Election kills off Basque leader's autonomy plan

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Conservative Basque nationalists headed for a renewed electoral victory in the region last night, but they lost ground substantially while an obscure party backed by radical separatists made an unexpectedly strong showing.

Conservative Basque nationalists headed for a renewed electoral victory in the region last night, but they lost ground substantially while an obscure party backed by radical separatists made an unexpectedly strong showing.

With most votes counted, the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) led by Juan Jose Ibarretxe won 29 seats in the 75-strong regional parliament, compared with 33 in 2001. The result will be bitterly disappointing to Mr Ibarretxe, who treated the poll as a referendum on his blueprint for greater autonomy from Madrid.

The Basque Socialist Party (PSE), which campaigned fiercely against the nationalist project, improved its showing substantially, winning 18 seats, six more than before. The PSE, led by Patxi Lopez, overtook the conservative Popular Party to become the region's second biggest party and a key player in the region's future.

The hitherto insignificant Communist Party of the Basque Lands (EHAK), which burst on to the scene when the banned pro-Eta Batasuna party backed it during the campaign, won a decisive nine seats, to the chagrin and deep concern of most parties.

For the first time in decades, yesterday's elections were free from the menacing shadow of the armed separatist group, Eta. The organisation has made no fatal attack for nearly two years, perhaps awaiting - like every politician in the region - the election result before making their next move.

Basques conspicuously failed to rally to Mr Ibarretxe's call to push the limits of self-government to the point where the region would enjoy "free association" with Spain. Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's socialist government dismissed the plan as unconstitutional, but has offered to negotiate a new statute of autonomy acceptable to a broad majority of Basques.

Mr Ibarretxe's blueprint, which proposes the introduction of Basque passports, a foreign policy role for the region and judicial autonomy, was narrowly approved by Basque MPs in December, but thrown out by the parliament in Madrid in February.

Mr Ibarretxe argued his was the only political route to ending decades of separatist conflict. But with turnout yesterday at 66 per cent, down 15 per cent on 2001, and a drop in support, Mr Ibarratxe cannot now claim his sovereignty plan represents the overwhelming will of Basques. Mr Zapatero and Basque socialists hope Mr Ibarretxe will ditch his plan and seek a wider alliance to draft a new statute of autonomy by consensus.

The election confirmed that the 50-50 split between Basque nationalists and non-nationalists remains unchanged. But the result has unleashed a new stage of haggling and deal-making that could transform the political landscape of the Basque country.

Comments