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close this bookEthnicity and Power in the Contemporary World (UNU, 1996, 298 pages)
close this folder12. Political autonomy and conflict resolution: The Basque case
View the document(introductory text...)
View the document1 Introduction
View the document2. Basque singularity
View the document3. The significant political problems
View the document4 The statute of autonomy
View the document5 Autonomic praxis
View the document6 Conclusion

2. Basque singularity

2.1 Basque nationalism and violence

Basque nationalism was founded by Sabino Arana in 1893. Historically, three main traits have characterized its ideology. These are: centripetism, regenerationism, and ethnocentrism. They have in turn spawned a series of strategic-political aspects. But the three traits have stood out, as they have directly conditioned the origins of ETA, as well as its subsequent development.


Basque nationalism is rooted in the radical contrast between the Spanish and the Basque, viewing the two as naturally antagonistic. Along these lines, the concept of the Basque Country as antithetical to the concept of Spain emerges. This antithesis is the main factor, the cause and reason for the very existence of Basque nationalism. The nationalist claim is thus supported by the idea of the Basque Country's "occupation" by the foreign state of Spain. Ideologically speaking, Basque nationalism is therefore not only configured as an "antisystem" political movement, but also as anti-Spain.


Historically, Basque nationalism has always tended to be projected as a community movement endeavouring to respond to the Basques as a whole, aiming to establish itself as the only legitimate representative of the Basque community. This regenerationist trait continues today within the complex world revolving around ETA and its subsidiary political and cultural bodies, social, youth, and student movements.


This third trait is a direct consequence of the two previous ones. It characterizes the "community" served by the movement as the Basque ethnic community exclusively, and both confuses and identifies this with the nationalist community, so that any non-nationalist is considered non-Basque.

This has given rise to a deep sense of community rooted in the autochthonous or indigenous community, as significant to Basque identity as the nationalist claim itself. The intrinsic tension between the various social classes was substituted for a double Basque Country/Spain and autochthonous/immigrant tension, so that the nationalist community always appeared as a monolithic bloc without a crack, facing the "external enemy."

The initial strategy of Basque nationalism, based on the rejection of the Spanish, and the subsequent refusal to intervene in Spain's political affairs, was significantly tempered in later years. Such a compromising and possibilist policy, however, always met with firm opposition among certain intransigent sectors claiming to possess ideological legitimacy. Therefore, from the beginning, Basque nationalism has been embroiled in an internal debate between the need for a possibilist strategy to overcome the Basque/Spanish antagonism and the ideological bases of radical and uncompromising nationalism. This same dialectic between the possibilist and radical strategies prevailed during the Francoist period and the democratic transition that followed.

ETA (meaning "Basque Country and Freedom") was founded in 1959, in the middle of the Francoist period. At its start, ETA had to choose between two alternative, nationalist models: that of the European ethnic minorities, or that of the emerging third world nationalism. The former defines its strategy from the perspective of restructuring and reforming European national states in order to attain a federal Europe made up of different peoples. The latter bases its entire strategy on a radical and absolute antagonism between the dominant country and the colony, such that resolution of the conflict must inevitably lead to the violent expulsion of the colonizer and the substitution of the old colonial power for a new, autochthonous power.

While a certain initial ambiguity was to be seen, all data tip the scale towards ETA's ultimate adherence to the third world model. ETA proposed strict activism and a radical break with the "oppressor country," which led to the organization of a military branch as early as 1960, and the first act of violence in the summer of 1961. Why? Several factors must be considered:

(a) One must take the post-war social and political situation of the Basque Country into account. For Basques, the post-war era was marked by disappointment and setbacks. These had begun even earlier, with the relative failure of the policy of compromise adopted by the moderate Basque Nationalist Party (Partido Nacionalista Vasco, PNV) during the Second Republic and the mutual distrust between the nationalists and the Spanish Republican regime. They continued with the abandonment of the Basques by the Western powers during the post-war period, and the sense of annihilation of Basque identity, marked by the progressive and alarming disappearance of the Basque language. Enormous numbers of immigrants, and rapid and profound social and economic transformations, with the resulting environmental degradation, contributed further. Behind all this, of course, loomed the omnipresent Francoist repression, which nipped in the bud the slightest signs of opposition. These factors not only inclined ETA's stance towards uncompromising nationalism, but also led its members to act on their theories.

The situation fostered the latent feeling that the autochthonous Basque community was dying out. This feeling represents a fundamental element in ETA's development. It is logical if one considers the marked ethnocentric character of historical Basque nationalism, which linked the nation's existence indivisibly to the survival of its language. It was, and still is, believed that if the Basque language were to die, the Basque Country would cease to exist.

(b) Conditions tended to encourage the view of the Basque Country as a country occupied by Spain. In the context of a highly industrialized society and a powerful working-class movement, evidence emerged of brutal repression capable of smothering even the most insignificant manifestations of the Basque identity. Consequently, the anti-colonialist movement's methods of fighting back were adopted. It was held that the Basque Country constitutes a Spanish colony.

(c) Activism, an expression which may be understood as the sublimation of praxis to the detriment of theory, has become the mark of identity best defining ETA. This activism conditions in an absolute manner the organization's theoretical activity and, especially, its political strategy.

