Spain: Zapatero tries to control the regions

By Paul Bond
13 September 2004

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has marked the end of the parliamentary summer break by beginning a series of meetings on what his deputy prime minister calls “the territorial agenda”. Zapatero is attempting to formulate a position against the so-called “Ibarretxe plan”—the proposals of Basque Prime Minister Juan Jose Ibarretxe to grant the Basque region free association status with Spain. Extending the political autonomy of some of the country’s 17 regions—particularly the Basque region and Catalonia—will be a critical issue in the coming session of parliament.

Limited regional autonomy was granted under the 1978 constitution, brought in to restore bourgeois democracy after the Franco dictatorship. Under Franco, even the most limited democratic rights of the regions—for example, the use of the Basque and Catalan languages—were suppressed. The Basque region, particularly, gained some national sympathy for its resistance to Franco’s repression. The 1978 Constitution sought to appease nationalist anger at their treatment, while still preserving the structure and territorial integrity of the Spanish state.

Those 25 years have seen huge changes within the world economy. The globalisation of production has undermined the role of the nation-state as the basis on which economic life is organised. There is an increasing tendency for regional bourgeois groupings to bypass central government and seek direct access to globally-operating corporations, institutions and markets—by offering the working class in their region as a source of cheap labour and creating a low tax regime and other incentives for the transnational corporations. This tendency takes a particularly sharp form in Spain, where the centrifugal forces pulling apart the regions have accelerated.

Zapatero and his Socialist Workers Party of Spain (PSOE) are seeking to preserve the general interests of the Spanish bourgeoisie, while making some unavoidable concessions to regional interests. If the unity of the Spanish state is to be maintained, they must be seen to have a different attitude to regional dialogue than their predecessors, Jose Maria Aznar and his right-wing Popular Party (PP). But there are serious limitations on how far they can go in seeking to appease the separatist chorus, without antagonising the most powerful sections of the national bourgeoisie.

The PP’s policies on the regions bore all the hallmarks of the party’s Francoist past. Aznar, echoing right-wing Spanish politicians over the last century, insisted on the inviolability of the centralised Spanish state. Branding the advocacy of greater regional autonomy and separatism as tantamount to treason, Aznar and the PP used the political threat posed by the Basque separatists of ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna—Basque Homeland and Freedom) and their reactionary campaign of terror bombings to justify a general assault on democratic rights across Spain.

Aznar seized on the Bush administration’s declaration of a “war against terror” following the 9/11 outrages to press forward his domestic offensive against ETA, and did so with the full support of the PSOE. In the Basque region the Spanish government banned a parliamentary party (the ETA-linked Batasuna) for the first time since the end of the military dictatorship. In Catalonia the security forces maintained surveillance on senior nationalist figures. In the face of Ibarretxe’s proposals, legislation was introduced banning the holding of referendums on extending regional autonomy.

When Aznar was removed from power by a massive groundswell of opposition to his pro-Iraq war stance and his attempts to blame ETA for the March 11 bombings by Islamicists groups in Madrid, regionalist parties welcomed the arrival of Zapatero as opening the possibility of dialogue. One of his first acts as prime minister was to ring Ibarretxe. Aznar had not spoken to Ibarretxe for two years. Zapatero also announced an annual parliamentary discussion on the regions. There had been no such debate since 1997.

However, for all of Zapatero’s attempts to ease tensions, he remains committed to a similar view of Spain as Aznar and his key aim is to thwart Ibarretxe’s “free association” proposal.

Ibarretxe’s plan had been mooted long before it was finally presented in September last year. In essence, it proposes scrapping the Statute of Guernica, which gave the Basques greater autonomy than any other region at the time of the 1978 Constitution, and to replace it with a new statute. The proposals would give the Basque region almost total internal financial and judicial control, and the right to foreign representation. The Basque National Party (PNV), of which Ibarretxe is head, has long sought direct representation to the European Union.

The proposals deal only with the three provinces of the autonomous Basque Country (Alava, Guipuzcoa and Vizcaya), although they do make provision for approaches from the other historic Basque areas of Navarre (constituted as a separate autonomous region of Spain) and the three provinces on the other side of the Pyrenees in France. This has led to criticism from the more intransigent separatists. Joseba Permach, an executive committee member of Batasuna, said they would “never vote in favour of a plan for three of the territories.”

