Wounds linger in Spain’s Basque Country a decade after ETA ended armed struggle

A decade after Basque separatist group ETA renounced the use of arms, the northern Spanish region is still trying to turn the page on decades of bloodshed.

People hold a banner reading in Basque
People hold a banner reading in Basque "Come back home" during a demonstration to demand the transfer of ETA prisoners to jails near their homes in the northern Spanish city of Bilbao. Photo: Ander Guillenea/AFP

In a video released on October 20, 2011, three masked ETA leaders announced that the group classified as a terrorist organisation by the European Union “has decided the definitive cessation of its armed activity”.

“It is time to look at the future with hope. It is also time to act with responsibility and courage,” they added, raising their fists in the air at the end of the video.

The announcement put an end to western Europe’s last armed insurgency.

“After ten years, we have advanced…but there are still wounds that have not healed,” regional leader Inigo Urkullo of the moderate Basque nationalist PNV party wrote in an opinion column published Sunday.

Created in 1959 at the height of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship which repressed Basque culture and language, ETA is accused of killing more than 850 people in its fight for an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwest France.

Its decision to lay down its arms was a “major turning point” for the Basque separatist movement, said political scientist Rafael Leonisio Calvo, the author of a book about ETA.

“It was a surprise, particularly since it was a unilateral announcement without any trade-offs…but in reality it was the result of a long process,” he told AFP.

File photo from 1997 shows demonstrators with their hands painted white, during a protest in Ermua against Popular Party (PP) councillor Miguel Angel Blanco's murder at the hands of ETA. Photo: Rafa RIVAS/AFP
File photo from 1997 shows demonstrators with their hands painted white, during a protest in Ermua against Popular Party (PP) councillor Miguel Angel Blanco’s murder at the hands of ETA. Photo: Rafa RIVAS/AFP

Weakened by arrests

Several weeks before the announcement, secret negotiations were held between ETA leaders and the Spanish government via intermediaries.

The framework for the talks was agreed with the Socialist prime minister of Spain at the time, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, one of ETA’s historic leaders, Josu Urrutikoetxea, told AFP in a recent interview.

The talks resulted in an international peace conference held in October 2011 in the seaside Basque city of San Sebastian where ETA was urged to end its armed struggle to “promote reconciliation”.

At the time ETA was severely weakened by arrests of its top leaders and seizures of its weapons.

The group was also being pushed by its political wing — under pressure from Basque public opinion — to “change its strategy” and drop violence, said Eguzki Urteaga, a sociologist with the University of the Basque Country.

“During the Franco era, ETA benefited from a sort of aura among part of the population that was opposed to the regime,” he told AFP.

“But then rejection of the armed struggle did not stop growing, especially after 1995 when ETA decided to expand its targets to include members of civil society.”

Photo taken on December 20, 1973 shows how policemen search among the damages caused by an ETA bomb in which Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco has been killed. (Photo by STAFF / EUROPA PRESS / AFP)

‘Dead end’

This view is shared by Calvo, who said ETA was at a “dead end” at the time.

“Polls showed that even among separatist voters, support for ETA had dropped considerably and become a minority,” he added.

ETA continued its pacification after it announced it had dropped violence.

In April 2017 the group handed in its weapons and the following year it apologised to its victims, just days before it formally declared its dissolution.

Still, resentments persist.

Victims’ groups denounce jubilant ceremonies held for ETA members on their release from prison and complain that some 300 ETA killings have not been resolved.

Meanwhile, family members of ETA prisoners complain that many are still being held in jails far from the Basque Country.

A protest planned for September to demand the release from jail of ETA member Henri Parot, who is serving a lengthy sentence for his role in 39 killings was called off after it sparked counter demonstrations.

Arnaldo Otegi, leader of far-left Basque pro-independence party EH Bildu which is seen the heir of ETA’s former political wing, on Monday apologised for the “suffering endured” by ETA victims.

“It never should have happened,” he added in what was seen as an attempt to foster further rapprochement in the region.

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Spain’s PP is hot on the heels of PSOE, but will they need Vox to govern?

With the next general election slated for December 2023, recent polling shows Spain's Conservatives gaining ground on the Socialists. Spanish political correspondent Conor Faulkner looks at whether the PP will need far-right Vox to govern, as they now do at a regional level.

Spain's PP is hot on the heels of PSOE, but will they need Vox to govern?

