Socialists lose ground in Basque poll

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Moderate Basque nationalists emerged the winners of elections in Spain's most intensely nationalist region yesterday, but with fewer seats than four years ago, first results indicated.

With about 50 per cent of votes counted, the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) was set to take 20 seats in the new 75- seat parliament in Vitoria, compared with 22 in the last.

The Basque Socialist Party (PSE), partners of the PNV in the last two coalition governments, fell from 16 seats to 14, while the conservative Popular Party (PP) surged to 11 seats from its previous six. The radical nationalist party Herri Batasuna (HB), the political arm of the separatist group Eta lost ground, taking 11 seats against 13 in 1990.

Setting the campaign tone, Xabier Arzalluz, leader of the PNV, said: 'I prefer a black who speaks Basque than a Spaniard who doesn't' Mr Arzalluz is widely seen as a 'moderate' nationalist, mainly because he is outflanked by the extremists of Eta and Herri Batasuna. At election time, he is wont to pose as a radical nationalist, and to play the racist card to woo the region's nationalist voters.

He refers to 'those from here' and 'those from outside', something that does not sit well with southerners who migrated north as crops failed and an industrial boom held out the promise of full bellies. Not long ago Mr Arzalluz caused a rumpus when he insisted all true Basques had to have the same blood type, Rhesus negative.

Last week Mr Arzalluz infuriated the rest of Spain when he blamed 'ferocious Spanish nationalism' for leading Eta to take up arms. Eta, the Basque-language acronym for Basque Homeland and Freedom, launched its campaign of violence during the latter years of Franco, who had crushed Basque, Catalan and other regional cultures.

The group has killed nearly 800 people over 25 years, but now that the Basque Country enjoys a high degree of autonomy, its goals are no longer clear.

The extent to which Eta and Herri Batasuna are losing support may prove to be the most interesting outcome of the elections for the parliament in Vitoria. The Basque Country runs most of its own affairs but still bows to Madrid on defence and foreign policy as well as on some economic matters.

Herri Batasuna, which has maintained close ties with Sinn Fein, took a battering in last year's general elections and in this year's European elections. The party looked like losing at least one of its 13 seats, threatening its third-place status behind the PNV and the Socialists. Eta, down to a handful of active cells, is reported to be split over whether to continue the armed struggle.

For the first time in recent years, campaigning has been peaceful, which suggests that the guerrillas may be following the example of the IRA.