The 2024 Basque election and the region's long-term political landscape. While the rise of EH Bildu might suggest a heightening of pro-independence demands in the Basque Country, the public are more concerned about social and economic matters. Caroline Gray. Lecturer in Politics and International Relations Aston University. With an image of Caroline Gray and the Guggenheim, Bilbao.

The 2024 Basque election and the region's long-term political landscape

Published: 7 May 2024

By Caroline Gray

The key issue at the Basque regional election held on 21 April 2024 was whether EH Bildu, a federation of far-left separatist parties, would beat the incumbent Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), winner of every election bar one since the first held in 1980. In recognition of the challenge and EH Bildu’s appeal to younger voters, the PNV presented a new candidate for lehendakari (regional president), replacing Iñigo Urkullu, in power since 2012, with Imanol Pradales. In the event, the PNV still won, but only just – the two parties secured the same number of seats (27 each out of a total of 75) but the PNV secured more votes. Still, the narrowness of its victory revealed the extent to which Basque politics is in flux.

While to many in Spain (especially on the right) EH Bildu is still seen as a pariah party due to past associations between left-wing separatists and the now disbanded terrorist group ETA, in the Basque Country the situation is quite different. There, EH Bildu has been the second largest political force since it first competed at the 2012 regional elections (Table 1) and is part of the daily political reality. For many, particularly younger voters, it has become the main representation not just of pro-independence but also left-wing politics – a factor hastened by the decline of the Socialists (PSOE) across Spain over the past decade and, more recently, the decline of newer, alternative left-wing options from Podemos to Sumar as well.

Table 1: Basque regional election results since 2012

 1st (seats)2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 
2012PNV (27)EH Bildu (21)PSE-EE (16)PP (10)UPyD* (1)-
2016PNV (28)EH Bildu (18)Podemos (11)PSE-EE (9)PP (9)-
2020PNV (31)EH Bildu (21)PSE-EE (10)Podemos (6)PP+Cs* (6)Vox (1)
2024PNV (27)EH Bildu (27)PSE-EE (12)PP (7)Sumar (1)Vox (1)

Source: El País

*Both UPyD and Cs were Spanish centre-right parties.

Founded in 2012 in the aftermath of ETA’s decision to lay down its arms, EH Bildu provided a new branding for parties of the separatist left to distance them from violence and mark their definitive commitment to parliamentary politics as the route forward. It is a federation of smaller parties led by Sortu, successor to Batasuna, which was banned in 2003 for links to ETA. When it did compete, Batasuna had never secured more than 14 seats (its best result in 1998, when a ceasefire was in place), usually coming behind not only the PNV but also the Basque Socialists (PSE-EE, the regional branch of the PSOE) and/or the conservative PP as well. With violence in the past, EH Bildu quickly became a more palatable – even appealing – option for an important section of the electorate. In recent years, it has expanded its appeal further to a new generation of voters who were not even born when ETA was active and are looking for a left-wing alternative to the longstanding centre-right PNV. The Basque Country has weathered recent economic crises better than most regions in Spain and the PNV has therefore withstood the test of time relatively well. Nevertheless, issues such as increased waiting lists for healthcare and the cost of living have taken their toll.

To provide some context, the Basque Country – by which we are referring here to the Basque autonomous community, one of Spain’s 17 regions or ACs – is made up of three provinces or ‘historical territories’, namely Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa and Araba/Álava. Despite their varying size, each account for 25 of the regional parliament’s 75 seats (Table 2). The PNV has always dominated in its stronghold of Bizkaia, the largest province, while the Basque far-left separatists now grouped together under EH Bildu have long tended to have their strongest presence in Gipuzkoa. This, in turn, has influenced the behaviour of the Basque Socialists, who have at times been more willing to work with the left-wing separatists on social issues in Gipuzkoa than elsewhere in the Basque Country. This includes 2011, when Bildu – which consolidated as EH Bildu the following year – won the provincial election in Gipuzkoa, though later the Socialists changed their allegiance again to the PNV. Meanwhile, the picture in Araba has been more mixed. Historically, it was the territory where the Spanish right had its strongest presence, and it is the only Basque province that the PP has governed in the democratic period. Still, the PNV has held power there more often and occasionally the Socialists have as well. Even the latest election result shows the greatest variation in Araba. EH Bildu won by one seat over the PNV, but votes were split across a wider range of parties (six rather than the standard four elsewhere), since it is the only province where the Spanish far right (Vox) and far left (Sumar) gained representation (one seat each).

