Basque Country: standstill or progress?

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The 25th of September citizens of the Basque Autonomous Community (which is comprised of the provinces of Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa and which sums up two thirds of the Basque population) went to the polls to choose their next parliament. The MPs will then gather and choose the Lehendakari (the Basque President) in the final week of November. The election, as was the case in every election since 1979, gave no majority to any party, but the party of the incumbent Lehendakari, the PNV (Basque Nationalist Party, centre-right) came out reinforced with one more MP, adding up a total of 28 out of 75. While the method to elect the head of the Basque government eases the election of the candidate with the most MPs (even if he does not achieve more than 50% of MP’s support), the PNV will need to make durable agreements for budget and key legislation to pass. And in this situation is where the Basque Country will know whether we make national progress, or if we continue in standstill.

The Basque Country has been, since the restoration of autonomy in 1979 up to 2009, governed by the PNV, and always with either a coalition or with confidence and supply agreements. The PNV switched allies, sometimes preferring to pact with the unionist PSE (the Basque branch of Spain’s PSOE), and other times allying with Basque left-wing pacifist nationalists (Eusko Alkartasuna and Euskadiko Ezkerra). The major shift in Basque politics came in the early 2000s, when the PNV Lehendakari Ibarretxe started a self-determination process and an attempt of a peace process with the backing of EA and EB (a small federalist left-wing party). Both the peace process and the self-determination process failed, due to the continuous boycotting from the Spanish government, and the election of a more moderate (nationalist) leader of the PNV, Iñigo Urkullu. With that background, the 2009 election led to the first non-PNV government of the Basque Country, made possible by an agreement of centre-left unionist PSE and right-wing unionist PP parties, and also with the banning of the “abertzale left” candidacy (increasing the number of spoiled ballots from 0.33% in 2005, to a considerable 8.79% – more than 100,000 votes).

During Patxi Lopez’s (PSE) tenure, two major developments happened in the Basque Country. Most importantly, ETA declared a unilateral and definitive ceasefire (which has had so far no response from the Spanish government), but also, politically, all Basque left-wing and pro-independence parties (amongst them EFA parties Eusko Alkartasuna and Aralar) decided to join up in a single coalition: EH Bildu; making it the first time in Basque elections where a single pro-independence list stood up. The results in 2012 where positive, with the ousting of the unionist Lehendakari, electing PNV’s Iñigo Urkullu as new Basque President, and also because EH Bildu became the leading party in the opposition. The perspectives were encouraging, with a nationalist majority in parliament, and a new Lehendakari that had declared 2012-2016 as the “crucial term for peace and a new status for the Basque Country”.

All the hope of 2012 was proved to be a false hope, as the Spanish government has made no efforts to bring the armed conflict to an end, and the Basque government continuously postponed the re-opening of the self-determination process. And that was the background of the 2016 Basque election, a background of broken promises and an everlasting standstill for Basque peace and national liberation.
One month before the election, the Spanish justice intervened, and as it had done in previous decades, declared that certain individuals had no right to stand for office. It was the case of Arnaldo Otegi, leader of EH Bildu coalition, and who had just been freed from jail after completing his whole sentence (Otegi was imprisoned in 2009 for attempting to create a new “abertzale left” party, committed to peace, as much as the Sinn Fein did during the Northern Irish peace process). Another important difference with the 2012 election was the surge of Podemos, as a “federal” alternative to EH Bildu’s left-wing platform.

The economy was main issue over which the election was fought, with the Basque Country slowly recovering from the recession, but at the same time, with a growing industrial crisis due to factory closings. Nevertheless, the peace process and self-determination were also key issues during the election campaign. On the night of the 25th of September, the PNV saw its majority increased by 1 MP, and were considered the clear winners. EH Bildu, which in 2012 was the only major left-wing party, resisted quite well the appearance of Podemos, obtaining 18 MPs (down 3), as compared to Podemos’ 11 MPs (considering that polls had shown Podemos with bigger potential support than EH Bildu). The big losers of the night were the unionist parties, with the PSE decreasing from 16 to 9 MPs (down 7), and the PP losing 1 and staying as the smallest political group with 9 MPs (but fewer votes than PSE). The results produced a nationalist majority (PNV + EH Bildu), a pro-self-determination majority (PNV + EH Bildu + Podemos) and a progressive majority (EH Bildu + Podemos + PSE).

But in Basque politics a clear victory never means an easy way into office. Negotiations are still underway, and the appointing of the new Lehendakari is expected for late November. While it is certain the Urkullu will continue as leader, it is still not clear whether he will renew the confidence and supply agreement with the unionist centre-left PSE party or will choose EH Bildu as its new partner, and optioned favoured by most Basques according to the latest opinion polls.

What is at stake in these negotiations, is not who will get a particular share of power for the next four years, but whether the Basque Country will finally re-start the self-determination process, a promise which the PNV always makes, but which later always seems to put aside. The Basque Country not only needs to bring the decades-long conflict to an end, but also needs to follow suit with the cases of Scotland and Catalonia, in this new era for self-determination in Europe. And it must be done now. The Basque Parliament has a clear mandate, with over 75% of MPs supporting a democratic vote on the Basque Country’s political future. This next four years will determine whether the PNV chooses PSE’s standstill – again – or the opportunity offered by EH Bildu to shape freely our nation’s future.

Adrián Fuentes / Vice-president of EFAy for International Affairs

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