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Spain Bans Radical Nationalism

John Sullivan

THE SPANISH government has launched a twin attack on radical Basque nationalism and on civil rights. On 26 August parliament passed a law banning parties deemed to be supporting terrorism. On the same day a magistrate’s order closed the offices and seized the property of the political party Batasuna, the equivalent of Sinn Féin. At a stroke a major Basque party has been suppressed and its voters disenfranchised. The ban will apply to any party which can be accused of supporting terrorism. Batasuna’s predecessor, HB/EH, boycotted the Spanish parliamentary elections in 2000, but in the elections to the Basque parliament in October 1998 it got 18% of the vote and had 14 candidates elected.1 Cultural associations, prisoners’ aid committees, newspapers and organisations promoting the Basque language, Euskara, have also been banned and many people are in jail for their membership of peaceful organisations carrying out perfectly inoffensive activities. Political freedoms in the Basque country are now more restricted than at any time since the end of the Franco regime.

It will be illegal to speak in support of organisations identified with terrorism in local councils, or take part in meetings honouring dead ETA members. Radical nationalists who are at present mayors, municipal councillors or members of the Basque regional parliament will be allowed to serve out the remainder of their term but cannot be re-elected. The government wants to establish that all radical nationalists are ETA supporters, but, in fact, the world of radical Basque nationalism is quite diverse and contains critical tendencies which favour negotiation and dialogue. Part of the government’s strategy is to silence such critical voices.

Both the new law and the banning of Batasuna are unconstitutional as they punish people for actions carried out by others. Failure to condemn ETA’s actions will now be a crime. The Spanish Right has recovered many of the powers which it was forced to relinquish after Franco’s death. The horrific consequences of ETA’s recent actions have ensured that the sweeping attack on political freedom has produced little protest outside the Basque country. In early August two people, one a six-year-old girl, died when a bomb exploded outside a Civil Guard barracks in Alicante province. Such incidents, which are inevitable given ETA’s decision to aim at "economic targets", produced revulsion which the conservative Partido Popular (PP) government rushed to exploit.

Franco’s heirs in the PP have never condemned the crimes of the dictatorship, even when as in recent weeks the newspapers have published pictures of newly discovered bodies of prisoners murdered during the Civil War. When in government, the Socialist Party created GAL, a squad of mercenaries, to murder ETA suspects, yet the relatives of the 23 people, including innocent bystanders, killed by GAL still await an apology from the Socialist Party leaders.

ETA’s growing unpopularity is largely due to its selection of easier targets in response to improved security for political and military leaders. Within the Basque country, municipal councillors from the PP and the Socialist Party have been killed. The Socialist Party supports both the seizure of Batasuna’s assets and the law criminalising radical nationalism. The main force to its left, Izquierda Unida, an electoral coalition whose core is the Spanish Communist Party, opposes the law banning parties which demand independence, but it supports the suppression of Batasuna, which it sees as a less draconian measure. Some members of the coalition, particularly in the Basque country, oppose both and have called for a more vigorous defence of democracy and civil rights.

The moderate Basque nationalist parties, the PNV and EA, who realise that the new law could be used against themselves, and is partly a response to the PP’s poor electoral performance in the Basque country, have responded more vigorously, observing that the Basque people can deal with Batasuna by ceasing to vote for it. The moderate nationalists are, in, practice, regionalists, who think that membership of the European Union will loosen Madrid’s grip and allow them the autonomy they want. Nevertheless, they will not renounce their century-old demand for independence, even if it is now proclaimed mainly on ceremonial occasions. The PP is happy that moderate nationalists can now be accused of being soft on terrorism.

The measures will not crush ETA, which started in 1959 as a small group with no military skills, but despite Franco’s repression was able in 1973 to assassinate his Prime Minister, Admiral Carrerro Blanco. The suppression of radical nationalism’s political wing will probably bring ETA a rush of recruits, as peaceful forms of protest are declared illegal. The Socialist Party’s support for the government’s crack-down will encourage radical nationalists to see it as no different from the PP, but that would be mistaken. Although the Socialist Party is so highly bureaucratised that it would be misleading to talk of a rank and file, differences exist within it. Leading members in the Basque country are known to have doubts over backing the PP. The class base of the party is radically different from that of the PP and older members have memories of how their families suffered under Franco’s dictatorship.

Democratic and Left forces try to influence Left nationalists towards mass activity rather than the blind alley of armed struggle, but cooperation with them is not easy. For example, when the "Spanish" trade unions held a very successful general strike on 20 June against sweeping attacks on workers’ employment rights and social security, the Basque nationalist trade unions, rather than join it, held their own strike on the previous day. However, such differences do not justify abstention on a sweeping attack on civil liberty.

1. For a detailed account of the election results see the article by Jim Padmore ("The Basque Elections") in What Next? No.11.