HERNANI, Spain (Reuters) - The mayor of the Basque town of Hernani is defiant. She will not be voting in Sunday’s election because her party has been banned, but she says Spain cannot ignore separatists’ calls for independence.
Marian Beitialarrangoitia enraged many Spaniards when she publicly applauded two suspected members of the Basque separatist group ETA, who had been accused of bombing Madrid’s airport in a 2006 attack that killed two people.
Her views are more extreme than most in Spain’s northern Basque Country, but even moderate nationalists here are angered by what they see as bullying by the Socialist government as it struggles to court voters in Spain’s heartland ahead of the March 9 poll.
Beitialarrangoitia described her actions, repeatedly broadcast on television in January, as an act of solidarity with men she said were tortured, and who should be innocent until proven guilty.
“You can ban us for centuries, you can persecute and jail people but the ideology of 200,000 people is not going to disappear tomorrow,” she said in her office, a few kms inland from the chic resort of San Sebastian.
Pictures of imprisoned members of ETA hang from balconies in the pretty square opposite the town hall where she works.
The status of the Basque Country -- a region of green hills falling to a coastline of coves and inlets near the French border -- is the most venomous issue in Spanish politics.
Many Spaniards believe Basque demands for greater autonomy threaten the nation’s unity. Millions have marched across the country to condemn ETA guerrillas, who have killed 821 people over four decades in a violent campaign for independence.
Under fire from the opposition for going soft on ETA, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero launched a crackdown on the guerrillas and their allies after peace talks broke down following the Madrid bombing.
This month, Beitialarrangoitia’s Basque Nationalist Action party and another group were banned because of their links to ETA. Strikes were called by the radical left, buses were torched and dozens of people were arrested in the region.
“Why don’t they just leave the Basque Country in peace?” said retired Bilbao resident Roberto, who declined to give his last name. “We are more than capable of surviving on our own.”
Zapatero won power in 2004 because of widespread indignation that the conservative Popular Party (PP) government falsely blamed ETA for bomb attacks on Madrid trains in which 191 people were killed. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility.
Now, Zapatero’s government is leading the polls ahead of the PP, which has focused its campaign on the weakening economy and on calls for more controls on immigration. It has also accused Zapatero of talking to ETA and then lying about it.
Zapatero says the PP’s criticism is political opportunism and damaging to the creation of a united front against ETA.
If he wins the election by a narrow margin, he may have to strike deals with moderate nationalist parties in the Basque region and nearby Catalonia in order to form a government.
Inigo Urkullu, president of the moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), says both sides are playing political football with the region, and using ETA’s violence as an excuse to avoid the deeper issue of Basque demands for self-determination.
“There is a deliberate effort to confuse ETA’s aims with those pursued by democratic Basque nationalism,” said Urkullu.
The PNV, which runs the regional government, does not explicitly call for independence but wants Basques to vote in October on whether to start a debate about the status of a region that has its own language, traditions and culture.
Zapatero has said such a vote would be illegal.
“Why is it possible for Kosovo to be independent, or Estonia or Lithuania -- countries the same size as the Basque Country -- and not the Basque Country?” Urkullu said.
The more separatist tone from the PNV in recent years comes as ETA’s strength and influence declines.
“ETA have had a bad year operationally ... but in the political sphere they could say ‘look, moderate nationalism is adopting our position,”’ said journalist Florencio Dominguez.
Sources in the security services say ETA or “Euskadi Ta Askatasuna” -- Basque Homeland and Freedom -- has never been so weak.
Hundreds of “etarras” have been arrested in the last decade, reducing most fighters’ experience to months rather than years, and a crackdown in France’s southwestern Basque country has deprived the group of a base to hide and practice bomb-making.
“A terrorist cannot exist on his own,” says Dominguez, who has studied ETA for 30 years and written several books on the group. “He needs a supply of weapons, financing and contact with other members. There are many now who can’t even make a bomb.”
Despite its vow to “attack on all fronts” after it ended a ceasefire last June, police restricted ETA attacks last year to their lowest level, outside a ceasefire. It is a shadow of the group that killed 234 people between 1978 and 1980.
As attacks have diminished in number and strength, so ETA’s ability to intimidate people in the Basque Country has faded, said Pello Salaburu, a former rector at the University of the Basque Country, outside the region’s biggest city, Bilbao.
The guerrillas lost much local support after they kidnapped councilor Miguel Angel Blanco in 1997. He was shot dead after two days despite huge protests demanding his safe release.
“Before, there was a very strong sector behind them and another, larger, group of people who didn’t disagree with what they were doing, or at least turned a blind eye,” said Salaburu.
“This has changed completely,” he said. ETA’s Marxist brand of nationalism was also increasingly at odds with the wealthier Basque society, he added.
The strength of Basque nationalism and pride in the region’s history, language, even genetic differences, should not be confused with an urge to break with Spain, he said.
“If you put the question (to Basques) directly: ‘do you want independence?’ I believe, with absolute certainty, the answer would be ‘no.”’
Additional reporting by Vincent West and Marco Trujillo; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile