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The Basque Elections

Jim Padmore

AFTER THE death of Franco three of Spain’s four Basque provinces were granted limited autonomy, and in 1980 the first parliamentary elections took place. The combined nationalist vote was 55%. Since then the nationalist vote has averaged 56% in the Basque elections and 48% in the Spanish general elections. Within that, Herri Batasuna (HB) – which is linked to ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna – "the Basque Country and Freedom") – has averaged 17% and 15% respectively. October 25 saw the sixth elections to the Basque parliament.

The background to the elections was the new political situation after the ETA ceasefire, declared in mid-September. ETA had been without any clear political direction for some years, seemingly content to carry on a disastrous policy of killings and kidnappings. By the time of the 1996 Spanish elections, Herri Batasuna was down to 12% of the popular vote. When, in July 1997, ETA’s killing of local councillor Miguel Angel Blanco sparked massive demonstrations throughout the Basque country and elsewhere in Spain, it was HB’s lowest point. More isolated than ever, the ETA leadership had become a millstone around the neck of Herri Batasuna. The Partido Popular (PP) and Socialist Party (PSOE) couldn’t believe their luck, and the government in Madrid went on the offensive. In December 1997 the entire national leadership of Herri Batasuna were sent to prison, and in July of this year the government closed down Egin, the daily newspaper of HB.

These actions were condemned by both the other nationalist parties (PNV and EA) and by Izquierda Unida (IU – United Left), which was the only non-nationalist party to oppose the repressive measures and support the right to self-determination of the Basque people. The contrast with PSOE is striking: IU supports self-determination; PSOE organises death squads. Former PSOE interior minister Barrionuevo has been jailed for his part in setting up GAL. PSOE holds weekly demonstrations outside his prison!

HB organised a broader electoral front, Euskal Herritarrok (EH – "Basque Citizens") to contest the October elections, and on 17 September ETA declared an indefinite ceasefire. At the same time, for more than six months now, talks have been going on between the three nationalist parties and Izquierda Unida in what’s sometimes called the "Foro de Irlanda". An agreement signed at Lizarra, calling on ETA to declare a ceasefire and on Madrid to recognise the right to self-determination, was backed by these four political parties (PNV, HB, EA, IU) and 19 other organisations. These parties got 3 out of 5 votes in the Basque elections.

In the run-up to the elections both Izquierda Unida and Euskal Herritarrok ran good campaigns. Both called for self-determination and for a reduction in the working week, with no loss of pay. EH also called for an amnesty, while IU’s other demands included the call for a republic and for something similar to Income Support (which doesn’t exist here, with unemployment at 17%).

PP and to a lesser extent PSOE fought a very dirty campaign. Having billed the elections as a referendum on the future of Euskadi, they ran a campaign essentially based on scare-mongering. Playing on the fears of non-Basques and to some extent of all those who don’t speak Euskera (Basque), they talked a lot about "nationalist blocs", of having independence imposed upon them, of being "forced" to speak Basque, of having to choose between being Spanish and being Basque, of the day when they’d have to "pack their suitcases". The fact that there are real fears to play upon can be blamed on the PNV’s policies in government and their brand of cultural nationalism. In particular, it is increasingly difficult to get any job in the public sector if you don’t speak Basque. Given that only a minority of the population speak Basque as their first language, and given the very high levels of unemployment, this is a very divisive policy – something which Herri Batasuna has always been happy to go along with.

In any case, given the bland and nondescript campaign of the PNV and the fact that PSOE seemed to be saying a slightly softer version of the same thing, the PP definitely struck a chord. Ten years ago they would never have reached 10% of the vote in the Basque country, and four years ago they got 14%. This time it was 20%. For the first time ever the PP had won more votes than PSOE in the Basque country. The record turnout (71% compared with 60% four years ago) appears to give this result even more legitimacy.

The other clear winner was Herri Batasuna and their electoral bloc Euskal Herritarrok, who ran a militant and dynamic campaign, both taking their distance from ETA and emphasising themselves as being a party of the left. HB was formed in 1977 and achieved its highest votes in the late 1980s, when it was receiving 19-20%. Since then, support had been declining (15% in 1995, 12% in 1996). To succeed in getting 18% this time was a big victory. Again, the unusually high turnout only serves to emphasise their success. They too beat PSOE.

So the two big winners were PP and HB/EH – the result of a political situation characterised by increasing polarisation between two blocs (nationalist and non-nationalist). Who says that no one votes for radical solutions?

With so many winners (even PSOE claim to be "very happy" with their result), there had to be some losers, and the main loser was Izquierda Unida (Esker Batua in Basque). In such a polarised political situation they were squeezed between PSOE on the one side and HB/EH on the other. With the electoral campaign dominated by the issue of which of the two blocs a party belonged to, it was inevitable that IU would suffer. Their message and political identity as regards the national question in Euskadi was unclear to many voters. They were not a nationalist party, but they were defending self-determination, so which "camp" were they in?

When all the other political parties (and the media) sought to blur the differences between self-determination and independence, people found IU’s position difficult to understand. Complicated legalistic explanations of possible future federal/confederal arrangements within the Spanish state didn’t help. As it was, IU’s share of the vote fell from 9% to 6%.

