Spain’s Establishment Is Still Calling Basques Terrorists

Sunday’s Basque elections could see a historic victory for leftist pro-independence party EH Bildu. The Spanish media is obsessing over the party’s past links to separatist group ETA — and ignoring the social issues that are fueling its support.

The EH Bildu candidate for lehendakari, Pello Otxandiano, speaks on April 19, 2024, in Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain. (Arnaitz Rubio / Europa Press via Getty Images)

In the small Basque town of Otxandio, there is a plaque to mark the first ever bombing of a civilian population in Europe from the skies. The slaughtering of sixty-one residents on July 22, 1936, heralded a new type of warfare that is today all too familiar.

The Basque Country, which spans the Spanish-French border, was then a key front in the fighting between Francisco Franco’s fascist forces and the Republican-led resistance. Just over a year after the bombing of Otxandio, Pablo Picasso painted his Guernica about another Basque town razed to the ground by the Nazi Luftwaffe.

Today, replicas of Picasso’s painting appear in Palestinian colors in the many Basque protests against Israel’s aerial slaughter of Gaza. Given Basques’ own modern history, they are reliably found countering the drums of war, wherever they are beating. When Spain voted to join NATO in a 1986 referendum, its Basque territory (known as the Basque autonomous community) and Catalunya alone said “no.”

On April 21, Basques will again go to the polls — with one of the key strands of their anti-imperialist tradition, the abertzale left (“sovereigntist left”), sure to be well represented. The Euskal Herria Bildu (“Basque Country Unite,” or EH Bildu) coalition stands a real chance of winning the election for the first time. Its candidate for lehendakari (“first minister”) is the fresh-faced Pello Otxandiano, a native of the town bombed in 1936.

But it’s not today’s wars in Ukraine or the Middle East that are occupying headlines in Spain ahead of Sunday’s Basque election. Rather, EH Bildu’s rivals are attempting to stem the sovereigntist left’s historic advance by playing on an armed conflict that ended over a decade ago, which pitted the armed separatist group ETA (“Basque Homeland and Freedom”) against the Spanish state.

ETA From Beyond the Grave

It’s a common theme: whenever an election takes place at either the Basque or state-wide level, ETA’s historic enemies insist on bringing it back from beyond the grave. This has reached the heights of absurdity: the right-wing Partido Popular’s Trumpian star, Madrid region president Isabel Díaz Ayuso, even claims that “ETA is alive and is in power.”

ETA waged a half-century armed struggle for Basque independence. Some of its most notable attacks were the assassination of Franco’s right-hand man, Luis Carrero Blanco, in a car bombing in 1973, and the blowing up of a Barcelona supermarket parking garage in 1987, which killed twenty-one civilians.

The Spanish state meted out plenty of brutality of its own — most famously under Franco’s brutal dictatorship. Less known are the death squads and torture chambers of the “Antiterrorist Liberation Groups” (GAL), illegal state units set up in 1982 under a Socialist-led government to fight a “dirty war” against ETA. There are no official figures, but one study has put the number of Basques tortured by GAL, including many who had nothing to do with ETA, at 4,009.

ETA laid down its arms in 2011 and officially disbanded in 2018. Leading figures in EH Bildu, most prominently General Secretary Arnaldo Otegi, played a key role in negotiating its dissolution. Otegi had been a central figure in Herri Batasuna, a political party of the abertzale left linked to ETA, until it was outlawed in 2001.

EH Bildu was formed in 2011 as a coalition between Sortu, the first abertzale left party to reject political violence, and Eusko Alkartasuna, a social democratic Basque-nationalist party. Sortu is the dominant force in the coalition.

Unlike Herri Batasuna, EH Bildu has not been banned, but Otegi was imprisoned from 2009 to 2016 along with four other leaders of the abertzale left in the Betaragune Case, accused of trying to rebuild Herri Batasuna in coordination with ETA. Otegi has always claimed that discussions with ETA were aimed at bringing about the armed group’s dissolution. The European Court of Human Rights found in 2018 that Otegi did not receive a fair trial. ETA’s war had ended, but Spain’s politicized judiciary had not ended its war on the abertzale left.

In recent years, EH Bildu’s progression has closely mirrored that of Sinn Féin since the Irish Republican Army (IRA) downed its weapons. Just like Sinn Féin, as EH Bildu has gained in popularity it has faced increasing political pressure to distance itself from its past associations with the armed struggle.

EH Bildu has in fact gone a long way to accommodate these demands. This culminated in a historic statement on the tenth anniversary of ETA laying down arms. In it, Otegi and Arkaitz Rodríguez, the leader of Sortu, said that ETA’s violence “should never have happened.” But no concession is ever enough for the Spanish establishment.

