Basque Separatists Find New Voice in Spanish National Politics
Andrea Walton 3 January 2023

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) has been in trouble for months, engaged in the challenging task of offering effective responses to a record rise in inflation triggered by the war in Ukraine. Since the beginning of the legislature in 2020, the socialist leader also had to mediate between his minority coalition partner, Unidas Podemos (UP) and the Catalan and Basque independence parties whose votes were decisive in approving fundamental measures such as the budget law.

Since this is the first coalition government in the history of modern Spain that does not rely on a stable parliamentary majority, the role of regional parties has significantly increased and so has the role of municipal and regional elections; the next ones are in May 2023 to be followed by general elections later in the year. The PSOE, like the rest of the political forces, is already in electoral mode. The expectations are that the left will maintain all the Autonomous Communities where they currently govern and will attempt to take Madrid as well. On May 28, 2023, there will also be the Basque foral elections, in the autonomous community historically divided between separatist and nationalist forces.

On October 20, 2011, the Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) announced, after the release of a video, “the definitive cessation of its armed activities.” ETA was created in 1959 in response to repressive activities against the Basque language and culture by the dictatorship of Francisco Franco and has been accused of killing over 850 people with targeted assassinations and terrorist attacks. ETA’s goal was to achieve the independence of the Basque territories in northern Spain and western France. The group surrendered because of a push by its political wing – under pressure from Basque public opinion – to “change its strategy” and cease its violence against civilians, but also because of the repeated arrests of its leadership and the seizure of its arsenal by the Spanish police.

Although it has been described by many as a “unilateral” peace process, the Basque transition to peace, as explained by the Berghof Foundation, was more of a multilateral endeavor, through the creation of multiple spaces of dialogue and consensus-building (from internal dialogue with all pro-independence militants to inter-party dialogue between Basque institutions, and social dialogue with the entire Basque community.) This process enabled civil society to play a decisive role in ETA’s disarmament in 2017 and the auto-dissolution of the organization in 2018. In the last decade, the pro-independence movement has demonstrated its commitment to end violence. On October 18, 2021, it took another step by issuing a public statement of empathy with all victims of ETA, and recognizing that their suffering should never have occurred.

Politicians on the right have claimed that ETA’s influence is still alive in the north of the country. This is explained by a controversial judicial case that epitomizes the difficult relationship between Spanish conservative unionists and its nationalist periphery. A prosecutor witnessed a bar brawl in the village of Alsasua, in the Navarre region, as part of a concerted strategy of hostility by a faction of local people who aimed to drive security forces away from the town. For the people involved it was just a drunken scuffle, but they were sentenced to hefty jail terms. Parties on the right are sure that accidents and homecoming ceremonies, which celebrate the release of ETA members from prison, show ETA’s influence. A center-right party claimed that was impossible to run candidates in towns like Alsasua, for fear of harassment from Basque nationalists. In the poor hard-line pro-independence Basque communities of Lezo and Pasajes San Juan banners and graffiti calling for independence and amnesty for jailed ETA members are reminders of a dark past whose legacy many, in particular the young, do not or prefer not to know.

The majority of the Basque population has always sided with the nationalistic cause and this has been reflected in past local elections. Since 1979, the anti-ETA and centrist separalist Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) has almost always been in power and also won the 2020 elections. In this case the PNV obtained 39 percent of the popular vote and was able to maintain a long standing coalition agreement with the Socialist Party. The Popular Party (right-wing), Ciudadanos (liberal), Podemos (leftist-populists) were punished by the electorate, while Eh Bildu, a radical left-wing party criticized for being too close to ETA, had its best result since 2012 with 21 deputies elected. The Basque Parliament has never been so aligned with nationalism, 52 of the 75 deputies support this position, but this moderate secessionism seems to worry less than before.

In November 2021, the announcement by the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) provided certainty about the future stability of the coalition government of the socialist PSOE and left-wing Unidas-Podemos after the latest crisis within Spain’s executive. The political future of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his government relies greatly on the parliamentary support of the ERC and the PNV. For example, both parties did not submit amendments to the 2022 budget, leading to its final approval.

According to a poll by Sociometro del Pais Vasco, which analyzed the answers given by 3,333 citizens interviewed within the community during October 2022, only 24 percent of respondents is still in favor of the independence, while 40 percent said they were against and 31 percent were unsure. El Sociometro also asked the population how they felt regarding their Basque or Spanish identity. 45 percent of the citizens answered that they felt uniquely Basque or more Basque than Spanish, 40 percent felt both identities equally and only 11 percent of the population felt uniquely or mainly Spanish. So while sentiment in Southern Basque Country and other separalist regions may be shifting towards a more united Spain, it is perhaps their newfound voice in national politics that is aiding these sentiments.


Cover Photo: Basque Country’s flag, August 24, 2019 (photo by Marie Magnin/Hans Lucas via AFP.)


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