Bilbao fiesta controversy threatens to light fuse of political confrontation

Popular Party to abstain from city celebration if ETA prisoners' supporter fires off the inaugural 'txupinazo'

Jone Artola (left) was officially presented as the selected ´txupiner' last week.
Jone Artola (left) was officially presented as the selected ´txupiner' last week.FERNANDO DOMINGO-ALDAMA

Political tensions in Bilbao are rising ahead of the celebration of Aste Nagusia, the city's annual week-long fiesta. In recent years the Bizkaia capital has largely forgotten the disturbances that have marred the event — the so-called "wars of the flags" of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which revolved around the Spanish standard flying on the City Hall alongside the Basque and Bilbao flags, and police raids against beer tents displaying photos of ETA prisoners — as the previous Socialist regional administration exercised a zero-tolerance policy.

But even as the path to the definitive end to ETA violence appears clearer than ever and Basque society slowly returns to peaceful co-existence, the simple act of lighting a firework has provided a new touchpaper for ideological confrontation. The decision to award the honor, called the txupinazo and which marks the beginning of the fiestas, to Jone Artola, a member of the ETA prisoners' association Etxerat, has been denounced by the central government delegate in Bilbao, Carlos Urquijo. Artola's participation has been provisionally suspended while the courts process the PP's complaint.

The Basque Popular Party has said it will not attend the txupinazo if Artola is not withdrawn, as in 2009 when Sonia Polo, the sister of an ETA inmate, was the txupinera. The conservative grouping stated that the decision — which is made each year by Biboko Konpartsak, which groups together the various associations taking part in the fiesta — was offensive to victims of ETA terrorism.

I'm in favor of a terrorism victim lighting the firework"

"The only people creating tension are those that want others to swallow certain attitudes of the past," said PP spokeswoman Cristina Ruiz. "I would feel ridiculous attending a municipal event in which one of the symbols of the fiesta is a spokesperson for the families of ETA prisoners."

That the Socialists plan to attend Saturday's ceremony four years after the Sonia Polo controversy is being viewed positively by Bildu, the abertzale radical nationalist political grouping that is seen as the heir to Batasuna, ETA's outlawed political wing. "They are displaying a positive attitude, taking a direction in line with a desire to make forward steps," said Bildu spokesman Aitziber Ibaibarriga. "It is clear where the politicization of the fiestas through this false controversy has originated. When Jone Artola was designated txupinera, the Popular Party said nothing. Where has this come from now?"

Ibaibarriga attended a protest staged by Biboko Konpartsak on Tuesday against the decision to suspend Artola. Bilbao City Hall presented its appeals against the decision the same day and the councilor for public events, Itziar Urtasun, called for "peaceful" celebrations leading up to Saturday while the final decision is made. The public events commission and Biboko Konpartsak are due to meet on Wednesday to decide on what action to take.

Meanwhile, Josu Puelles, the brother of police inspector Eduardo Puelles, who was assassinated by ETA in Bizkaia in 2009, backed the decision to suspend Artola.

"I'm in favor of seeing a victim of terrorism where Jose Artola is. In 34 years of violence and extortion, after 850 murders and thousands of injuries there has been never been any proposal by Biboko Konpartsak to have a victim launch the txupinazo," Puelles said Tuesday. "The txupinazo and txupinera are symbols of the celebration of all the people of Bilbao and yet it is almost always performed by people with links to the abertzale left."

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