The PNV have long argued that the Ibarretxe plan is the only way to defeat ETA’s separatism. This cut no ice with the PP when Aznar was in power. And since the March 11 bombings in Madrid, there has been very little activity by ETA. Hit hard by the PP’s brutal policing, ETA has also been politically marginalised by public revulsion at the Madrid bombings. A handful of bombs in tourist resorts in the north of Spain recently has been the sum total of ETA’s “campaign” for independence.

ETA and its political wing Sozialista Abertzaleak (SA—the parliamentary successor to Batasuna, although commentators still use the latter name) are in reality only seeking a greater role under any revised Basque autonomy statute. But relations are strained. Ibarretxe accused Batasuna, along with the PP and the Basque regional Socialist Party (PSE), of being “afraid” of a referendum. Permach in turn accused the PNV of being afraid of a decision of the Basque people, due to the proposal to hold a referendum in only three provinces.

Party chairman Josu Jon Imaz has said the PNV will not get enough votes for the plan at this session of the regional parliament, and lays the blame at the feet of ETA’s influence on Batasuna. Ibarretxe’s plan, he said, was known to “impress many members of the Basque nationalist left”, but ETA would not allow them to vote in favour of it. “You will see how ETA ties the hands of the Batasuna leaders to stop them supporting the Proposal,” he said. The PNV also accuse ETA of orchestrating street violence over the summer in a bid to destabilise the debate.

The PNV has, though, defended the legitimacy of the SA members of parliament against an attack by the PSE—the regional sister party of the PSOE. Speaker of the regional parliament Juan Mari Atutxa said their votes are “worth the same as any other citizen”. This followed comments from the PSE that Ibarretxe should dissolve the parliament before any debate, and that any agreement for the plan reached with the support of the SA would be fatally flawed.

The PP has also always accused the PNV of not opposing ETA with sufficient rigour. But forceful attacks on the PNV are now coming from within the Socialist Party. Miguel Buen, General Secretary of the Guipuzcoa PSE, called on the public not to vote for the PNV at future elections because even though ETA might not carry out any attacks he felt “threatened”.

But Zapatero is not at liberty to join in such a chorus. He does not have an absolute majority in parliament, and has to rely on the votes of the regionalist parties (particularly the Catalans). He did not establish a formal coalition government, but announced his intention of collaborating with other parties on each bill individually as it comes before parliament.

His first major challenge is likely to be the budget, which raises precisely the questions that are occupying the regionalists such as how to devolve financial responsibility into their own hands. The Catalan Republican Left (ERC) has already demanded the inclusion of a provision to deal with a so-called overspend on health in Catalonia. Both nationally and locally the PSOE is dependent on the support of the ERC. (In the Generalitat the Catalan Socialist Party PSC hold 21 of 31 seats, with the ERC their key ally). With proposals for extending Catalan autonomy still at the planning stage, and the PSOE historically having been more sympathetic to extending the autonomy of Catalonia than the Basque region, Zapatero may feel he has some leeway.

In the Basque region the situation is different, because Ibarretxe’s plan is further advanced. In a move described by the PNV as “a pure marketing operation”, the PSE announced that they are working on their own proposals for regional autonomy. Rather than replacing the Statute of Guernica, they propose that it be “adapted” and “improved”.

Emilio Guevara, who helped draft the Statute of Guernica, is drawing up the proposals. Guevara was a member of the PNV until two and a half years ago. He was expelled for his opposition to the Ibarretxe plan and the growing separatist sentiment within the party. Although not yet finalised, his proposals are aimed at appeasing nationalist sentiment while still retaining the structures of the 1978 Constitution. Where Ibarretxe proposes the establishment of a separate Basque judicial system, for example, Guevara is discussing establishing greater regional autonomy for the judiciary within the Spanish system. He is discussing offering further powers in education, employment and infrastructure.

This is in line with what Zapatero, in stressing their limited nature, calls “solutions to problems within the institutional architecture of the country”. This is a diplomatic way of referring to the inviolability of the Spanish state. But the trouble for Zapatero is that the offers being made to representatives of the regional elites will strengthen their ability to benefit from direct dealings with major corporations and encourage further demands on their part. The Catalan and Basque bourgeoisie are unlikely to be bought off with the promise of regular regional conferences, or even the reform of the upper house to give the Senate greater regional representation.

Concerns over how to control this process meant that Zapatero’s first meeting was with Mariano Rajoy, leader of the PP. For all Zapatero’s assurances that any changes would remain within the framework of the constitution, Rajoy’s recommendation was that “it would be better to close the debate”.