French states. Basque people have long struggled for national and cultural rights, in the face of sustained repression from the Spanish state.

Navarre is excluded from the Basque Country autonomous community in Spain, but the elections show Basque identity remains strong in the region.

To form government, Geroa Bai needed 26 seats in the 50-seat Navarre parliament — 17 more than it won. After the vote, it began discussions with the left-wing pro-Basque independence coalition Basque Country Unite (EH Bildu), which won eight seats, the new Spanish anti-austerity party Podemos (seven seats) and the left-federalist Izquierda-Ezkerra — the Navarre affiliate of Spain's United Left — which won two seats.

All four parties share some common policies, including increased self-government for Navarre and further protection for the Basque language.

Barkos initially left open the possibility of asking the Socialist Party of Navarre (PSN) to join the coalition. But both EH Bildu and Podemos baulked at the proposal, as the PSN had supported the UPN in government during the last parliamentary term.

Basque language and autonomy

Although not a part of Spain's official Basque Country autonomous community, Navarre is the largest of the seven provinces of the greater Basque homeland. Basque is still widely spoken in the region, particularly in the north.

However, Basque language and culture have suffered from years of neglect and oppression. By 2006, only 11.1% of Navarrans identified as full speakers of Basque, although many more described themselves as “passive” users of the language.

All four parties in the new pro-Basque coalition went to the elections vowing to strengthen the Basque language in Navarre schools. They also committed to the “normalisation” of Basque in the region and agreed on increasing its use in public administration.

Navarre is currently divided into three linguistic zones. Basque is only an official language — alongside Spanish — in the northern zone. All four parties agree on overcoming this division. However only EH Bildu and Izquierda-Ezkerra are calling for the language to be granted full official status throughout all of Navarre.

EH Bildu goes further, calling for policies to “ensure that the entire student population” of Navarre has a basic knowledge of Basque.

The four parties also advocate greater political autonomy for Navarre, although they differ on degrees and a time frame.

EH Bildu wants a “change of political status” within the new electoral term, while Geroa Bai is more circumspect, saying political change should come “at the time when the political situation allows it”.

Izquierda-Ezkerra takes a similarly gradualist approach, suggesting that Navarre should take on more powers as Spain progresses towards a “federal and plurinational republic” that recognises the right to self-determination.

Podemos is even less specific on the issue. The party, that only formed last year, says Navarre should be devolved “as many powers as the Navarrese population decides”.

Ending Spain?

Results in Navarre’s local and municipal elections also marked successes for pro-Basque parties. Despite losing ground in local elections within the Basque Country, EH Bildu was able to form a coalition government in the Navarre capital, Iruna (Pamplona). This ended 20 years of right-wing, pro-Spanish rule in the city.

EH Bildu’s candidate Joseba Asiron was elected mayor with support from Geroa Bai, the citizens’ platform Aranzadi (a grass-roots initiative supported by Podemos) and Izquierda-Ezkerra.

Delivering his inaugural speech in both Basque and Spanish, Asiron committed to working for peace and coexistence between Basque and Spanish cultures in the city.

The victory for pro-Basque forces in Navarre coincides with the rise in pro-independence sentiment in other parts of Spain. This is most marked in Catalonia, which held a non-binding referendum on independence last November.

It also takes place as the decades-long armed conflict in the Basque Country looks to be drawing to a close. The pro-independence Basque Homeland and Liberty (ETA) has officially ended its armed campaign and has started to disarm.

The Spanish state refuses to recognise these moves towards seeking a peaceful road to Basque self-determination. It insists on a policy of crushing ETA entirely while persecuting all pro-independence Basques. It has also declared a Catalan vote on independence illegal.

At the same time, the rapid rise of the anti-austerity party Podemos out of the huge street protests of recent years threatens to unravel the two-party hegemony that has governed Spain since the restoration of democracy in the 1970s.

Right-wing bombast

In the aftermath of the Navarre vote, outgoing UPN premier Navarre Yolanda Barcina described the results as “destabilising” for Spain. She went as far as to compare it to the rise of the Nazis in Germany, and also warned of a “Venezuela-like” situation in Spain.

Barcina urged Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias to “think” before forming alliances with parties that aim “to break up Spain or free ETA prisoners”. Podemos' Navarre leader Laura Perez responded that her party “will not frustrate” political change in the region.

Decisions by Podemos on any agreement, Perez said, “will not be taken in Madrid” but in the “Citizens' Assembly of Navarre” — Podemos' highest decision-making body in the territory.

The desperation evident in Barcina's bombastic comments reflects a deep-seated unease felt by the Spanish ruling class.

The growing movements against austerity across Spain, and calls for independence or increased autonomy in several regions — Galicia and Andalucia as well as Catalonia and the Basque Country — raises questions about the long-term viability of the Spanish state.

[Based on an article that first appeared at Duroyan Fertl's Hintadupfing blog.]

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