Media commentators have suggested that the IU has been "punished" for supporting the agreement at Lizarra and for defending the right to self-determination. However, while it’s quite possible that some voters switched to PSOE for these reasons, far more went to HB/EH. They ran what was in many ways a very left-wing campaign, and the IU was unable effectively to differentiate itself from HB/EH in the eyes of the more militant sections of the Basque working class and in particular amongst the youth.

It’s too early to say what conclusions IU will draw from these elections, but the political fundamentals they stood on were essentially sound. The IU should resist any temptation to backslide now. Instead it should develop its own level of political education and above all fight to build united fronts both with PSOE and with Euskal Herritarrok.

The Basque Elections

The elections for the Basque parliament took place on 25 October 1998. The turnout was a record 71%, compared with 60% in 1994. Of the four Basque provinces in Spain, one (Navarra) is not included in the autonomous Basque Region.

Party1994199611998Seats21998 Results by Province
PNV, EA & HB/EH1056%45%55%4140%54%62%
PSOE & IU1126%33%24%1623%25%21%
PP & UA1217%19%21%1835%21%31%
HB/EH & IU1325%21%24%1618%21%31%
Foro de Irlanda1465%54%61%4346%60%67%


1. Basque results in the 1996 Spanish elections.

2. In the 1998 elections.

3. PNV (Partido Nacionalista Vasco).

4. PP (Partido Popular) – Spanish conservatives.

5. PSOE – the Socialist Party.

6. HB/EH (Herri Batasuna/Euskal Herritarrok) – the most left of the nationalist parties.

7. IU (Izquierda Unida) – left coalition.

8. EA (Eusko Alkartasuna) – split from PNV in 1986. Slightly more "liberal" than PNV.

9. UA (Unidad Alaves) – Spanish nationalists, want to take Alava out of the Basque Region.

10. The combined vote of the nationalist parties.

11. The combinded vote of PSOE and IU.

12. The combined vote of PP and UA.

13. The combined vote of HB/EH and IU.

14. The combined vote of the parties which back the "Foro de Irlanda" and Basque self-determination.

Some Further Comments

(1) The previous article was written immediately after the election. The intention is to expand it, incorporating some of the following. Comments and criticism are most welcome.

(2) As yet the new government coalition hasn’t been formed, but most likely it will be PNV + EA + PSOE.

(3) None of the main people on the Izquierda Unida-Esker Batua (IU-EB) slate were from the CP. (Consequently?) the CP was rather half-hearted about the campaign.

(4) Whilst the CP is fairly dominant in the federal IU, this is not the case with the IU-EB here in the Basque country. This is (partly) due to their semi-collapse as a result of the former leadership’s "Spanish unity"/"no to self-determination" line.

(5) IU-EB has defended self-determination, and there is little danger of this changing. The danger is the opposite – of adapting to bourgeois nationalism, of making deals in for example local government also against PSOE. Sections of the IU-EB are open to this.

(6) IU-EB’s positions are significantly to the left of PSOE’s on almost all questions, and it has a much better implantation in the union rank and file (but not the bureaucracy). It continues to be correct to call for a vote for IU-EB in the Basque country and for IU at the level of Spain as a whole.

(7) However, this needs to be combined with slogans of "Stop the right!", "No vote to PP or PNV", "Throw the capitalist parties out of government!", "No coalition with the PNV!", etc.

(8) The vote of PSOE is a testament to the resilience of social democracy.

(9) The correct orientation of IU-EB towards PSOE would be one of the United Front, slogans like "No coalition with the PNV!" and "For a PSOE-IU government to solve workers’ problems!" would be combined with attacking the PSOE leadership hard on their record both here and in Spain as a whole.

(10) In fact, IU-EB (like the IU as a whole) has a sectarian position, refusing to distinguish between the record of the PSOE leadership and the nature of the PSOE as a bourgeois workers’ party, or to recognise that compared to a vote for PP or PNV a vote for the PSOE is a class vote.

(11) Like all the new(ish) "parties of recomposition", the IU is a reformist party (I leave aside that the IU is not in fact a party as such). One of the (many) things this means is lack of rank-and-file control over elected representatives. See Italy for a recent example of this.

(12) The two left groups within IU-EB (El Militante and Nuevo Claridad) play a good role but are limited by their Ted Grant School of Politics. The former is the Grantite "section", linked to Socialist Appeal in Britain, and strong on the three "SPs" – Socialist Propaganda, Serious Paperselling and Self-Proclamation – especially the last one. Nuevo Claridid (which is a split from El Militante) on the other hand is very "deep entry"/low profile/"volunteer for the organisational jobs".

(13) Zutik – the disastrous fusion of the Liga Comunista Revolucionaria (LCR) and the Movimiento Comunista (MC) in the early 1990s [the LCR were Mandelites, the MC former Maoists, both originating in expelled former leaderships of ETA – ed] – is "post-marxist" and as an organisation plays no positive role in Basque politics. Once again they failed to put forward any electoral slogan, preferring the "Don’t bother"/"waste of time"/"all the same" school of thought.

Jim Padmore, 8/11/98