Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Change Is On The Way In The Basque Country

Barring unexpected events, the beginning of May should see political change in the Basque Country. The PSOE’s Basque section (PSE) and the Partido Popular have reached an agreement which will mean the PP will support the election of the PSE’s candidate, Patxi López, as Basque president. The first consequence of the agreement was the election last week of the new president of the regional parliament, the PP’s Arantza Quiroga. The agreement between the two parties, who have a one seat majority in the Basque parliament, is not for a coalition government. López intends to form a minority administration, but unless he can persuade the PNV to take a friendlier attitude at some point then he is always going to have to rely on the PP to win any vote.

It seems amazing that a party can finish in third place and lose 30% of its vote, as the PP did in last months election, yet still be regarded as the victor. It has emerged from the election as the party that holds the key to power for Patxi López. This prospect has got many on the right very excited, as they see the possibilities of the PP playing puppet master with a weak government in the Basque Country at the same time as the national PSOE led administration finds itself with less support. It remains to be seen whether the interruption in PNV hegemony will last even a full parliament, even though the PP has pledged that it will not support a vote of censure against López during the next 4 years. Given that some commentators see the results last month as meaning that the nationalist tide has peaked, it’s worth pointing out that the parliamentary arithmetic is not a direct reflection of the votes cast. The combination of the votes received by the PSE and the PP doesn’t exceed 45% of the total cast, even less if you included those spoiled votes cast as a protest over the illegalisation of parties linked to Batasuna.

The nationalist parties will now seek to present the new government as an anti-Basque front directed from Madrid. López would find it much easier to resist such an image were he not so dependent on the PP’s support. Ironically, a government led by the PSE may lead to a notable increase in the powers of the Basque government. There is a long list of functions due to be ceded by the national government under the terms of the Basque autonomy statute. This process has been more or less halted in the last few years, but López will hope to unlock the door on the issue. Apart from that, and removing many of the PNV’s nominees from their comfortable positions in organisations depending on the regional government, it’s hard to see what other distinctive policy moves can be made in such a restrictive political space.

The PNV does behave as if the Basque Country was its possession, and a period in opposition will do them no harm. They are also a party which has shown no hesitation in forming alliances with non-nationalist parties when it suited them, including the agreement with the PP enabling that party to form its first government in 1996. Nevertheless, they have wasted no time in demonstrating their displeasure at the prospect of losing power, and are using their votes in the national parliament to make life as uncomfortable as possible for Zapatero’s government. With the PNV having withdrawn their support at national level, the government will need to look even more than ever towards Cataluña for the support it needs to guarantee a majority. That’s not an easy option with the still unresolved financing deal for that region continuing to cause political problems. Not to mention the spectre of the eternal deliberations of the Constitutional Court on Cataluña’s now not so new autonomy statute.

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