High stakes poker in Euskadi


I’m sort of playing catch-up to events here, and have a few things on the back burner that I’ve been meaning to get around to, so please bear with me for a little while. One thing I had been meaning to take a look at was last week’s devolved election in the Basque Autonomous Region. This has some importance because, as has been flagged up in the reports, there’s a possibility that the devolved government might not be led by the Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ) for the first time since the autonomy regime was set up in 1980.

A couple of things have brought this possibility about. One is a vagary of the Autonomous Region’s electoral system that over-represents the sparsely populated (and mostly Spanish-speaking) province of Araba at the expense of the more populous (and more culturally Basque) Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa. This means that, although the EAJ and its allies scored 53% to 46% for the Spanish parties (PSOE, PP and the small UPyD), the Spanish parties ended up with 38 seats to the Basques’ 37. The other factor was the banning of two radical nationalist parties and consequent annulment of 100,000 votes that would have returned six deputies for the radicals. I’ll have a little more to say about that below.

One thing that struck me was that the coverage in the British media was much of a muchness. The consistent line was that the Spanish socialists (PSOE) had scored a huge victory due to running a serious campaign centred on the economic crisis, as opposed to the EAJ who were faffing about with nationalist symbolism and grandiose plans for independence. This interpretation fell down even on the detail in the articles, notably the fact that, as President Ibarretxe never ceased to remind the electorate, the Basque autonomous government has a better credit rating than the Spanish government, and unemployment running at half the Spanish rate. Say what you like about the conservative businessmen who lead the Basque Nationalist Party, but they know a thing or two about running an economy. I suspect this media received wisdom is mostly down to Madrid-based correspondents, who don’t have much of a track record of understanding the Basques, just recycling talking points from PSOE spin doctors. There may also be an element of analogy with the deep hatred much of the British press pack feels for Scottish nationalism – Alex Salmond (a banking economist by profession) has been talking much more sense about the crisis than Gordon Brown (a history lecturer by profession), but you’d never know it to read the London papers.

Anyway, this electoral configuration opens up a number of scenarios. Ibarretxe, as leader of the biggest party, has a few things he can do:

  • He can reach an accommodation with the Socialists, either in coalition or toleration of a nationalist minority government.
  • He can go into opposition and let the Socialists try their hand at running an unstable government in the middle of an economic crisis. The chances are, they wouldn’t last very long before the Nationalists were back in the saddle.
  • He can use all the blandishments available to pressurise at least one Socialist representative to defect. This is of course compatible with either one of the first two options.

As for the Socialists, what can they do?

  • The option offering most stability would be a grand coalition with the Nationalists. But then they would be in the junior position, and Patxi López really really wants a shot at the presidency.
  • They could form a government of the Spanish parties. It’s mathematically possible, but fraught with dangers. The formation of a government consisting entirely of Spanish parties, including the post-Francoist PP, with only a minority of the popular vote and with a strong españolista bias, could quite easily lead to mayhem on the streets. It could also put pressure on the PSOE’s more Bascophile wing and, as noted, it would only take one defection to bring them down. What’s more, there could be serious knock-on effects for the national PSOE, whose majority in the Madrid parliament depends on Basque votes, or for their alliances with nationalists in Catalunya and Galicia.
  • The option the PSOE leadership seem to be pursuing at the minute is for a minority government that would be tolerated by the PP without actually bringing the PP into government. This, to be frank, is neither fish nor fowl, and looks even less like lasting a four-year term.

So there will be some interesting horse-trading ahead. But as already noted, there was also the banning of the radical nationalists from the poll, which brings to five the number of nationalist parties banned in recent years. The legal argument is based on these various formations’ links to ETA, but it’s carried out under a political parties law so broadly written that even a non-violent pro-independence party like Aralar could quite conceivably be banned on the sole grounds that its political programme has similarities to that of ETA.

There’s a strong feeling among Basque nationalists that this has been a crude gerrymander aimed at benefiting the Socialists. There may be something to that, but I think there’s much more to it, in terms of how the Basques fit – or rather don’t – into the Spanish body politic. You could, if you were historically minded enough, go way back to the Carlist Wars, and note that the Carlist rebels drew their strongest popular base from Euskadi, Catalunya and Aragón – that is, regions that had both a tradition of feudal autonomy and cultural abstand vis-à-vis the dominant Castilian nationality. Or you could note the emergence of modern Basque and Catalan nationalisms as mass movements after the Disaster of 1898, with the consequence that the other nationalists – the Spanish nationalists – have never really forgiven the Basques or Catalans for “insulting the nation.” Hence the extreme repression in Euskadi under the Franco regime.