As a radical and intransigent nationalist movement, ETA believes that the Basque people must stand up, not only to Francoism, but to Spain, in order to recover their national identity. For this reason, it is defined as a national liberation movement rather than just another political party. ETA's attitude is not exclusively political, but fundamentally regenerationist.

This is how the great drama of ETA was produced, a drama which is played out on an ideological stage. It raises the questions of how to apply a third world guerrilla strategy to an industrialized society and, in the area of praxis, how to make a third world guerrilla strategy with mass action compatible with current institutional political activity within the democratic system. In practice, this twofold drama is currently reflected in the contradiction between ETA's armed struggle and the political struggle of Herri Batasuna (HB), or People's Unity.

2.2 The specificity of the Basque party system

The Basque party system is clearly a multi-party system, with seven political forces having parliamentary representation, resulting in a very marked fragmentation. It could be said to be a very accentuated "polarized-pluralist" system, in that an absolute compatibility exists between the two ends of the continuum, represented by Alava Unity (Unidad Alavesa, UA; see p. 230) and HB.

The multi-party nature and the polarization of the system are derived from the fact that, interwoven into Basque political life, are four important cleavages which, in order of importance, are the following: violence versus non-violence; nationalism versus non nationalism; provincialism versus non provincialism; the left wing versus the right wing.

Violence versus non-violence

Throughout the Francoist period and during the first few years of democracy, ETA was generally supported and accepted within Basque society. In the last 15 years, however, ETA has begun to squander irretrievably the respect and acceptance it enjoyed during Franco's dictatorship. One by one, the various political groups, including the nationalists or left-wing parties, have opted not only to turn their backs on ETA, but to reject it actively. Only one sector of the nationalist left wing, represented by HB, maintains a supportive position of political collaboration with it.

The result, in political terms, is that the entire set of political parties with parliamentary representation, with the exception of HB - which has 13 of the 75 members of parliament - now overtly rejects violence in general and ETA in particular. Despite the fact that only a minority in Basque society supports violence, this violence, nevertheless, represents the principal problem, that is to say, the problem whose resolution is a precondition for that of all the others.

The qualitative incidence of violence in Basque society is much higher than HB's true electoral support; and there are several reasons for this. First, the violence emerged historically as a means of solving important political problems, which led to ETA's justification or, at least, prevented any radical opposition to it up until recent years. Second, ETA and HB believe that these problems have not been solved by the Statute of Autonomy. Third, ETA's armament capacity is very significant, provoking numerous acts of violence.

Nationalism versus non-nationalism

Basque society is politically as well as culturally split into two broad sectors; the nationalist sector, which represents 65 per cent of the votes, and the non nationalist sector, with 35 per cent. From a sociological point of view, nationalism is dominant. It also dominates from a political viewpoint, although it is conditioned by the presence of PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol), Spain's majority party. Nationalism has been fragmented into four political parties (currently five) which vie for a similar political market. Many recent events in Basque politics can be explained by this fact.

In the nationalist sector, PNV, the major party, holds 22 out of the 75 seats. The four remaining nationalist political forces combined hold 28 seats in parliament. This has led to internal movement in each of the parties aiming to consolidate their respective electoral spaces, and it has led to a rearrangement of the nationalist space occupied by political parties.

Significantly, one of the nationalist parties, HB, defends ETA's violence and its members actually serve as the organization's political spokespersons. This position makes it difficult, if not impossible, for HB to be integrated into or form a coalition with any other nationalist force or to adopt common agreements with other democratic nationalist political forces.

The non-nationalist sphere coincides almost exactly with the Spanish party system as far as its presence is concerned, but not in its electoral weight. PSOE, the party governing in Madrid, is supported by 20 per cent of the voters in the Basque Country in contrast to approximately 40 per cent in the rest of Spain. Similarly, PP (Partido Popular, the main Spanish opposition party, has an electoral support of 8 per cent in contrast to 26 per cent in the rest of Spain. These political parties lack the autonomy to carry out policies independent of guidelines issued by their directive bodies in Madrid. There are two basic reasons for this lack of autonomy; their limited electoral weight with respect to the rest of Spain, and their scant influence, given their peripheral nature, in their own internal party decisions.

Provincialism versus non-provincialism

Since 1986, a "territorialization" of the party system has been taking place, leading to the development of provincial sub-systems of the political parties. Potentially, this could lead to a dismantling of the core system. Signs of this trend include the appearance of UA, which enjoys an electoral support of 18.5 per cent in the province of Alava, and the concentration of one part of the nationalist vote, the PNV, in Biscay and the other part, consisting of HB, Basque Solidarity (Eusko Alkartasuna, EA), and the Basque Left (Euskadiko Ezkerra, EE), in Guipuzcoa.

Left wing versus right wing

This split is currently weakened and blurred. Of course, this reflects a generalized symptom in the developed world springing from a series of complex causes which we shall not go into here. However, in the Basque case this vagueness arose long ago and results from several causes, which have simply been accentuated by generalized factors that have appeared elsewhere. The result is that since 1986, a coalition government has existed made up of two majority parties, PNV (centre/right wing nationalist) and PSOE (centre/left-wing non nationalist).