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While the PSOE sinks, Rajoy breathes easy, but he is now facing a radicalized Basque Country

On Sunday, the Popular Party (PP) confirmed its clear majority in the Galician regional parliament, thanks mainly to the decline of the Socialists, who have crumbled in Galicia and lost their governing position in the Basque Country. Thus the Socialist Party, far from recovering from the electoral disasters of 2011, has sunk further, casting a shadow on Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba and his party leadership.

Mariano Rajoy can breathe easier thanks to the victory of Alberto Núñez Feijóo in Galicia, though the PP did poorly in the Basque Country, where the radicalization of the Basque nationalists is worrying. The moderation so far shown by the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) candidate, Iñigo Urkullu, does not mean he will not issue secessionist "sovereignty" challenges as and when he sees fit. And the Catalan elections, with a similar secessionist issue on the table, are only weeks away. All of this is taking place against the background of crisis, with Spain in recession and awaiting a possible EU bailout, with several regional governments calling for financial support amid rampant unemployment and continual demonstrations and strikes.

Extreme political line

Sunday's vote produced a Basque regional parliament that is more nationalist in composition, but above all, more radical. Between them, the PNV and the radical nationalist EH Bildu coalition hold almost 50 of the 75 seats. The Basque Socialists (PSE) lost 10 percentage points of the vote, and nine of the 25 seats they had; the PP, three of their 13.

Not for the first time, the nationalists now hold two-thirds of the votes and seats in the Basque parliament. In the four Basque elections held in the 1980s, the sum of the PNV (including its later splinter, EA), and the radical parties Herri Batasuna and Euskadiko Ezkerra, fluctuated around the two-thirds mark. In those days, however, about 25 percent of the nationalist vote was abertzale (radical secessionist left, pro-ETA), while now the abertzale accounts for some 40 percent of the nationalist vote. At first sight, EH Bildu might look like a possible coalition partner for the PNV, but their extreme political line makes it difficult for them to collaborate with any of the major parties.

Obviously the thousands of people who have been victims of ETA, or have lived under its threats, will be disappointed at this strengthened position of radical Basque nationalism. However, the situation is not as serious as it was when, besides a political problem, there was a grave one of terrorism. The price of the withdrawal of ETA has been the legalization of the abertzale subculture that constituted its political wing. Yet the withdrawal of the terrorist threat means that political problems can be addressed in a more favorable atmosphere.

Urkullu will obviously be the next Basque regional premier, but without a clear majority. An alliance with EH Bildu is his least likely option, as it could be built only upon Basque identity issues, thus favoring the abertzales' hopes of displacing the PNV from its hegemonic position within the Basque nationalist community. A PNV-PSE alliance is possible (in her speech the Bildu candidate claimed it was already a done deal) though it would necessarily be a tense one, after their frictions in the outgoing legislature. The non-nationalist parties (PP and PSE) total 27 seats, the same as the PNV. Between them stands EH Bildu with 21 seats, in a hinge position. But to form alliances with anyone, Bildu will need to renounce not only violence (more clearly than they have), but also the fanaticism they have displayed in municipalities where they have been governing of late.

Relief for Rajoy

Again, Galicia has been Mariano Rajoy's political salvation. When the threat loomed of an anti-PP vote in repudiation of his austerity policies, the Galician PP has actually slightly improved its position. The early elections caught the Socialists unprepared, their massive vote hemorrhage taking the form partly of voter abstention and partly of votes for the Galician nationalist left, which is now divided between the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG) and the new party Anova-EU, created by the nationalist Xosé Manuel Beiras in alliance with United Left (IU). The two now total 16 seats, constituting a moderate advance.

The Socialist débâcle (seven seats down on 2009) and the displacement of the left vote toward regional nationalism, reflects not only the failure of the Galician Socialist leader Pachi Vázquez, but the sharp division in the left. In Galicia a bad taste was left after the brief experiment in bipartite government by a coalition of the Socialists and the BNG, which was ousted in the 2009 elections. But it would be in vain were the Spain-wide leadership of the Socialist Party to assert that Sunday's elections were only regional in nature, and do not reflect on the party at the national level.

If the Galician elections of 2009 lifted Rajoy above the turmoil of internal challenges in his party, the PP's victory on Sunday constitutes a breath of fresh air for the prime minister at a difficult moment in his mandate. Rajoy owes this breather essentially to the popularity of the regional premier Núñez Feijóo, who in terms of age and governing experience now stands in a good position in the line-up for eventual succession to the national PP leadership.

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