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Sortu and ETA: Basque politics, Spanish law

Spain’s supreme court has refused to register a new Basque political party pledged to non-violence, because of its suspected links with the banned terrorist group ETA. But the decision is more complex than it appears, says Guy Hedgecoe.
Guy Hedgecoe
8 April 2011

The decision by Spain’s supreme court’s on 23 March 2011 to deem the new Basque nationalist party Sortu illegal is the latest example of the justice system’s consistent refusal to concede any ground to those it suspects of having links to the terrorist group ETA.

Sortu was founded in a spirit of hope of a new beginning for those seeking an independent Basque country (symbolised in its name, which in Euskerra, the Basque language, means “to rise up” or “be born”). The new formation insisted at its unveiling in February that it was not merely a continuation of Batasuna, ETA’s outlawed political wing. To prove this, the new party’s statutes explicitly rejected the use of violence, including that of ETA - an unprecedented move for a group representing the izquierda abertzale, or radical Basque left.
 
But on receiving Sortu’s request to be registered the centre-left (PSOE) government of prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero expressed scepticism, and the state lawyers’ office deemed the party’s rejection of terrorism “cosmetic and rhetorical…but not real”. The new formation was a cynical ploy by ETA to enable the group to be represented in the local elections in May 2011, the argument ran. When the supreme court agreed with this assessment, it effectively prevented Sortu from taking part in the elections.
 
So far, so familiar: business as usual for a judiciary and political system that, even in Spain’s democratic era since 1975, have rarely been willing to give radical Basque nationalism the benefit of any doubt. The same court, after all, had previously banned no less than seven different incarnations of the izquierda abertzale as it sought to find a way into Spain’s political system.

And yet, recent developments - including the supreme-court’s ruling itself - highlight how much the Basque political scene has been shifting.

On previous such occasions, the supreme-court’s rulings have been unanimous. This time, the court was deeply split over whether to allow Sortu to be registered: seven of the sixteen magistrates who voted opposed the party’s prohibition in a deliberation that lasted ten hours. The dissident judges, as shown by documents released after the ruling, were troubled by the apparent reason for their colleagues’ decision to ban the party: less hard evidence, they hinted, than instinctive suspicion that it must be an ETA puppet. “There should be no room for preventive illegalisation”, noted the courtroom’s rebels.

Madrid’s socialist government backed the verdict, though its party colleagues in the Basque country were more upbeat, calling for the new party’s anti-violence statutes to be “celebrated” officially. The conservative opposition, the Partido Popular (PP), responded that this would be akin to congratulating ETA after its four-decade campaign of violence that has killed over 800 people. “Sortu is ETA”, was the flat assessment of the PP’s María Dolores de Cospedal.

The political vice

The evidence suggests that ETA itself is close to extinction, and that the attempt to shift away from violence towards non-violent politics is - among all but a tiny minority - genuine. Yet it is precisely Madrid-centred political pressure of this kind enunciated by the PP and accepted by the PSOE government that helps explain why Sortu finds it difficult to be legalised.

Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA’s Basque-language name) is extremely weak in operational terms. The Spanish police’s constant pressure, and cooperation with security forces in France (where ETA militants have traditionally taken refuge) have ensured a steady string of arrests of its leaders. With its leadership in disarray, it has not carried out a planned killing since 2009. Perhaps equally important, ETA’s relationship with the izquierda abertzale (now embodied by Sortu) has changed.

The izquierda abertzale is no longer under ETA’s control. It has over the past year been taking the initiative, publicly calling on ETA to end the armed struggle. ETA has responded in typically clumsy fashion, announcing in September 2010 a vaguely worded ceasefire before declaring a more concrete “permanent, general and verifiable” truce in January 2011.

Both announcements were coolly received, especially by the PSOE and PP. These parties have been locked in a hostile political two-step that has often had anti-terror policy at its heart. The Madrid bombings of 11 March 2004 (“11-M”), days before the general election that returned the PSOE to power, are part of this, but most of their dispute concerns policy towards ETA.

José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has been on the defensive on the issue since in December 2006, when ETA broke off its last ceasefire - and ended a stuttering peace process - by detonating a bomb in Madrid airport’s car-park that killed two Ecuadorian workers. Despite the enormous number of arrests made by the police under his administration, the PP and Spain’s more frenzied rightwing media have insisted that the socialist government is weak on terror and determined to negotiate with ETA.

Sortu, with its “anti-violence” statutes and shift towards mainstream politics, was capable of contributing substantially to the Basque country’s quest to bury separatist terror. But its timing could hardly have been worse. A year after the local elections are general elections scheduled for spring 2012. Zapatero, discredited by his handling of Spain’s economic crisis, has announced he will not run in the latter. The favourite to succeed him as the socialist candidate is his deputy Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, a revered party veteran and minister of the interior. For now at least, the birth of a new Basque party is caught in Madrid’s political and judicial vice. 

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