Saturday, May 09, 2009

Patxi López Takes Control

Patxi López, the leader of the Basque socialists (PSE) took office as expected last week as the first non-nationalist Lehendakari in the Basque Country. He has already announced his slim line minority administration, with half of its members being independents. The outgoing president of the region, Juan José Ibarretxe, has in turn announced his intention of leaving politics; perhaps the release of yet another Star Trek movie has given him hopes of a new career? Acclaimed by many as a fresh start for the Basque Country after so many years of control by the nationalist PNV, it remains to be seen whether the reality lives up to the presentation. López depends entirely on the Partido Popular for achieving a majority, and this party could pull the plug on his government any time it decides it is politically convenient to do so.

In retaliation for losing control in the Basque Country, the PNV is systematically voting against the national government at every opportunity. This has created a dream situation for the PP. On the one hand they use their votes in the Basque Parliament to exclude the nationalists from power (and have the PSOE depending on them to govern). On the other hand they get PNV support for any parliamentary initiative that might threaten the national government with defeat. There is much talk at the moment of an unholy alliance developing between the PP, the PNV and possibly the right wing Catalan nationalists of Convergencia i Unió. This is not in itself enough to defeat Zapatero’s government in a vote, but the unwillingness of the other smaller parties to support the government has meant that already the PSOE has decided to vote with the opposition on several initiatives to avoid the appearance of defeat.

Cataluña holds the key to the government’s chances of seeing out a full term. The still unresolved issue of financing for Spain’s autonomous regions means that none of the Catalan parties are willing to offer parliamentary support unless they get offered a good deal. The job of sorting out that issue is now in the hands of former Andalucian president Manuel Chaves. Stage one of winning them over came with an agreement last week to hand over control of the commuter train network in the region to the Catalan government. That was the easy bit. Convergencia will only support a financing deal if it looks as if they are the ones who won it, and their nationalist rivals in Esquerra Republicana will do the same. It’s a rocky road ahead for a minority government in the midst of a dreadful economic situation. The “state of the nation” debate next week might offer some clues about what lies ahead.

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