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ELECTIONS-SPAIN: Victorious Moderates Push for Basque Sovereignty

Alicia Fraerman

MADRID, May 26 2003 (IPS) - The victory of moderate Basque nationalist parties in municipal and regional elections Sunday is a shot in the arm for the autonomy plan proposed by Juan José Ibarretxe, president of this autonomous Spanish community.

"We are well prepared to carry the Ibarretxe Plan forward," stated Xabier Arzallus, president of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), upon learning of the election results.

The plan invokes the Basque people’s right to self- determination, but its authors have not yet defined whether – once approved – it would lead to the "federalisation" of the Basque community in Spain or if it would be a previous step towards independence and integration with the European Union as a sovereign state.

The coalition of PNV and its offshoot Euska Alkartasuna (EA), accumulated 497,524 votes in the municipal elections in the three provinces that make up the Basque Autonomous Community – Guipúzcoa, Vizcaya and Alava – with a census count of 1,771,441 people and an abstention rate Sunday of 28.45 percent.

In second place was the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), with 251,131 votes, followed by the centre-right nationally governing Popular Party (PP), with 212,443, and the United Left (IU) coalition, centred on the Communist Party, with 89,616 votes.

Together, the votes of the moderate nationalist movement (PNV and EA) and the IU, their ally in the Basque autonomous government, drew 587,140 votes, far ahead of the so-called constitutionalist parties, the PP and PSOE, with 463,574 votes between them.

The PP and PSOE defend the 1978 Spanish constitution, which does not include the right to self-determination for the autonomous communities or any other units of Spanish territory.

Electoral experts agree that the 9.3 percent of the spoiled ballots in Basque Country elections Sunday can be attributed to supporters of ETA, the terrorist separatist group whose candidates were prohibited from running for office when the Constitutional Tribunal issued a ruling to that effect last week.

The Tribunal upheld the prohibition of 241 lists of candidates for the municipal elections in the northern autonomous communities of Basque Country and Navarra, two of the 17 comprising Spain.

The ruling stated that AUB (initials in the Basque language for Platform for Self-Determination) is "the operative continuation" of Batasuna, Euskal Herritarrok and Herri Batasuna, the latest names used by the party that fronted for the ETA, and all banned since Mar. 28.

ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna – Basque Fatherland and Freedom, in the Basque language) emerged during the final years of Spain’s Francisco Franco dictatorship (1939-1975) and shifted its opposition to the military regime towards separatist demands.

ETA is known for its terrorist tactics, including car bombs and assassinations, which are blamed for the deaths of more than 800 people over the past three decades.

The ban on the electoral lists prompted pro-ETA groups to urge supporters to put a special ballot in the voting envelopes, slips of paper that state the separatists’ demands. In practice, this is a spoiled ballot.

Most of these votes were cast in smaller municipalities, which led some political observers to doubt the true extent of the voters’ freedom to cast their ballots anonymously.

That doubt arises from the fact that, in Spain, voters can go to the balloting site with their vote already in a closed envelope, without having to enter a private voting booth, sociologist Edurne García, told IPS.

As such, said the expert, ETA militants could hand out ballots to the residents and then use threats and monitoring to force them to cast those ballots.

But the possibility of such pressures was denied by Arnaldo Otegui, spokesman in the Basque parliament of the banned ETA- linked party, who said the special ballots had been cast by "Basques who are defiant, unsubmissive and democratic," who used this form of protest to demand their right to participate freely in elections.

Otegui added that, once the elections in which they were not able to participate were over, this sector of the electorate would demand that the moderate nationalist coalition recognise their percentage of the votes. However, doing so is not constitutionally feasible.

According to an editorial in ‘El Diario Vasco’, one of the leading newspapers in the region, "the campaign for the spoiled ballot has been a failure," because it reduced the radical and violent nationalist movement to a minimum, just under 10 percent.

In Bilbao, San Sebastián and Vitoria, the major Basque cities, the victories were shared amongst the major parties. In Bilbao the PNV-EA coalition won, in San Sebastián the PSOE, and in Vitoria the PP.

With the electoral race over, attention will now be on the Ibarretxe Plan, which is slated to be reactivated in September, says the PNV’s Ibarretxe himself, after the northern hemisphere summer vacation.

Although Spain’s national government rejects the Ibarretxe Plan outright, the José María Aznar administration does not deny the possibility of negotiating an expansion of the authority of the Basque Country’s public entities, based on what is established in the constitution.

But Aznar demands that the PNV-EA must break off any kind of contact with ETA as a prerequisite for dialogue on greater autonomy.

In that respect, the statements made by PNV chief Arzallus are significant. "Basques have turned their backs on ETA (in not paying attention) to the call for the null vote that ETA made with great solemnity," he said.

The poor showing could be interpreted as a response to the central government’s requirements for negotiations.

In a proposed strategy for the governability of the Basque Country municipalities, Jaime Mayor Oreja, PP leader in the region and former Interior minister, said his party would do "the unthinkable in order to reinforce the greatest number of constitutionalist mayors."

In other words, the PP will support "all of the candidates of the PSOE," the PP’s main rival, in order to establish pro- constitutional leadership in Basque institutions.

José Baños Loinaz, editor of the ‘Deia’ newspaper, linked to the PNV, the big loser in Sunday’s elections was precisely the PP "and its confrontational discourse." The PP did not fail in winning governing posts, but in blocking others’ policies, he wrote.

The PNV and EA, with their grip on majority power, will be able to promote the Ibarretxe Plan without having to rely on groups that support ETA, noted Baños Loinaz.

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