The reasons behind Bildu's Basque success

The new grouping of the radical left appears to have abandoned any links to ETA violence, emerging as Spain's sixth-largest party at the recent elections

Amagoia remembers that when she was 18 years old she voted for Herri Batasuna (HB), the name of ETA's political wing until 2001, when it became simply Batasuna. "I'm not sure whether they were called HB back then, but it was them, you know who I mean," she says, shortly after dropping her six-year-old daughter off at the ikastola, a Basque-language public school. She never voted for "them" again until May 22 of this year, when Amagoia, now nearly 40, decided to support Bildu, the controversial coalition whose legal right to run in local elections was contested all the way up to the Constitutional Court, over widespread concerns that it was just another name for the same ETA supporters.

The right to run of the controversial coalition was contested all the way
Thousands of voters endorsed the left, paving the way for their return
"Bildu's discourse is different, but now they'll have to prove it on a daily basis"
"We had to show ETA that it's possible to walk this road without weapons"
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Spain's Party Law establishes that all parties must unequivocally reject the use of violence for political means; Batasuna was outlawed in 2003 because it refused to do so, and successive name changes failed to convince the courts that it was ready to return to the political arena. Following failed talks between ETA and the Socialist government in 2006, radical pro-independence circles, known collectively as "the abertzale left," began toying with the idea of a public rejection of violence in a bid to return to the political fold in time for the May 2011 elections. After failing in their attempt to register a party named Sortu, the abertzale tried again with a coalition named Bildu, which also included the small parties Eusko Alkartasuna (EA) and Alternatiba. Just days before voters went to the polls, the Constitutional Court narrowly decided that Bildu did not have direct links to ETA and was thus eligible to run.

Amagoia endorsed Bildu because "it is an opportunity for things to change around here; it was a vote of confidence." In other words, her vote sought to reward the change in attitude among former Batasuna followers and help them consolidate their separation from ETA's violence. Like her, many thousands of Basque voters endorsed the "abertzale left," paving the way for their triumphant return to the institutions. Bildu's runaway success - 313,231 votes in the Basque Country and in Navarre, meaning 1,138 councilors in both regions - makes it Spain's sixth-largest party in terms of local representatives.

This victory cannot be understood without explaining the "provisional reward" that Bildu got from people like Amagoia. But its powerful return to the institutions is also due to endorsement from Batasuna's radical, unconditional supporters. "I've always voted for them. They're the ones who can make Euskal Herria become an independent state," says Lander, a young truck driver from Irún. And then there are those voters who, though not suspicious of encouraging terrorism, still voted for Bildu "to change the way of doing politics," explains a former supporter of the moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which ruled the region for three decades until its surprise defeat to the Basque Socialists in 2009.

The sum of the militant vote, the borrowed vote and the vote of punishment against the ruling party in the regional government turned Bildu into the second-biggest political force in Euskadi (the Basque Country), where it obtained a majority in 96 municipalities, including 88 absolute majorities. It will control towns such as Mondragón, Hernani, Azpeitia and Oñate in the province of Guipúzcoa; Ondarroa and Gernika in Vizcaya, and Salvatierra and Legutiano in Álava. It could even run the provincial authority of Guipúzcoa and the city of San Sebastián, with a population of 185,000. One out of every three voters in Guipúzcoa province (34.64 percent) voted for Bildu.

Bildu got hold of this appetizing piece of the institutional pie after an election race in which it portrayed itself as a political option with no ties to the outlawed Batasuna, eliminating all symbols connected with radical circles and using very calculated rhetoric that was "almost kind," in the words of one Socialist leader. The coalition did not condemn ETA violence, as so many people sought it to do, using the pretext that it does not want to look back at the past. Instead, its road map contemplates "opening a new political cycle that will lead to a definitive normalization, and the immediate consequence of that will be peace." Bildu is not willing to enter into slippery terrain, much less ask ETA to break up. In order to get around any compromising situation, coalition leaders keep repeating that all of Bildu's candidates have signed "an ethical decalogue" that rejects "the use of violence as a means to achieve political goals." This document was handed to justices at the Constitutional Court, which ruled in Bildu's favor by just one vote.

Bildu's message has clearly gotten across. Ernesto was an earnest HB supporter in the 1980s, and now he backs Aralar, a pro-independence party that has always rejected terrorist violence. "Bildu's discourse is different, and people believed them, but now they'll have to prove it on a daily basis. Time will tell whether they are fully convinced and whether they will do everything they said they would. But bear in mind that you can change your political discourse in two days, and your political strategy, too. The really tough thing is to change your mentality in such a short space of time. For now it doesn't look bad, but the process will be gradual."

