Eta makes its move on the mainstream

The Basque separatists want a new political life – but so far their electoral ambitions have been thwarted. Dale Fuchs reports

Engaging in small town politics is never easy. But it has become virtually impossible in Ondarroa, a seaside idyll in the Spanish Basque region. Just ask 70-year-old Felix Arambarri, former mayor of this village of 9,000 souls who live in the shadow of the violent Basque separatist group Eta.

Eta's allies were banned from standing in the 2009 elections but claimed victory anyway due to the number of spoiled ballots. Mainstream parties dared not occupy their council seats due to intimidation. Mr Arambarri, a retired banker, volunteered to help manage the town in this political vacuum. Since then, his car has been firebombed twice and blood-red paint poured on his door. Neighbours shout insults at him like "thief" or "Spaniard".

"Even though Eta has declared a truce, I have to travel with bodyguards, and in a small town, that's not very pleasant," he said. "The people don't exactly look at you with kindness in their eyes."

Jeers and vandalism may seem like trivial matters compared to the more than 850 people killed in Eta's four-decade fight for an independent Basque state. But the question of who is allowed to govern villages like Ondarroa has become an important part of the equation in the prospects of peace for this small, wealthy region.

Four years after peace talks exploded with an Eta bomb at Madrid's airport, hope is sprouting slowly and cautiously. The group has not killed since last March. Weakened by arrests and eroding support in Basque society, it declared its latest truce this January. And in February, Eta's political allies, barred from public life since 2002, took an unprecedented step. They formed a new party, Sortu, which has explicitly condemned any future use of violence by Eta.

With this break from the "armed struggle," Eta's allies had hoped to participate in local elections next month – and perhaps command up to 15 per cent of the Basque vote.

The Supreme Court blocked their ambitions last week, affirming an earlier decision to keep Sortu away from the polls. The new party remained "at the service of Eta," the court decided. Sortu is expected to appeal, but even if it wins, it will be too late to run on the May ballots.

But as legal questions wind their way through the courts, Spanish society wonders whether it is witnessing the start of a new era for independent-minded left-wingers, and the beginning of the end of Eta, or yet another ploy to recoup the power and money generated in Basque municipalities.

"I think it's a real change in sensibilities, but the question is whether the Spanish people are willing to believe them," said Jeff Miley, an expert on Basque nationalism at Cambridge University. "There's a real fear that if we dismantle the legal barriers to running for office and give them space again, we'll be giving them new strength."

Indeed, the Socialist-led Spanish government is sceptical of rebranding efforts by the so-called "patriotic left". Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero was accused of bowing to Eta as the last round of negotiations foundered. Following the announcement of the latest truce, he said there would be "no dialogue" and called for "more forceful and definitive steps".

State prosecutors petitioned the Supreme Court to bar Sortu from the municipal ballot box. "The rejection of terrorism in their statutes is cosmetic, rhetorical and strategic, not authentic," the lawsuit claimed.

But many Basques believe it is "undemocratic" to ban a political party and welcome the return of Eta allies, formerly known as Batasuna, to public life. As an example of the successful transition, they point to the legal, radical-left party Aralar, which broke from Batasuna by condemning violence a decade ago.

"Batasuna called us traitors then and now they see we are right," said Daniel Maeztu, an Aralar deputy. "We are eager to confront them on a normal political playing field, at the polls."

But the spectre of Sortu has dredged up bad memories for other Basque politicians, who believe Eta's prior political incarnation, Batasuna, used its control of local institutions to legitimise and finance violence. As a legal party, they were entitled to millions in state subsidies plus salaries for municipal posts. They also had access to personal information about potential Eta targets.

"In the regional parliament, the Batasuna deputies would get paid but wouldn't even show up," recalled Leopoldo Barrera, veteran spokesman for the Basque branch of the national Popular Party. "The Bastasuna politicians carried a double identity card that said, 'I'm a councilman on the city hall but at home I can hide an Eta operative or share information with Eta, and in my cultural association I can recruit young people'."

The 2002 law barred Batasuna from public life for failing to condemn violence. It was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and it is one of many factors contributing to Eta's decline.

Experts agree that the band is a dinosaur – a relic from the days of repression of regional identities under the dictator General Franco. For many Basques, it has evolved from a heroic resistance that killed Franco's possible successor to a bunch of thugs. "It's a bit absurd to claim that we have such repression in democratic Spain today that an armed struggled is called for," said Xabier Etxeberria, a specialist in political ethics at the University of Deusto in Bilbao.

More than 700 Eta members now sit in Spanish jails because of improved co-ordination between Spanish and French police and the anti-terror crackdown throughout Europe.

And young people are less likely to sign up for an armed fight in Eta's old-fashioned hierarchy, sociologists say.

So why has Eta survived so long? Oddly, one reason is that Basques already enjoy a large degree of autonomy, and it's hard to negotiate a peaceful dissolution when, as Mr Miley of Cambridge University's said: "They already have so much. They don't have many objective grievances except their ultimate goal: the right to hold a referendum on independence, like Quebec," he said.

It isn't clear whether the independent-minded crowd would win or lose such a referendum. What is clear is that, even if the band dissolves peacefully, local hatreds will take a long time to disappear.

"I've endured vexing for four years, and the people who target me don't change overnight," said Mr Arambarri.

Terror groups that went to the ballot box

* Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) Linked with violence, extortion and abductions, this US-designated terrorist organisation ended a 10-year rebel insurgency with a peace agreement in 2006. Two years later, Maoists emerged as the majority party in elections for a new constituent assembly.

* Sinn Fein Founded in 1970 when Provisional Sinn Fein split from Official Sinn Fein, today's nationalist party is still regarded as the political wing of the Provisional IRA (PIRA), which staged terrorist campaigns in Northern Ireland, Great Britain and Europe. In 2005, PIRA declared a formal end to its armed campaign. * Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua led a violent uprising which led to the downfall of the Somoza regime in 1979. Backed by the FSLN, President Daniel Ortega is set to seek a third term in office this November.

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