Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Ibarretxe's Blocked Vote

Yesterday morning the Basque regional government published in its official bulletin the measure approved three weeks ago that permits the referendum on the political future of the Basque Country. The publication set off a predictable sequence of events, the national government immediately lodged an appeal against the referendum with the constitutional court, invoking at the same time powers that suspend the Basque initiative for several months. The government alleges that an autonomous government in Spain has no powers to convoke referendums. The Partido Popular has also presented an appeal.

It is expected that the Basque President Juan Jose Ibarretxe and his party (the nationalist PNV) will respect the blocking of the referendum rather than put themselves in an openly illegal situation. Nobody knows when the court will get round to reviewing the case, it is hardly the quickest institution as they still haven’t dealt with the Catalan autonomy statute. What seems fairly likely is that the members of this highly politicised court will be overwhelmingly hostile to the Ibarretxe plan. What could happen next is that Ibarretxe will call early elections in the Basque Country and campaign entirely on the issue of the Basque people being denied the possibility to decide their own future.

It’s an unanswerable question whether an alternative way out could have been found to the coming confrontation. Immediately following the general election there was speculation that those sectors of the PNV hostile to Ibarretxe’s initiative might extract some sort of commitment from Zapatero permitting an alternative face saving route via a reformed autonomy statute. In return the PNV would help to guarantee a minority national government. This doesn’t look likely to happen and perhaps the main reason for this is the result which the PSOE obtained in the Basque Country in the general election; emerging as the largest party. Zapatero and the PSE, the Basque section of the PSOE, are now dreaming of the chance they have to break the PNV’s hold on the Basque government and the most recent poll puts them level pegging with the PNV in the region.

The PSE hope to achieve what their Catalan comrades have managed, which is to be part of the political landscape of their region rather than just being seen as a party to represent those who feel more identified with Spain. It is premature to assume that they will repeat their general election success in the regional elections. Apart from the different voting patterns between national and regional elections, with the economic crisis biting they may also find they lose some of their own supporters. Even assuming that the PSE emerges as the largest party they will need support from others to be able to govern, unfortunately for them the main candidate could well be the PP. Such an alliance, even with a PP recently cleansed of some of its more ultra elements, won’t help them to present a similar image to that of Cataluña. The stage is set for a major confrontation; the Basque Country is unlikely to benefit from it regardless of who wins.

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