Basque and Catalan nationalists make advances in Spanish elections

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by a Newsnet reporter

The voters of Spain went to the polls on Sunday in the midst of a financial crisis which has seen the economy nosedive.  As expected, the ruling PSOE were punished by the voters at the polls, and late last night the centre right Partido Popular (PP) led by Mariano Rajoy declared themselves victorious.  With 186 seats, up 32, the PP has obtained an outright majority in the Spanish Cortes.  The PSOE did disastrously, losing 59 of their 169 seats to be left with 110, the party’s worst ever performance.

The immediate challenge faced by the new government will be to bring stability to the economy as bond interest rates edge up to the 7% level which provoked crises in Italy and Greece.  Like Ireland, the financial boom enjoyed by Spain in the late 90s and early part of this century was fuelled by a property speculation boom.  The market fears that the Spanish government may not be able to bail out regional banks which invested heavily in the property market and which now find themselves in possession of properties no one wants to buy.  Unemployment has risen sharply and now stands at 23%.  Youth unemployment is a serious problem.  

In response to the crisis, the PSOE government led by José Luis Zapatero introduced an austerity programme, which saw public workers facing pay cuts and freezes to pensions. The measures were massively unpopular, leading to the ‘indignados’ movement which has demonstrated across the country.  However the austerity measures were not enough to placate the markets.  

The hope amongst ordinary Spaniards is that a change of government will calm markets and relieve the pressure on the country’s debt.   However analysts warn that the new government will be forced to find some €15 billion in increased taxes or spending cuts in order to avert the crisis.  

In the Basque Country and Catalunya voters have responded to the crisis by turning out in larger numbers for the nationalist and regionalist parties which seek either independence from Spain, or greater autonomy within it.   

In the Basque Country Amaiur, a coalition of nationalist left parties, obtained 24.12% of the votes and six seats in the Spanish Parliament.  In addition a diputado from Amaiur was elected from the neighbouring province of Navarre, historically a part of the Basque lands.  The centre-right Euzko Alderdi Jeltzalea/Partido Nacionalista Vasco (EAJ/PNV) increased its vote share to 27.42% and won six seats.   

The “unionist” PP failed to make an impact in the Basque Country, despite doing well elsewhere in Spain.  The party’s vote share did not change appreciably and the party remains with just three Basque representatives in the Cortes.  The big losers were the Basque branch of the PSOE, the Partido Socialista de Euskadi, whose vote share dropped sharply to 21.54%.  The party lost five of its nine seats, being left with just four.

The result leaves the Basques with a clear majority of nationalist or regionalist representatives, 11 out of the 18 Basque seats in the Cortes are now occupied by parties which seek either independence from Spain, or a further loosening of the Basque Country’s ties to Madrid.

The IU-Ezker Anitza (United Left) obtained 3.68% of the votes, and remain without representation in the Spanish Cortes.  

Unlike other parts of Spain, where turnout at the election had been lower than the previous national election in 2007, voter participation in the Basque Country rose by 5%.  This was the first election since the militant group ETA announced an end to its long running campaign.

In Catalunya, the Convergència i Unió (CiU) party was the clear winner.  The CiU defines itself as a “moderate nationalist” party.  The party maintains an ambiguous position on Catalan independence, seeking outright independence for any part of Spain has been ruled unconstitutional by the Spanish Supreme Court.  The party is basically a coalition between two factions, the Democratic Union of Catalunya, traditionally a regionalist party seeking greater autonomy within Spain, and the Democratic Convergence of Catalunya, a centrist to moderate right wing party which is broadly more supportive of Catalan sovereignty.

In Sunday’s election the CiU defeated their traditional rivals the PSC (the Catalan branch of the PSOE), winning 16 seats to the PSC’s 14.  The PSC lost 11 of the 25 seats they had previously held.  The nationalist coalition has now scored three electoral victories in a row, starting last November when the CiU won a convincing victory in the Spanish regional elections, then again in May when the party did well in the local elections, winning control of the city of Barcelona for the first time.  On hearing the results of yesterday’s election, party leader Arturo Más jubilantly declared:  “We’ve done the hat-trick!”

The results of the election will increase only tensions between Madrid and the independence minded Basque Country and Catalunya.  The Partido Popular has traditionally been the most “unionist” and centrist of the Spanish parties, and will fiercely resist Basque and Catalan attempts to increase local control of their own affairs as they seek to protect themselves from a savage austerity programme being implented from Madrid.