Table 2: Basque 2024 election result by province

 1st (seats)2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 
BizkaiaPNV (11)EH Bildu (8)PSE-EE (4)PP (2)  
GipuzkoaEH Bildu (11)PNV (9)PSE-EE (4)PP (1)  
ArabaEH Bildu (8)PNV (7)PSE-EE (4)PP (4)Vox (1)Sumar (1)

 

While the rise of EH Bildu might suggest a heightening of territorial tensions and pro-independence demands, it is not in fact that straightforward. The nationalist parties’ ultimate territorial ambitions – for a confederal-style relationship with Spain in the PNV’s case or full independence in EH Bildu’s case – are not their current priorities. In recent years, both have come to seek to differentiate themselves first and foremost on their approach to more immediate issues of social and economic importance, in recognition of the fact that these matter far more to the average Basque voter. According to the pre-election survey conducted in March by Spain’s Centre for Sociological Research, Basques feel the state of healthcare is by far the region’s main problem (16.1% of responses) followed by unemployment (8.4%), political problems in general (7.9%), the economic crisis (7.5%) and housing (7.3%). Independence and self-determination come way down the list of priorities (only 1.1% see it as the main problem), as do other related territorial matters such as central government relations with the autonomous community (0.7%) or the autonomy statutes (0.2%). While the Spanish right in Madrid and the right-wing press may constantly hark back to ETA in their criticisms of EH Bildu, only 0.2% of Basques consider terrorism/ETA the region’s main problem. Even the Basque branch of the PP barely mentioned ETA in its campaign in recognition that for much of society, the debate has moved on. Still, it occasionally flares up again when representatives of EH Bildu hesitate in their criticism of ETA. In the run-up to the election, the most notable example was the refusal of Pello Otxandiano, EH Bildu’s candidate for lehendakari, to call ETA a terrorist group. The resulting furore may well have helped boost the PNV and Socialists by mobilising their supporters to go and cast their vote.

What, then, might the future hold? In the immediate future, not much is set to change in terms of governance. Neither the PNV nor EH Bildu have shown any inclination to combine forces and work together.The PNV, which has usually governed the Basque region in coalition with the Basque Socialists, is set to repeat that same arrangement (its 27 seats combined with the Socialists’ 12 give it an absolute majority), but with a new face at its helm that might just help to refresh its image. This result will also be a source of relief for Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez. His Socialist-led minority coalition government is dependent on support from an array of regionally-based parties with representation in the Spanish parliament including EH Bildu, and a win for them in the Basque Country might have emboldened them to increase their demands. 

As to whether EH Bildu’s upward trajectory might continue in the future, it is too early to say. Certainly, the party is now a firm part of the political landscape, but the past decade has shown that its fortunes have waxed and waned rather than following a consistently upward trajectory. For example, Bildu’s first significant win at the provincial elections in Gipuzkoa in 2011 was heralded as a potential gamechanger, yet the PNV went on to beat it at the next two such elections. Much may depend on how successful Imanol Pradales is in rejuvenating the PNV’s image amid an inevitable barrage of alternative promises from an opposition party that has not (yet) had to prove its ability to put those promises into practice, but it will also depend on whether there is an evolution in party alliances, which currently looks unlikely. The emergence of Podemos and its affiliates just a few years back had given EH Bildu hope of building a new left-wing front in opposition to the PNV, but that never came to fruition, and the Spanish far left has now all but disappeared in the Basque parliament. Ultimately, who governs in the Basque Country depends as much on coalition arrangements as on who actually wins, and the PNV and the Socialists look set to remain firm partners for the foreseeable future. 

 

Author bio

Dr Caroline Gray is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University and author of Territorial Politics and the Party System in Spain (Routledge, 2020). 

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