Recent polling from Spain’s CIS (Centre for Sociological Research) shows the incumbent PSOE-led government with a slight, but shrinking, advantage over opposition parties.

On 30.3 percent, Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE would form the government if elections were held today, but that score is unimproved since April and, crucially, the centre-right party Popular Party is gaining, polling at 28.7 percent in May, with the difference between the two now only 1.6 percent.

In fact, PP have been on a steady rise since a turbulent start to 2022 in which former leader Pablo Casado was forced to resign after becoming entangled in intra-party infighting with PP’s regional President in Madrid, Isabel Ayuso.

Casado was replaced by Galician Alberto Núñez Feijóo, considered to be a more traditional centre-right candidate in the mould of Rajoy, who served as President of Galicia between 2009-2022.

PROFILE: Feijóo, steady hand on the tiller for Spain’s opposition party

Whereas Casado was often drawn into scandal and outflanked on cultural issues by far-right Vox, Feijóo is considered a more conventional conservative less prone to populism, and his short tenure as leader has put the PP back on the road to electoral respectability. 

PP were polling around 21 percent in February, amid the public infighting, but since then have steadily risen to the 28.7 percent that they would get if an election were held today, according to recent CIS numbers.

Yet, while many view Feijóo as more centrist than his predecessor, at the regional level far-right Vox have entered into a regional government coalition with PP in Castilla y León.

With important regional elections looming in Andalusia in June, and a general election further down the line in December 2023, it remains unclear if PP would be forced to rely on Vox to overcome PSOE’s thin polling advantage and form a national government.

Crucially, PP’s recent rise has not chipped away at Vox’s polling numbers. According to the CIS, Vox’s polling numbers grew from 14.8 percent in April to 16.6 percent in May, and with centrist Cuidadanos all but electorally wiped out, hovering around 2 or 3 percent all year, and the far-left, junior coalition partner Podemos falling further in the polls, to below 10 percent, the CIS estimate a higher probability of a right-wing PP-Vox (45 percent) than they do a PSOE-Podemos (39.9 percent) government.

With Vox now firmly established as Spain’s third political party and already on the offensive in Castilla y Leon’s regional government – including its Minister of Industry, Commerce and Employment in the assembly recently declaring war against “the virus of communism” – all eyes will be on the upcoming Andalusian regional elections to see if PP is again forced to rely on Vox members to form a government.

Vox’s anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, climate-sceptic populist policy programme is controversial, and the prospect of them as junior coalition partner in a national government would be an abrupt change from a government that wants to introduce menstrual leave and provide financial aid to renters.

Their entry into government at the regional level in Castilla y León was the first time they have officially entered into an executive, at any level, although PP have relied on Vox votes in regional assemblies in both Murcia and Andalusia in the past.

READ ALSO: Spanish cabinet approves paid ‘menstrual leave’

Whereas under Casado’s leadership PP were often forced rightward on cultural issues in an effort to stop Vox shaving away at their core electoral base, under Feijóo the future is less clear. Although Feijóo is considered more centrist than his predecessor, Vox’s steady rise since its emergence into Spanish politics since 2014 worries many on the left and centre, particularly as it has now officially entered into government at the regional level.

Yet, Feijóo seems keen to draw some distinction between the two parties. “The leaders of Vox cannot prove experience in management [of the country] because they do not have it, [and] it seems that they do not like the European Union… the State of Autonomies does not satisfy them either,” he said this week, but did recognise their electoral gains as “obvious.”

“The difference between Vox and the PP,” he continued, “is that a good part of Vox leaders came from the PP and left the common home.”

“We are very interested in those votes that those leaders have because they were votes that the PP had. And, as you will understand, we are here to win,” he added.

What exactly that means for the future political makeup of La Moncloa – whether Feijóo intends to win back those votes for PP or keep them in the ‘common home’ and work with Vox in coalition – remains unclear.

With the Sánchez-led coalition having had almost its entire term swallowed up by the global pandemic, then war in Europe, and now a cost of living and inflation crisis, it seems likely the left could lose the next general election and the Spanish right will return to power.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether that means a PP government or a PP-Vox coalition and the prospect of the far-right in government. All eyes will be on Andalusia in June to see how Feijóo pivots his party as it looks ahead to general elections next year. 

READ ALSO: What a Vox government could mean for foreigners in Spain