The 5-Minute Briefing: Basque separatism

Poll forces nationalist leader to rethink plan for autonomy

What have Sunday's regional elections produced in the Basque country?

The Basque Nationalist Party won, as usual, but with only 29 seats in the 75-seat parliament, it failed to eclipse parties that consider themselves Spanish rather than Basque. The nationalists' leader, Juan Jose Ibarretxe, can't rule alone, and has agonising choices over possible allies. He could favour the hitherto unknown Communist Party of the Basque Lands (Ehak), which won more than 12 per cent of the vote, nine seats. Ehak was supported by the banned pro-Eta Batasuna party, and is condemned by conservatives as an Eta front. A deal with Ehak would poison relations with Madrid.

Or he could accept the overtures of Basque Socialists, who overtook the conservative Popular Party to become the region's second force. Socialists want to seek autonomy through consensus.

So Basques don't want independence from Spain?

It doesn't look like it. About half of the Basques consider themselves nationalist and harbour an idealised vision of a Basque homeland. But most accept the generous autonomy the region already enjoys.

A sizeable proportion worries that nationalist demands unnecessarily provoke discord with Madrid. But a minority - represented by Ehak - consider themselves oppressed by Spain and want to secede. They argue that any means, including arms, are justified to achieve that aim.

Mr Ibarretxe's sovereignty plan - offering Basque passports, Basque foreign policy and independent Basque courts - was killed off by Sunday's poll. He presented the elections as a plebiscite, and didn't mobilise the support he'd expected. He must now rethink everything.

Where does Eta fit in?

The armed separatists haven't killed anyone for two years. They've been weakened by the arrest of top leaders, nationwide revulsion against terrorism following the March train bombings, and dissent among hundreds of Eta prisoners weary of the struggle.

Eta has hinted that it wants to talk to the Socialist government, but the Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, says that's impossible until the organisation condemns violence.

What will Zapatero do now?

Mr Zapatero got what he wanted: a drop in nationalist support and a boost for Basque Socialists. He promises to grant more autonomy if a broad majority of Basques want it, but he's in no hurry.

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