Basque Talk of Secession Creates Crisis for Madrid

by Renwick McLean, January 3, 2005

MADRID, Jan. 2 - The Basque region's declaration last week that it has the right to secede from Spain has pushed Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero toward the first crisis of his tenure, political analysts say.

Throughout his nearly nine months in office, Mr. Zapatero has largely promoted policies that are solidly supported by the Spanish public, helping him to avoid major setbacks or controversies. But editorial writers and politicians say his affinity for following the polls has kept him from taking on tough issues, chief among them the growing signs in recent months that the Basque region was moving toward an overt challenge to the central government's authority.

"Now it's time for him to respond," said an editorial in the Madrid daily El Mundo. "The coherence and decisiveness of his answer will determine not only his own political future, but also the survival of the current federal model endorsed by the Spanish people."

The political principles invoked by Mr. Zapatero in his previous policy decisions offer little guidance on how he will handle this challenge, analysts say.

Since taking office in April, Mr. Zapatero has emphasized that the central policy of his government is to follow the will of the people. But now he finds himself staring at a possible constitutional standoff with a man making the very same claim.

Juan José Ibarretxe, the president of the self-proclaimed Basque Country and the driving force behind last week's declaration, says he is simply being a good democrat by proposing that the future of the region he governs should be decided by its people and not by Madrid. As the leader of a democratic government, he says, he must follow the principle of majority rule.

Juan José Ibarretxe

Mr. Zapatero has used the same argument to fend off criticism of many of his policies, from withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq to sanctioning gay marriage.

The looming conflict between the men in many ways reflects an age-old question posed by democracy: What are the rights and powers of the minority in a system based on majority rule?

The United States fought a civil war in part to resolve the question, after Southern states said that since they had freely joined the union, they were free to leave it.

The situation in Spain is not nearly as dire, but the question is similar: Can the Basque region unilaterally alter its relationship with Madrid, even secede, if a majority of its people want to?

Mr. Zapatero says that the answer is clearly no, contending that the Spanish Constitution forbids it. But Mr. Ibarretxe says that at the end of the day the central government's opinion is irrelevant. If neither budges, Spain could be thrown into a genuine constitutional crisis, the analysts say.

Mr. Ibarretxe has tried to ease tensions by pointing out that he is not proposing outright independence from Spain. But many political analysts wonder why the Basque region would risk angering Madrid by stating that it has the right to secede if it does not intend to do so.

Some experts say Basque leaders are using the talk of secession only as a threat to persuade the central government to give them greater autonomy.

In fact, many politicians, even some of Mr. Ibarretxe's allies, say outright independence makes little sense with Spain's growing integration into the European Union. "In a Europe where states are disappearing," said Josu Iñaki Erkoreka, a representative in Parliament of the Basque Nationalist Party, "it doesn't make sense to propose a political model that is based on an old reality."

Even if independence is not the goal, the Basque declaration last week demands immediate attention from Mr. Zapatero, political analysts here say.

"This is without a doubt the greatest challenge presented to the Spanish state and the democratic parties since the transition" to democracy after the death of Franco in 1975, the editorial in El Mundo said.

The New York Times

Basque Parliament votes in favour of autonomy plan

Members of the Basque Parliament have voted in favour of a document that proposes greater autonomy from Spain.

The plan calls for a referendum on independence.

The vote is the first important step for the Ibarretxe Plan.

After more than a year of heated debate, the Basque Parliament's Institional Commission voted to support the proposal.

The autonomy plan calls for a separate judiciary, police force, financial system, and a distinct citizenship for those with Basque ancestry.

But the initiative is strongly opposed by Spain's major parties.

The leader of the conservative Popular Party, Mariano Rajoy, has called the independence plan a betrayal of the state.

Prime Minister Rodriguez Zapatero says he is open to talks, but his Socialist Party has always been against any fundamental changes to Spain's Constitution.

ABC.net.au 12/21/04

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Posted January 8, 2005