Some of this, it is true, has been ameliorated by decentralising reforms dating from the post-Franco transition, but the beefs haven’t been eliminated. It is frequently pointed out that the 1978 constitution, passed without a Basque majority, is the only constitution in the history of the Spanish state that declared Castilian the sole official language. Nor that the army was given the constitutional duty to intervene in the case of a threat to the unity of the kingdom. The reactions from Madrid in recent years to proposed reforms of the Basque and Catalan autonomy statutes – falling well short of independence – show that the national issue is a long way from being resolved.

So, how does this tie in to Madrid’s current politic? The persistent outlawing of nationalist parties, associations and publications betray a desire to make the Basque national issue into a security issue pure and simple. This isn’t just for propaganda purposes, but also because the Spanish state reckons that an armed ETA campaign can be contained fairly easily, even if the organisation can’t be definitively defeated. What’s more, casting the national question as a terrorism problem heads off criticism from abroad. That’s how the 1980s PSOE government of Felipe González orchestrated kidnapping, torture and murder on an epic scale without a peep of protest from the UN or the Council of Europe.

By contrast, look at what happened when ETA declared a ceasefire in 1998. Of course, Madrid wouldn’t open up talks with Herri Batasuna, but the then government did agree to talk to the constitutional Basque parties. To their horror, the constitutional nationalists started placing nationalist demands on the Spanish. What was even worse was the Catalan and Galician nationalists, sniffing a constitutional revision, trying to get in on the action. This is Madrid’s real nightmare – not the disruption and occasional death caused by a small armed group, but a political movement amongst the minority nationalities that might unravel the entire state.

Which is why this small corner of the state still has the potential to strike real fear into the central government.


  1. March 10, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    the Basque voting system generally favours the “Spanish” parties by giving all three provinces the same number of MPs (25) which was always in favour of PSOE and PP, both having their strongholds in Araba, the smallest and most “pro-spanish) of the three provinces with ~ 305.000 inhabitants (Bizkaia has ~ 1.130.000 inhabitants, Gipuzkoa ~ 685.000) … would be like giving three-county-Ulster and Leinster the same number of seats in the Dáil … only now, this has lead together with the banning of the abertzale left to a centralist majority

  2. D. J. P. O'Kane said,

    March 10, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    I’ve been sceptical of non-Spanish reporting of the Basque lands since the time Herri Batasuna was banned, along with (IIRC) a Basque language newspaper. I mentioned to some Spanish friends the claim that the newspaper was being used to pass coded messages to ETA. . . and my friends (certainly not pro-ETA) fell about laughing. . .

  3. March 10, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    the Basque language daily Egunkaria was a broad independent paper uniting journalists from PNV to HB, the editorial board of Egunkaria was arrested and some of its members tortured in 2003/04 … the charges were dropped later but the papers went bankrupt

  4. Madam Miaow said,

    March 10, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    Life On Mars or what? Basques and IRA in the news … It’s the 1970s in slow motion.

    BTW, when is someone going to create a Guernica for Gaza?

  5. Ciarán said,

    March 10, 2009 at 11:29 pm

    There’s a large mural of the Guernica painting on the Falls Road in Belfast. During the Israeli onslaught against Gaza a number of schoolkids wrote the names of Palestinian children killed in the attacks onto the Guernica mural.

  6. igaeilge said,

    March 11, 2009 at 7:35 am

    Egunkaria was banned in 2003 but the very next day a replacement newspaper was published. Berria has been published ever since and is now under the editorship of Martxelo Otamendi, the original editor of Egunkaria. In terms of minority language newspapers, Berria/Egunkaria is the benchmark and naturally enough it survives without government subvention. Looking back now I wish Lá/Lá Nua had gone that route instead of becoming dependent on subsidy from Foras na Gaeilge and thus subject to the vagaries of wounded political egos. But I’m glad to see that a news service – An Druma Mór – has arisen from the ashes of Lá/Lá Nua.

  7. Madam Miaow said,

    March 11, 2009 at 9:39 am

    I’d love to have seen that, Ciaran. I don’t suppose anyone has links to pix.

  8. Ciarán said,

    March 11, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    Here’s a photo of the mural: http://www.flickr.com/photos/12201157@N00/1879139284

    And here’s one of it being painted: http://thestory.org/photo-galleries/murals-of-danny-devenney-and-mark-ervine/mark-danny-guernica.jpg

    I haven’t seen any photos online yet of the kids putting the names on it but if I find any I’ll past them on.

  9. Alexander said,

    March 19, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    In a related vein, here is an interesting observation on the treatment Catalans get in the hands of the Spanish state, historically and in current times.

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