Spain Tried to Outlaw Its Separatists: Now They Call the Shots

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(Bloomberg) -- After the Spanish state released the activists who’d been jailed for their connections to the Basque terrorist group ETA, most faded into the background. But not Arnaldo Otegi.

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When he was let out in 2016 Otegi returned to take up a similar role in Basque politics to the one that led to his arrest. The country around him had changed over his six-year incarceration, even if he had not: his party had reinvented itself as a legitimate political player — the courts would anyway rule his conviction to be unjust — and the militant separatist movement out of which it grew had laid down arms.

Now, a mere 13 years after that cease fire that put an end to a generation of violence, he’s on the verge of staging a major political upset as the Basques head to elections with the Bildu party he leads ahead in the polls. If Bildu unseat the four-decade incumbents in Sunday’s election it marks a threshold moment for Otegi as well as for the leftist flank of the Basque nationalist movement. Victory would also mean Spain has to contend with a new sign of how the country is fragmenting.

“We are in no hurry,” said Otegi in an interview at his party’s Bilbao base. Whatever the outcome of the elections, he added, “We’re in the process of consolidating ourselves as a real alternative for the future.”

Something else had changed in Otegi’s absence. The two-party system that since Franco’s death had reliably transfered power between left and right broke down, granting new prominence to an array of small interests and propelling the concerns of separatists onto both the national stage and the legislature.

The ascendancy of Bildu offers fresh proof that this web of competing alliances is the tangle through which Spain’s main parties must now pick their way.

It arrives just as the country prepares for the controversial return of exiled Catalan separatist Carles Puigdemont. Puigdemont, who fled the Spanish courts after organizing an illegal referendum on independence in 2017, secured an amnesty from Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in exchange for the handful of votes the Socialist needed to secure a new term after last year’s election.

Read More: Catalan Pariah Returns to Spain With Plans to Retake Power

As these smaller groups have lent the governing parties votes, they’ve also called the shots. And none so successfully as the PNV, the pro-business incumbents who Bildu threatens to unseat.

While Bildu offers itself as a departure from what Otegi called the PNV’s “analog” way of doing politics, the upstart Bildu has sapped the PNV’s support in part by aping its tactics, according to the sociologist and psephologist Braulio Gomez who works at Bilbao’s University of Deusto.

After electing deputies to the national legislature in Madrid since 2015, part of Bildu’s journey to respectability has depended on how it’s cooperated with Sanchez’s government. “The party moved out of its corner,” Gomez said of Bildu. And though the PNV responded by complaining “Bildu is copying us,” he added — that strategy has hardly hurt its standing with voters.

There is a tower prominent on the skyline seen from the window of Bildu’s offices a short way up the river from Bilbao’s Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum. It houses Iberdrola SA, Europe’s most valuable producer of renewables. And although it operates in more than 20 countries and most of its business is run out of the national capital it has chosen to stay headquartered in the region, where it is the biggest tax payer, meaning the PNV’s been quick to champion its interests in Madrid.

That was evidenced in mid-2021, when Sanchez’s government was forced to backtrack on a proposal to tax energy companies because the PNV on whose votes it would depend signaled opposition to the move.

Bildu is focused on building its base and demonstrating that it can be a mainstream political party, according to Pello Otxandiano, the 41-year old candidate who’s standing to lead the regional legislature. “Whether we win or not, we’re drawing a new political map,” he said in an interview at the party base.

Few signs of Bildu’s controversial origins are visible beyond those offices’ heavily fortified front door. Inside, a team of enthusiastic young party functionaries leave the atmosphere more reminiscent of a WeWork than the militant cell some in Madrid like to imagine.

Bildu’s elevation owes in large part to Sanchez, who gave it a veneer of respectability by courting its votes.

Now, his creation may come to backfire. By teaming up with Bildu, the premier also contributed to the weakening of his longer-standing ally the PNV. If, as expected, Sunday’s result gives Bildu a chance to govern the Basque country the PNV will reconsider how to manage its relationship with Sanchez and could have incentives to cut him loose at some stage, according to a high-ranking PNV official who asked to speak anonymously.

The relationship between Sanchez and the Basque and Catalan nationalists on whom he’s relied to consolidate power in Madrid is foremost a marriage of convenience. All four principle nationalist parties are pragmatic about the relationship, according to top officials in Bildu, the PNV and the two Catalan parties.

They’ll exact concessions for as long as Sanchez needs them without seeking to establish a long-term strategy for cooperation, people familiar with all four parties’ electoral strategies said, while asking to remain anonymous.

What makes this competitive web of interests even less predictable is that Bildu’s path to regional government is not guaranteed, even if they place first on Sunday. Sanchez’s Socialists are expected to come in third and have the luxury of deciding whether to help Bildu govern or continue in their existing coalition with the PNV. Either decision will have ramifications on the national stage, as both Basque groups are key allies of Sanchez in Madrid.

A few months ago, his Socialists stunned observers of Spanish politics when they backed a no-confidence motion Bildu brought against the right-leaning government in the city of Pamplona. But it is improbable that situation will repeat itself in the Basque country, according to a top Socialist official.

The Socialists are likely to remain faithful to the PNV after Sunday’s elections, the person said — despite their ideological compatibility with Bildu. That’s down to the perception of the leftist party outside its home region. Many voters don’t think it’s gone far enough in rejecting the violence of the terrorist attacks perpetrated by ETA, the person said, adding that the calculation was made on the basis that not backing Bildu wouldn’t put the stability of Sanchez’s weak government at risk.

For Bildu, choosing a candidate in Otxandiano with no links to the bloody years is part of its own process of breaking with the past.

But the PNV is also feeling pressure to change. Recently, rather than seek a fourth term for the sitting regional president, they abruptly replaced their candidate in an effort to court a younger vote and impede the rise of Bildu. The 11-year leader of the PNV Andoni Ortuzar, speaking at his own headquarters, acknowledged the party was sensing voter fatigue.

“Change is good” he said of the switch-up. On Sunday, Spain will learn how far that sentiment goes.

--With assistance from Ana Andrade (Economist), Jorge Valero and Thomas Hall.

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