In last May’s local elections, a “scandal” was manufactured over EH Bildu standing seven former ETA members among its almost 4,500 candidates. Ex–ETA members had in fact stood in every election since EH Bildu was formed. The new development wasn’t their candidacy but the authoritarian backlash, which included calls for EH Bildu to be banned. Once again EH Bildu conceded, with the former ETA members withdrawing their candidacies.

Otxandiano was selected as EH Bildu’s lead candidate partly because he represents a new generation that cannot be smeared as belonging to ETA. In fact, he became a local councilor in the year ETA ceased operations. But that has not stopped the attacks, which have intensified as EH Bildu has risen in the polls.

In an interview in the final week of the campaign, Otxandiano was asked if he considered ETA to have been a terrorist group. He responded: “ETA was an armed group that could be considered in different ways. There are [also] different points of view about the violence of GAL and the state.”

This statement resulted in endless hand-wringing, led by the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), the largest party in Spain’s ruling coalition. Government spokesperson Pilar Alegría went as far as to describe Otxandiano as “a coward.” No one bothered to ask Alegría how she would describe GAL, a state-backed paramilitary group for which her party has never accepted responsibility.

Spain’s Fractured Politics

Hysteria over ETA is part of Spain’s broader polarized political landscape. The awkward reality for PSOE is that its coalition government with left-wing Sumar is a minority in the Spanish Congress, and its survival relies on a string of pro-independence parties in Catalunya, Galicia, and the Basque Country, including EH Bildu.

In this context, Spain’s rabid right-wing parties and media love nothing more than to play the ETA card to discredit the Spanish government. The PSOE enthusiastically responds to that pressure by hitting EH Bildu over the head just as hard, even though it happily takes the abertzale left’s votes to stay in power.

Still, supporting the Spanish Government does have its advantages for EH Bildu. In the Basque autonomous community, the pro-independence coalition has been able to build up its credibility due to its role as a kingmaker in Madrid since 2020. Bildu negotiated significant improvements in exchange for supporting the Spanish budget, a 2 percent cap on rent increases, and raising the state pension by 15 percent.

When last July’s general election put the “progressive” coalition in a weaker position relative to the right-wing Partido Popular and far-right Vox, the Basque independence parties responded by making more accommodations. EH Bildu was the only pro-independence party in the Spanish Congress that did not demand anything from the PSOE-Sumar coalition in return for supporting their investiture last September.

This is part of an electoral strategy of seeking broader support by cultivating an image of moderation and cooperation. In recent years, EH Bildu has similarly shown a greater willingness to strike legislative agreements with the coalition government in the Basque autonomous community, made up of the Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV) and the PSE-EE (the Basque branch of PSOE).

That collaboration risks giving left-wing cover to reforms that do little to challenge the status quo. For instance, EH Bildu backed a recent law on tackling climate change that was highly unambitious in such a highly fossil-fuel dependent nation. The party has now even opened the door to seeking a coalition with its historic center-right rival EAJ-PNV after Sunday’s election, though this is unlikely to materialize.

That offer of collaboration was sharply criticized by the left-wing Podemos. Its former equality minister Irene Montero calls EH Bildu’s failure to seek a “left-wing government” in the Basque autonomous community “incomprehensible.” In truth, the Spanish left is unlikely to be in a position to enter government here, with its Spain-wide rift between Sumar and Podemos replicated for Sunday’s Basque elections.

Both Podemos and Sumar are polling at between zero and two seats each, down from their current total of six seats — itself a fall from the eleven Podemos won in 2016. The implosion of the Spanish left has been good for EH Bildu on one level, as it has scooped up much of the Sumar-Podemos vote. But it has also lost a potential partner.

The Basque “Caste”

EH Bildu is seeking to upend the center-right EAJ-PNV’s domination of Basque politics — a reign which has lasted almost uninterrupted since the first post-Franco elections in 1980, apart from a brief period from 2009 to 2012. EAJ-PNV is, indeed, one of the most successful parties in Europe over the past half-century.

EAJ-PNV is the party of the Basque bourgeoisie, holding court over an economy that retains a strong manufacturing capacity as well as large energy and finance sectors. The party’s durability is built on Basque Country having higher GDP per capita than almost all Spanish regions. But the longer EAJ-PNV has held the reins of power, the more the doors between business and political elites have revolved, and the worse the stench of corruption.

