Basque election: leftwing coalition partly descended from Eta leads in polls

<span>An EH Bildu campaign meeting in the Basque city of Sestao before regional elections on 21 April.</span><span>Photograph: Ander Gillenea/AFP/Getty</span>
An EH Bildu campaign meeting in the Basque city of Sestao before regional elections on 21 April.Photograph: Ander Gillenea/AFP/Getty

A leftwing coalition of Basque separatists, partly descended from the political wing of the defunct terrorist group Eta, could become the largest party in the Basque Country’s parliament after an election in the northern Spanish region on Sunday.

Latest polls suggest that EH Bildu, which is led by a convicted Eta member who later played a key role in persuading the group to end its armed campaign for an independent Basque homeland, has edged ahead of its rivals in the Basque Nationalist party (PNV).

The centrist PNV, which has ruled the northern Spanish region almost continuously since 1980, now governs in coalition with the Basque Socialist party (PSE-EE).

Surveys suggest Bildu’s decision to break from the past and focus on issues such as health, housing and employment is paying off – especially among younger voters.

A poll on Monday for El País and Cadena Ser radio put Bildu on 35.4% of the vote and 30 seats in the 75-seat regional parliament – eight short of an absolute majority; the PNV on 34.5% and 28 seats; the PSE-EE on 13.4% and 10 seats; and the conservative People’s party (PP) on 8.2% and six seats.

Another recent survey, conducted by Spain’s public research body, the Centre for Sociological Research, suggested Bildu could take 35.1% of the vote, the PNV 33.5%, the PSE-EE 14.1% and the PP 7%.

However, the campaign has inevitably been overshadowed by Eta and the atrocities it committed over the course of five decades. The issue of Bildu’s descent from Batasuna, Eta’s political wing, returned to the fore this week after Pello Otxandiano, Bildu’s candidate for Basque president, or lehendakari, was criticised for referring to Eta as an “armed group” rather than a terrorist one during a debate this week.

Eta, which stands for “Basque homeland and freedom”, murdered 829 people – almost half of them civilians – during its terror campaign.

The group’s disregard for civilian life and push to escalate the violence throughout Basque society using a strategy known as “the socialisation of suffering” left it increasingly marginalised. In 1987, it killed 21 people in a supermarket bombing in Barcelona. Six million people took to the streets in protest a decade later after Eta kidnapped and murdered Miguel Ángel Blanco, a young local PP politician.

Eta abandoned its armed campaign in 2011 and dissolved itself seven years later. In 2021, Bildu’s leader, Arnaldo Otegi, said the terror group’s violence “should never have happened” and that it ought to have laid down its arms far earlier than it did.

Although Otegi, who joined Eta as a teenager and was later imprisoned for kidnapping, is credited with playing a pivotal role in persuading the group to renounce violence and seek independence by peaceful, political means, he remains a hate figure for most Spaniards.

The party’s commitment to distancing itself from the violence of the past was called into question when it sought to field 44 convicted Eta members, including seven people found guilty of violent crimes, as candidates in last year’s local elections.

Otxandiano’s reference to Eta as an “armed group” was also seized on by his opponents.

Spain’s socialist-led government, which relied on Bildu’s support to help it win a second term in office after last year’s inconclusive general election, described Otxandiano’s choice of words as cowardly and disrespectful to Eta’s victims and to Spain as a whole.

Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the leader of the national PP, in turn accused the socialists of “real cynicism” for suddenly deciding to take Bildu to task after cutting a series of municipal, regional and national deals with Otegi’s party.

Pablo Simón, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III University, said that despite Bildu’s poll lead, the most likely outcome on Sunday was a repeat of the existing PNV and PSE-EE coalition.

“I think the most interesting thing about these elections is how Bildu may become the biggest party,” he said. “At the moment, it’s neck and neck with the PNV, but we’ll see what happens because this final week of campaigning hasn’t gone as well for [Bildu] as the first week did.”

Whatever happened, Simón added, the Basque Country had undergone “a very important sociological change” in which Bildu had cemented its status as a “catch-all party”.

He said: “Today, support for independence in the Basque Country is at 22% – which is one of its lowest levels. That means the public debate is about governing.”

Simón said Bildu’s focus on health, housing and industrial policy had helped it connect with those sick of the political status quo.

“It’s been looking for a debate centred on public policy and trying to pick up on that discontent,” he said. “That’s how the Bildu brand has progressively managed to win credibility and respectability. I think it will get a good result – but I still have a few doubts as to whether it will outperform the PNV.”