Eye witness

October 23, 1998

This Sunday's elections in the Basque country are a key step in the peace process that began with the separatist movement ETA's ceasefire on September 16.

Politicians are hoping for a high turnout from the region's 1.82 million voters as results will determine the parties' respective strengths in the negotiations to come.

Nationalist politicians, including some from other regions of Spain, such as Catalonia's Jordi Pujol, are pushing the focus of the elections beyond a ceasefire verdict to question the very structure of the Spanish state, the 1978 constitution.

This worries Basque academic Antonio Elorza, professor of political science at Madrid's Complutense University.

"An already complex problem has been made much more complex," he says. "It is as if in Ulster they had ended up arguing about the constitution of the United Kingdom."

In spite of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams' recent visit, most academics reject comparisons between the Basque country and Northern Ireland.

"In any peace process it is useful to analyse the steps taken," says Emilio Lamo de Espinosa, professor of sociology at the Complutense, "but the process is one thing and the conflict itself is quite another."

Whereas Northern Ireland has two clearly defined communities separated by centuries of conflict, Basques have always been actively involved in the making of Spain.

"They have not been excluded, historically they have made up the elite of Spain's bureaucracy," he says.

Intense immigration from other areas of Spain in the 1950s and 1960s has reduced that segment of the population who define themselves as Basque rather than both Basque and Spanish.

Political decentralisation since 1978 has given the Basque regional government a higher level of autonomy than any other part of Spain, and, indeed, anywhere else in Europe.

Both academics expect the conservative Basque Nationalist Party (BNP) rather than ETA's political arm Herri Batasuna/Euskal Herritarrok will be the main beneficiary of nationalist votes on Sunday.

The BNP has recently adopted a more radical, quasi-separatist tone which Professor Elorza holds is out of sync with the views of its electorate and bodes ill for the peace negotiations which will follow.

"In order to make peace, you have to be prepared to talk and make concessions," he says, "but this is being turned into a problem of coexistence."

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