Why separatist Bildu spells hope for Basque youth as Spanish region votes

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Why separatist Bildu spells hope for Basque youth as Spanish region votes
Pro-independence political coalition "EH Bildu" party supporters wave Basque flags during a campaign meeting in the Spanish Basque city of Sestao. (Photo by ANDER GILLENEA / AFP)

"For us Basques, ETA's terrorism is in the past," says social worker Elena García, who says she's going to vote for the left-wing separatist EH Bildu in Sunday's election in Spain's Basque Country.


As the wealthy northern region of 2.2 million residents heads into a tightly-contested vote for its regional parliament, polls suggest Bildu will win, inching ahead of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) that has ruled for decades.

A faction which partly emerged from the political wing of the now-defunct Basque armed separatist group ETA, Bildu "used to be associated with a nationalist party with a terrorist past but it’s moved away from that," said García.


"Now it’s the party doing the most for social issues and defending Basque interests."

Although she's 40, her words reflect a stance common among young Basque voters for whom decades of dark separatist violence has little bearing on their electoral choices.

A coalition of several parties, most of which opposed violence, Bildu has worked to disassociate itself from ETA whose bloody struggle for an independent Basque homeland claimed 850 lives before it rejected violence in 2011.

And with a focus on housing, the environment and others issues, it has won a strong following among younger voters between 18 and 44, surveys show.

Although former ETA member Arnaldo Otegi, 65, remains its leader and most public face, Bildu recently named 40-year-old Pello Otxandiano as candidate for regional leader.

Over the years, observers say it has successfully highlighted problems facing Basque society that have increasingly taken centre stage as the political focus has shifted away from the violence of the ETA years.

“Before, the only party looking after Basque interests was the PNV, so everyone voted for them regardless of their political leanings," said García.

"But with Bildu gaining strength, if you’re left-wing and more socially minded, you’ll vote for them.”

A man and a child look at an electoral poster of pro-independence political coalition "EH Bildu" campaign meeting in the Spanish Basque city of Sestao on April 10, 2024 ahead of April 21 regional elections. (Photo by ANDER GILLENEA / AFP)

'Left-wing separatist alternative'

Experts say Bildu has steadily gained political traction through a strategy that has steered clear of terror-related issues while refocusing squarely on social change.

"Bildu has become increasingly popular with young people, benefitting from the end of the armed struggle," said Pablo Simón, a political scientist at Madrid's Carlos III University.

"That has allowed it to position itself as the pro-independence, left-wing alternative to the traditional PNV government with a substantial part of its agenda linked to social policies, wealth redistribution, environmentalism and the like."


The aim was to "move away from terrorism-related issues to talk about other problems linked to the left and the right."

Eva Silván, who heads public policy consultancy Silvan&Miracle, said it had also scaled back its separatist agenda.

"It started talking about issues that were more material than identity based, and reducing the pro-independence agenda to focus on concrete social and public policies," she told AFP.

And that has played well with a new generation of voters "who hadn't experienced terrorism and didn't link the separatist left with violence".

For them, she said, Bildu "really taps into the concerns of young people and best addresses their problems".

By 2019, Bildu was well on its way to becoming just another political actor with its five lawmakers in Spain's national parliament recently becoming a key ally for the minority government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

For Basque youth, Bildu - a coalition grouping several peaceful separatist parties with former members of ETA's political wing - spells hope in Spain election, AFP reports on April 18, 2024. (Photo by ANDER GILLENEA / AFP)

Focus on youth, poor

In a square in Bilbao, four friends in their 20s reel off a list of struggles they're facing, from impossibly high rents to worsening job conditions and the rising cost of living.

One won't vote because she doesn't believe in the political system, two can't vote because they're undocumented immigrants and the fourth says there's "no point", drawing protest from her friends who say Bildu is the only option.

"It’s essential to vote because even if Bildu doesn't win, they'll have greater representation in the Basque parliament," explained Moroccan Usama Abdeloihidin, 26, who works in the hotel sector.

"They’re more focused on the working class and the situation of young people. The PNV might look out for Basque interests but not if you’re from a poor or minority neighbourhood," he said.


At a Bildu rally in nearby town of Sestao, a crowd of supporters are cheering, clapping and waving red, white and green Basque flags as three students watch from the sidelines.

“Many young people are forced to balance studies and work and this capitalist exploitation is raising political awareness, so many Basques are turning to the left, to Bildu," said Oier Gómez Parada, a 19-year-old Basque philology student.

“Bildu is focusing on people and raising awareness about the difficult conditions we’re facing that other parties just don’t care about.”

In nearby Agurain, 23-year-old student activist Oier Inurrieta Garamendia told AFP he felt represented because Bildu "lets young people speak, and doesn't just speak in our name".

"Whatever happens on April 21st, we'll have a result we can really celebrate," he said while admitting that even if Bildu did win 30 of the Basque parliament's 75 seats, up from 21, it stood no chance of ruling.

"When the other parties refuse to work with EH Bildu, they're not just blocking the party, they're blocking the needs and desires of a large part of Basque society."


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