Pro-independence left seeks first Basque victory

Despite narrowly leading in polls, EH Bildu coalition struggles with Eta association

Basques will vote on Sunday in an election that could see the radical pro-independence left emerge as the primary force in the region as it seeks to shed its association with past separatist violence.

The EH Bildu coalition, which has been narrowly leading polls, hopes to win an election in Spain’s Basque Country for the first time by defeating the moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which has governed for 41 of the last 44 years.

The leader of the left-wing coalition, Arnaldo Otegi, described this election as “an historic opportunity”. He told voters the Basque region was “a country in which the windows must be opened, because it needs fresh air”.

EH Bildu’s substantial gains according to polls have been based in great part on its social agenda. The pandemic and its aftermath undermined the Basque region’s once widely admired healthcare system, Osakidetza, damaging the credibility of the governing PNV. In addition, EH Bildu has focused much of its campaigning on a housing crisis affecting most of Spain, including the Basque region.


The recent electoral free fall of the far-left Podemos party, which has similar social justice policies, has also helped the coalition.

However, the legacy of four decades of separatist violence has been a thorny issue for EH Bildu on the campaign trail.

The coalition includes Sortu, a party seen as the successor to the political wing of the terrorist group Eta. The coalition’s links to the separatist organisation, which killed 853 people and ended its campaign of violence in 2011, have generated controversy both in the Basque region and in broader Spanish politics.

EH Bildu’s candidate for president of the Basque region, Pello Otxandiano, struggled when asked by a radio interviewer if Eta was a terrorist organisation. He replied that it was “an armed group” and that “labels may vary”, before mentioning state-sponsored paramilitary groups that operated at the same time and insisting that “we have put that cycle behind us”.

Criticism of Otxandiano’s comments dominated the closing days of the campaign.

“The Basque Country needs a president who condemns Eta and who says clearly that killing was wrong and that no type of violence should have been used,” said the PNV’s candidate for president of the region, Imanol Pradales.

The matter has also entered the national political arena. “Things have to be called by their name,” said Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez, who described Eta as “a terrorist organisation that was defeated by Spanish democracy”. Government spokeswoman Pilar Alegría called Otxandiano “a coward”. However, the issue is uncomfortable for Sánchez’s administration, which relies on the parliamentary support in Madrid of EH Bildu.

Unfortunately, I think there is a pattern that is repeated: every time a key political moment approaches, Eta is thrust into the public debate

—  Pello Otxandiano

The legacy of Eta remains a live issue in Spanish politics. In advance of last year’s local elections, it emerged that EH Bildu had fielded 44 candidates who had been convicted of crimes linked to terrorism and that seven of them had served murder-related jail sentences.

Sortu condemned violence in its statutes, a move which allowed it to enter the political arena in 2012. However, unlike some of its partners in the EH Bildu coalition, it has never explicitly condemned Eta’s attacks.

Otxandiano has responded to the furore by apologising if he “might have hurt the feelings of victims of Eta”. However, he called for the reconciliation of Basques to take place away from the glare of the media and not to be used for electoral purposes.

“Unfortunately, I think there is a pattern that is repeated: every time a key political moment approaches, Eta is thrust into the public debate,” he said.

Although polls suggest that Otxandiano and EH Bildu are heading for victory, they are expected to fall short of a majority. The Socialists could be kingmakers and appear more likely to renew their support for the PNV which has seen the two govern in coalitions since 2016.

With the conservative Popular Party (PP) and the far-right Vox expected to perform modestly on Sunday, nationalist parties could end up controlling around 80 per cent of the regional parliament. However, with neither EH Bildu nor the more cautious PNV prioritising the sovereignty issue, independence from Spain has barely figured in the campaign.

According to a poll by the regional government’s statistics department in December, only 22 per cent of Basques are in favour of secession.

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