As public services have been privatized and become run-down, anger has focused on the public health care system, Osakidetza. Its waiting lists are out of control, pushing those who can afford it to the burgeoning private sector. Basque health care spending is a smaller percentage of GDP than any other Spanish region — and any other place in Europe except Cyprus, Latvia, Romania, Poland, and Hungary.

A deregulated social care sector, runaway housing costs, and a police service known for extreme violence have also prompted major strikes and protests in recent years. After the central question of Basque health care ills, these issues have formed the key talking points in this election campaign. In all cases, what journalist Ahozttar Zelaieta calls “la Casta Vasca” (“the Basque Caste”) is never far from the scene of the crime.

In a bid to refresh its stale image, EAJ-PNV has disposed of its longtime lehendakari (i.e., head of the Basque autonomous government), Iñigo Urkullu, for a younger model, in Imanol Pradales. EAJ-PNV’s new hope is almost identical in his robotic style and stiff delivery to Urkullu, but he surpasses Urkullu — who is also his former teacher — in his neoliberal credentials.

Pradales had to apologize in 2015 when it was revealed that he owned shares in a construction company while he was responsible for economic development in Bizkaia province — a clear conflict of interest. Journalist Ekaitz Cancela has written that Pradales “aspires to become the first public-private lehendakari in history.”

Pradales adorns every EAJ-PNV billboard in this campaign, but his youthful image doesn’t seem to have done much for his party’s election prospects. The huge generational divide in Basque politics, with the young overwhelmingly in favor of EH Bildu and the old for EAJ-PNV, has only widened since he announced his candidacy.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Pradales has become increasingly desperate, warning Basques that EH Bildu will bring “Venezuelan-style” economic control and the ascent of “Marxist revolutionaries” who sympathize with “ETA terrorists.” Such red-scare tactics might still have purchase on those well integrated into the clientelist networks of the Basque nationalists. But they’re unlikely to rally young people stuck in precarious work — who can’t afford to move out of their parents’ homes, and who have no real memory of ETA — behind the ruling party.

War of Position — To What End?

With 20 percent of voters still undecided, we can’t say whether EH Bildu or EAJ-PNV will ultimately come in first place. Either way, it is unlikely that we will see a change in government.

PSE-EE, the third-largest party in the Basque autonomous community and local branch of Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE, has emphatically ruled out entering government with EH Bildu. EAJ-PNV and PSE-EE will likely have enough seats to form another coalition even if EH Bildu is the single biggest party. If the two parties fall short, they may even rely on the right-wing Partido Popular’s help, as they have done already in the provincial government of Gipuzkoa. EH Bildu’s election slogan is “Change is Now.” But a range of forces are prepared to unite to ensure that isn’t the case.

“We are in a campaign where the majority of society . . . is condemned to everything remaining the same once the electoral curtain falls,” Jon Bernat, editor of leftist news site El Salto Hordago, writes.

But something will change if EH Bildu tops the poll. When Sinn Féin were locked out of power by the Irish political establishment despite winning the 2020 general election, many in Ireland saw an undemocratic stitch-up at work — and the party’s support kept growing. We could well imagine a similar political dynamic emerging in the Basque Country after this Sunday’s election.

The bigger question is what EH Bildu would actually do with power if it finally got it. The Catalan example has shown that pro-independence parties’ electoral advances can end up having a demoralizing effect on their own base if there is no real forward momentum for national self-determination. The Spanish government’s planned Amnesty Law for those who took part in the illegal 2017 Catalan referendum is set to close one major chapter in the history of the Spanish state’s repression of its independence movements. But independence movements are no closer to coming up with a strategy that can achieve their goal.

With the armed struggle ruled out and the idea of a “wildcat” independence referendum offering only a dead end, what is the path to national self-determination for the Basque Country and Catalunya? A two-thirds majority would be needed in the Spanish Congress to reform the constitution so that Spain’s peripheral nations have the “right to decide” ffor themselves. That’s an unrealistic prospect in a country where Spanish nationalism remains a potent force, as weeks of sometimes violent protests against the Amnesty Law showed.

For the time being, EH Bildu appears happy to settle for fighting a war of position, gradually accumulating power as part of the “democratic” bloc that keeps the center-left premier Sánchez in power and the far-right Vox at bay. However, the chances are that sooner or later Sánchez’s fragile coalition will falter, and a Partido Popular–Vox government will come to power in Madrid.

Such a reactionary government will be determined to get revenge for the Amnesty Law and will want to permanently neuter the threat posed by the pro-independence forces in Catalunya and the Basque Country. At that point, a war of maneuver may be forced upon the abertzale left, whether they like it or not.