Basque Country: History made as pro-Basque coalition forms government in Navarre

Uxue Barkos, leader of Geroa Bai.

By Duroyan Fertl

June 23, 2015 -- Hintadupfing, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- Regional elections held in Spain on May 24 have installed an historic pro-Basque state government in the autonomous community of Navarre for the first time, bringing to an end 16 years of rule by the pro-Spanish, centre-right Navarrese People's Union (UPN).

The UPN won only 15 seats, down four from 2011, while its ally, the right-wing Spanish People’s Party (of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy), won two, half of its quota in 2011.

Instead, Uzue Barkos, leader of the pro-Basque coalition Geroa Bai (“Yes to the Future”) – itself a coalition of centre-left Basque nationalist association Zabaltzen and the centre-right Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV) – approached other pro-Basque parties to negotiate a coalition government after her party won nine seats.

In order to form government, Geroa Bai needed to secure 26 seats in the 50-seat Navarre parliament – 17 more than its direct mandate. Geroa Bai immediately entered into discussions with the Basque leftist pro-independence coalition Euskal Herria Bildu ("Basque Country Unite", EH Bildu), which won eight seats, the new Spanish anti-austerity party Podemos (seven seats) and the left-federalist Izquierda-Ezkerra ("Left-Left", I-E) –- the Navarre affiliate of Spain's Izquierda Unida ("United Left") – with two seats.

Importantly, all four parties share a series of common policies, including demanding increased self-government for Navarre, and further protection for the Basque language.

While Barkos initially left open the possibility that the Socialist Party of Navarre (PSN) could be asked to join the coalition, both EH Bildu and Podemos balked at the proposal, as the PSN had supported the UPN in government during the last parliamentary term.

Basque language and autonomy

Navarre within the greater Basque country.

The end of the UPN’s reign is not the only historic aspect of the election. Despite some clear differences, the election manifestos of Geroa Bai, EH Bildu, Podemos and I-E were in broad agreement on two important issues – increased political autonomy for Navarre, and the protection and extension of the Basque language.

While it is not a part of Spain's official "País Vasco" ("Basque Country"), Navarre (“Nafarroa” in Euskadi, the Basque language) is the largest of the seven provinces of Euskal Herria (the greater Basque homeland), and Basque is still spoken in large parts, particularly in the north.

However, the language and culture have suffered from years of neglect and oppression, to the point where in 2006 only 11.1 per cent of Navarrans identified as full speakers of Basque (although many more described themselves as "passive" users of the language).

All four parties went to the elections vowing to make the Basque-language medium “D model” of education available throughout schools in Navarre, and have committed to the “normalisation” of Basque in the region. They also agree on increasing the use of Basque in public administration.

Navarre is currently divided into three linguistic zones, and Basque is only an official language – alongside Spanish – in the northern zone. All four parties agree on overcoming this division, however only EH Bildu and I-E are openly calling for the language to be granted full official status throughout all of Navarre. 

EH Bildu have gone a step further, calling for policies to "ensure that the entire student population" of Navarre has a basic knowledge of Basque.

The four parties also advocate increased political autonomy for Navarre, although again they differ on questions of degree and time frame. EH Bildu wants a "change of political status" within the new electoral term, while Geroa Bai is more circumspect, arguing that political change should come "at the time when the political situation allows it". I-E takes a similarly gradualist approach, suggesting that Navarre should take on more powers as Spain progresses towards a "federal and plurinational republic" that recognises the right to self-determination.

Podemos has been even less specific on the issue, saying that Navarre should be devolved "as many powers as the Navarrese population decides". 

Ending Spain?

Results in Navarre’s local and municipal elections also saw success for pro-Basque parties. Despite losing ground in local elections within the Basque Country, EH Bildu won coalition government in the Navarre capital, Iruña (Pamplona), ending 20 years of right-wing, pro-Spanish rule. EH Bildu’s mayoral candidate Joseba Asiron secured the position with support from Geroa Bai, the citizens’ platform Aranzadi (a grass-roots initiative supported by Podemos) and I-E.

Asiron delivered his inaugural speech in both Basque and Spanish, committing to working for peace and coexistence between Basque and Spanish cultures in the city. 

The victory for pro-Basque forces in Navarre coincides with the rise in separatist sentiment in other parts of Spain, particularly in Catalonia, which held a non-binding referendum on independence last November. It also takes place as the decades-long conflict in the Basque Country appears to be drawing to a final close, the Basque separatist armed group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (“Basque Homeland and Liberty”, ETA) having ended its armed insurgency and is now beginning to put its weapons beyond use.

The Spanish state refuses to recognise these moves towards peaceful self-determination, however, insisting on a policy of crushing ETA entirely while persecuting pro-independence Basques, and has declared a Catalan vote on independence illegal.

At the same time, the rapid rise of the anti-austerity party Podemos out of the massive street protests of recent years threatens to unravel the two-party hegemony that has governed Spain since the “restoration” of democracy in the 1970s.

UPN leader, Yolanda Barcina.

In the aftermath of the Navarre vote, outgoing premier of Navarre and leader of the UPN Yolanda Barcina described the wins for alternative parties as “destabilising” for Spain. She hyperbolically compared the situation to the rise of the Nazis in Germany or Perón in Argentina, and warned of a “Venezuela-like” situation in Spain.

Barcina also urged Pablo Iglesias, national leader of Podemos, to “think” before forming alliances with parties that aim "to break up Spain or free ETA prisoners", but Podemos' leader in Navarre Laura Perez said her party "will not frustrate" political change in Navarre. 

Decisions on any agreement, Perez said, "will not be taken in Madrid” but in the "Citizens' Assembly of Navarre", Podemos' highest decision-making body in the territory.

The desperation evident in Barcina's bombastic comments reflects a deap-seated unease felt at the heart of the Spanish ruling class. The growing movements against austerity across Spain, and calls for independence or increased autonomy in various regions – in Galicia and Andalucía as well as Catalonia and the Basque Country – are raising questions, not just of the old ruling elite, but also about the long-term viability of the Spanish state itself. 

While, as Basque, I welcome the interest, I find the article a bit lacking. On one side a lot of emphasis is given to Barkos' Geroa Bai! coalition, when it is just one of four forces that have made the change possible, and the one most to the right of all them (all the others would be considered "extreme left" by the usual narrative). Not enough emphasis is given to the painful state of corruption that UPN and its unionist backers (not just the PP but also and critically the PSOE) had brought to the Old Kingdom and which is the main reason why they were finally kicked out by the Navarrese people.

It must be said that, even if Barkos' coalition got one seat more than EH Bildu (Basque Nationalist Left coalition), they also suffered loses compared to the previous performance of Nafarroa Bai, to which they are partly heir. This is because the main parties in Nafarroa Bai! (Aralar and Eusko Alkartasuna) joined EH Bildu.

It is also important to underline that while Geroa Bai! got slightly ahead in the all Navarre vote count, the concentrated vote per towns went largely to EH Bildu (Iruñea-Pamplona, Hiriberri-Tafalla, Lizarra-Estella and many others) and Izquierda-Ezkerra in the case of Tutera-Tudela.

This also brings to question the important loss of not just votes and the overall majority for UPN in Navarre as such but the loss of power at all levels, notably municipal level. Because if they still remain in many places as the most voted list, they have no external supports.