Bildu breaks old taboo, opens new cycle in Basque Country

Author: Ernai / David Forniès
The Basque Autonomous Community parliament election on 21 April reveals two facts. The first is that the centre-right Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV) will retain the presidency thanks to its traditional alliance with the Socialist Party. The second is that left-wing, pro-independence Euskal Herria Bildu has succeeded in synthesizing, under Pello Otxandiano’s leadership, an alternative proposal to PNV’s. This fact—unlike the previous one—is unprecedented in the Basque Country’s recent history.

The election result

The election campaign in the Basque Country came with relevant news: the candidates of the most significant political parties were running for the presidency for the first time. The PNV informed Basque President Íñigo Urkullu that it was backing Imanol Pradales as its new presidential candidate. EH Bildu decided to nominate Pello Otxandiano after two consecutive elections with Maddalen Iriarte. The two new candidates have projected a more moderate and modern image, although they evidently started out in ideologically distant spaces. Their competition, centripetal in nature, was expected to be fierce. Otxandiano’s last statements—he refused to describe ETA as a terrorist group—added a Spanish-wide dimension to the campaign. Although it was simply a question of terminology —as EH Bildu clearly rejects violence as a means for achieving its political objectives—, the Madrid media took advantage of the situation to butt in.

The close race between the Basque conservatives and the pro-sovereignty left that opinion polls predicted was what the ballot boxes showed. The two largest parliamentary groups in the Vitoria-Gasteiz parliament will be the PNV (27 seats, 370,554 votes) and EH Bildu (27 seats, 341,735 votes). While the PNV emerged strongest in Biscay (39.51%), the aberzale left imposed itself in Gipuzkoa (40.28%) and Araba (29.44%). The competition for first place also has this territorial reading, since both parties came second where they did not win. The figures therefore show that the competition for hegemony in the Basque Country is wide open. The other parties obtained discreet results, which place the Spanish socialists (PSE-EE/PSOE) as the key actor (14.22% of the votes, 12 MPs) and reserve a secondary role for Spanish conservative PP (9.23% of the votes, 7), Spanish left-wing Sumar (3.34%, 1), and Spanish far-right Vox (2.03%, 1).

The scenarios: back to 1986?

The advance in the vote count on election night placed the pro-sovereignty left very close to winning their 28th seat. This would have made it the winning party in the election, even if more Basques had put the PNV ballot paper in the envelope. This is due to the over-representation of Araba, which allocates 25 seats like the other two provinces despite having a smaller population. In this way, whoever achieves a good result in this territory can make the most of its votes. This was traditionally the case for the Socialist Party (and the PP and Unión Alavesa), as it has also been the case for Vox and Sumar: their Araba-elected seats cost just over 5,600 votes in both cases. For its part, Sumar’s more than 19,000 votes in Biscay have gone unrepresented—earning criticism from sectors close to the aberzale left.

The possibility of one party winning the most seats and another winning the most votes, which in the end did not happen, made me think of the only historical precedent of this kind. After the split led by then-lehendakari Carlos Garaikoetxea, who left the PNV to found Eusko Alkartasuna, the 1986 election was resolved with a victory in seats for the PSE-EE, accompanied by an unfailing victory in votes for the Basque nationalists. The pact between the socialist Txiki Benegas and the lehendakari Ardanza (PNV) enabled the latter’s government and opened decades of PNV-PSE collaboration; a scheme still in force today.

The Basque parliament’s procedure rules allow for two explicit circumstances. While it facilitates the investiture of Pradales, who only needs more votes than any alternative candidate in the second ballot, it will also visualise the struggle between EH Bildu and the PNV. The absence of a single candidate for the presidency means that, during the investiture session, Pello Otxandiano will be able to present his alternative. At this stage, we still do not know whether they will opt for this strategy. However, it would highlight his role as head of the opposition and a viable alternative in 2028.

In conclusion, the tie in seats between the PNV and EH Bildu (with a difference of some 30,000 votes) creates an imperfect two-party system that gives, as usual, a central role to the PSE in the Basque Country’s governability. In this scenario, as we said, it is to be expected that the nationalist-socialist pact will be reissued.

The emergence of Euskal Herria Bildu

Bildu means ‘unite’ or ‘union’ in Basque. ‘Stitch up Euskal Herria’ could be a loose translation of the abertzale acronym. The Basque sovereignist left is the election winner, as for the first time in history it has surpassed 30% of the votes, a threshold that puts it in the league of parties that govern or aspire to govern their countries, such as the BNG in Galicia, the SNP in Scotland, or the PNV itself. Otxandiano’s proposal received broad popular support thanks to the desire for change in Euskadi, confirming on the rebound that EH Bildu’s commitment to peace qualifies it as a political force in its own right.

I take the liberty of quoting myself from a fragment of the book A la sobirania per l’esquerra, written jointly with the historian Andreu Pujol, in which we analyse the strategic perspectives of the Basque sovereigntist left. The text, published in 2022, reads:

“Euskal Herria Bildu’s most pressing challenge is to rebuild bridges and build a political alternative for the future. Its political formula involves representing the entire left (from social democrats to communists) to form a broad front capable of replacing the ‘failed and sad’ model—in Otegi’s words—of the PNV. To this end, the abertzales propose breaking taboos and prejudices to broaden their social base, acquire government responsibilities and extend their project to new urban sectors. This context brings it closer to ERC or the BNG, parties that propose something similar in their territorial framework.”

EH Bildu’s main victory in the 21 April election was to break the taboo once and for all. A relevant segment of voters trusted for the first time such a party, having abandoned the ghost of violence and aware of the absence of alternatives of a Basque or Spanish nature. The aberzales have almost erased Sumar-Podemos—this time running separated—and threaten socialist electoral strongholds.

What will Pradales’ presidency be like? What effect will the upcoming Basque government, the result of an alleged pact between PNV and PSE, have on EH Bildu’s relations with the Sánchez government? What role will Otxandiano play in the 2028 vote? Has the Basque election confirmed the Sumar model’s exhaustion? There is still no clear answer to all these questions. In any case, the vote has opened up a fresh stage with new names, a new alternative, but old majorities.