Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Themes That Can Change An Election....The National Question

A bit later than I intended, and with a topic that I didn’t expect to emerge so soon, it’s time to kick off my mini-series on issues that might affect the result in Spain’s forthcoming general election. The proposal by the president of the Basque regional government, Juan José Ibarretxe, to set a process in course that might lead to a referendum allowing the Basques to “decide their own future” has predictably turned political attention away from the all too brief flirtation we have seen recently with economics and social issues. In reality it is just a rehashed version of an earlier project that Ibarretxe proposed when Aznar was still in power. Nevertheless, the reaction has been predictably strong and much of the criticism focuses on the fact that regional governments in Spain have no power to convoke binding referendums, and the legal position on any other kind of consultation is far from clear. Ibarretxe’s proposal goes straight to the heart of this, with the statement that he will put his plan to a vote if he doesn’t get what he wants in negotiations with the national government.

Other factors aside, the proposal by Ibarretxe and its timing is also a reflection of internal battles within his own party, the PNV. Ibarretxe is not the leader of the PNV, he is the regional president; known as the Lehendakari. As a result of recent infighting between the faction who want to present a more openly nationalist face, and those who favoured a more gradualist approach, PNV president Josu Jon Imaz has been forced to stand down. This decision was presented at the time as being more or less a draw between the competing factions, the main rival to Imaz was also forced to declare that he would not stand for the presidency. However, it looks as if Ibarretxe also got the go ahead for his plan as part of the deal to solve the internal crisis, I put his wing of the party ahead on points.

Ibarretxe....Earth to Enterprise, one of your extras is missing

Meanwhile, a lot of the noise coming from government supporters points to how the PP will seek to make electoral advantage of the move by Ibarretxe. There is no doubt they will try to do this, although I find it hard to see how they can keep the issue alive for 6 months, especially with the government openly opposing the plan. How much more can they do on the “España se rompe” theme that they haven’t already done? Perhaps we will see the return of the civic rebellion; we haven’t had an angry right wing demonstration in Madrid for months! At one point you couldn’t cross from one side of the city to the other without encountering masses of people who made the sign of the cross if you so much as unfolded a copy of El País. Some people seem to think that the PNV is acting against its interests by doing something that might favour the PP, but the fact is that the PNV does better electorally when there is confrontation with Madrid than when there is not. Their best election results have come when the PSOE and PP attempted to unite against them. Nationalism cannot flourish where there is no “other” to line up against, the more peaceful the political scene the less likely they are to mobilise the nationalist vote.

Prime Minister Zapatero has already scheduled a meeting with Ibarretxe to discuss the issue; it’s hard to see anything coming out of it as both men will be playing with an eye to their audience. It may do more to worsen relationships between the government and the PNV as the spin doctors go to work on the outcome. It’s ironic that those who make the most noise about the plan include so many of those who shouted about Navarra’s “right” to decide its own future as a counterpoint to the entirely imaginary plot by the government to hand the region over to the Basque Country. Me, I’m all in favour of the Basques having the right to self-determination, not because I think they should exercise that right; just because I don’t believe you can hold countries together by laws or force alone. The probability of the Basques voting for independence is not very high, at least not without serious fixing of those entitled to vote. Prohibiting them from doing so probably has the effect of increasing support for the idea as well as providing a spurious justification for continuing terrorist activity.

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