The residents of villages with a traditionally strong Batasuna presence, and who have up-close contact with these new and improved champions of independence, are torn between skepticism and hope. Javier, a worker in a cooperative in Mondragón, is very wary. "I think there's something fishy going on here. Now they act like good guys, but we all know that it's the same old people." But Aitor, a businessman from San Sebastián, does not share these concerns. "This is not a return to the dark ages, like [the leader of the Basque Popular Party Antonio] Basagoiti said. It is positive for [Bildu] to join the political game so ETA will not go back to doing what it does, and for this abertzale left to be finally domesticated."

Lander, the young truck driver with Batasuna affinities, asserts that people with his own ideological mindset "are convinced that this is for real. We've accepted that there is no turning back because they've decided to stop," he says, in reference to the terrorist organization, although Lander adds that "all sides have to contribute." He also thinks that Bildu "can be a very important step" in the bid for Basque sovereignty.

Radical pro-independence groups seem to have assimilated this message about "a change of cycle." Beñat, a 41-year-old from San Sebastián who is currently unemployed and uses a fake name so as not to be recognized by his friends, explains Bildu's rise as "the answer provided by many people who were unhappy with the abertzale left's outlawing procedure," and also "the fact that many youngsters who are now 24 were unable to vote for the party that they wanted." And what if ETA were to carry out a new attack? "I am sure that Bildu would reject it earnestly. I wouldn't put up with that anymore. It would mean suicide for Bildu and for the abertzale left," he says unequivocally.

Gorka, a habitual voter for Eusko Alkartasuna, confesses that this time he supported Bildu "as a sign of protest" and "to defend the legality of people in the abertzale left." Another borrowed vote. Gorka, the manager of a business with six employees in Hondarribia, says: "We had to send ETA the message that it's possible to walk down this road without weapons, through dialogue." Eusko Alkartasuna, a party that defines itself as social-democratic and which shared power with the Basque Nationalist Party for many years, effected a radical shift following its disastrous results in the 2009 regional elections, in which it lost six out of its seven assembly members. It then opted for joining pro-sovereignty groups, a move that ultimately resulted in the Bildu coalition with Alternatiba and the former Batasuna people.

Gorka believes that his party "was doomed to disappear" until it found a new place within Bildu, where he believes it can play "an important role in keeping temptations of radicalism in check." But does he put any faith in the good intentions now manifested by the radical world? "You have to take the risk. We have a chance to convince those who are more prone to violence that there is nothing more to be done in that department."

When Bildu leaders set about completing their roster of council candidates, they got in touch with Josu Lizarralde, a resident of Oñate and professor of Business Strategy at Mondragón University. In June 2010, Lizarralde began coordinating 12 working groups to design the platform on which a neighborhood coalition would run. He was the third-from-the-top candidate to the council of Oñate, where Bildu obtained an absolute majority on May 22 after 32 years of PNV hegemony. "Bildu got these results partly because people were sick and tired of the PNV, and partly because they had a chance to vote for a pro-independence project for the first time in eight years," says Lizarralde, who used to vote for HB, the original name for Batasuna. Now that he is in power, he promises that city hall commissions will be open to all "because we want to hear proposals from the parties that were left out [of the council]."

In Lazkao, Bildu also beat out the PNV, largely because of their good image in recent times, says Mikel. "These are people who did not apologize [for their past support for ETA], and we have yet to see whether they are really sorry. They cannot condemn ETA because that would mean letting down the bad guys who voted for them, and at the same time they got the votes of people who thought that their message is authentic."

The lawyer Txema Montero, a historical HB leader during the 1980s who was later expelled and subsequently collaborated with the PNV, recently said that "in the internal debate that took place and continues to exist within the abertzale left, between the believers and the thinkers, the first round has been won by the thinkers, who can now offer up good results and contain the believers who still think that armed struggle is the backbone of the movement."

The reality on the ground is that Bildu has once more become, after a long absence, a major force in Basque politics. In the 88 municipalities where it has an absolute majority it will handle budgets totaling over 350 million euros. If it gets to run San Sebastián and the Guipúzcoa council, as expected, that will mean another 390 million eurosand 839 million euros, respectively. The Basque Socialists and the PP have already expressed public concern on behalf of Basque businesspeople. "They [Bildu] are going to have access to confidential data. Many people are going to leave," a reference to the threatening letters demanding payment of a "revolutionary tax" that ETA has sent business people for decades.

Iñaki, 45, of San Sebastián, says it looks like radical circles "are starting to think, like the rest of us have already done. Let's see if they are capable of changing their methods and start nation-building instead of the opposite, because all they have achieved so far is bloodshed and tragedies. [...] I am unconvinced about their concept of nation and of the individual, not to mention their methods. If Bildu is the kind of thing I see daily in Usurbil or in Hernani... that's just not the 21st century."

Martín Garitano, Peio Urizar, Ikerne Badiola and Óscar Matute on the night of May 22.
Martín Garitano, Peio Urizar, Ikerne Badiola and Óscar Matute on the night of May 22.JESÚS URIARTE
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