Popular Uprising

5 minute read

Consuelo Ordoñez loves to talk. Nothing — not the bottles hurled at her when she speaks out against terrorism, or the firebomb tossed into her living room last year, or the knowledge that she is marked for death — can shut her up. She talks to keep alive the legacy of her dead brother, who was assassinated in 1995 by ETA, the separatist terror outfit that demands independence for the Basques of northern Spain and has killed 800 people in the last 30 years in an effort to obtain it.

Since her brother’s death, Ordoñez has become a leading peace activist and a prime ETA target. When she is in her apartment outside San Sebastian, three bodyguards keep watch outside. But still she talks, her words a torrent of rage against the lethal vision of ETA and its supporters. “They say to be a good Basque you must think the way they do,” she says. “I love my land and want democracy and freedom. But they want to overthrow democracy and install a totalitarian state.”

Her vitriol is not just directed at terrorists. Increasingly, antiseparatist Basques like Ordoñez pin responsibility for the persistence of terrorism on the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV). The party has dominated Basque politics since 1978, when the Spanish government gave the Basque region considerable self-governing authority. This Sunday the PNV’s dominance could come to an end: mounting outrage at the party’s inability to defang ETA — the group has murdered 29 people since abandoning a cease-fire last January — has raised the prospect that the region’s 1.7 million voters will choose a non-nationalist government headed by the Popular Party (PP) and its candidate for regional president, the former Spanish Interior Minister Jaime Mayor Oreja.

The heat of the campaign has filled the Basque country with a mix of anticipation and dread. “People are ready to explode,” says Ordoñez, a PP supporter. Gorka Landaburu, a leading Basque journalist, calls the election “the most important since the post-Franco transition. We are staking our freedom on this vote.”

The contest is as much about defining freedom as preserving it. The Popular Party, which controls Spain’s national government, is betting that Basques will see the vote as a chance to liberate themselves from PNV hegemony. But the PP also promises to free Basques from fear. That explains the presence of Mayor Oreja, whose graying beard and ruddy complexion lend him a scholarly air. As Interior Minister, Mayor Oreja refused to negotiate with ETA, vowing to crush the group through tougher policing and stiffer prison sentences. Spaniards loved it, but some Basques view Mayor Oreja as a traitor. Last week Mayor Oreja told supporters he will make “terrorism a thing of the past.” And while other Basque politicians refer to the scourge of el terrorismo, Mayor Oreja openly pledged that if elected he would “eradicate ETA.”

The nationalists warn that a PP victory will embolden terrorists and jeopardize the chances of a peaceful end to the conflict. The PNV, which negotiated the 1998 cease-fire with ETA’s political wing, Herri Batasuna, blames its collapse on the Spanish government’s refusal to talk to the perpetrators. “Police measures are not enough,” says Iñigo Urkullo, a top PNV official. “The PP refuse to enter a political dialogue to solve a political problem.”

But even among its base of moderate nationalist supporters, the PNV commands little confidence that it can snuff out the terrorist threat, or even control the street vandalism regularly committed by young ETA sympathizers. So the party is campaigning on an appeal to Basque cultural freedom: it claims that a non-nationalist government would curtail the use and teaching of Euskara, the Basque language, which is spoken by only 30% of Basques but symbolizes the region’s claim to an independent identity. “If we lose the ability to speak Euskara,” says Urkullo, “we will no longer be ourselves.”

The trouble for the PNV is that a growing number of Basques, wearied by years of terror waged in the name of autonomy, reject separatist aims. In last year’s general election, 60% of voters in the Basque country voted for non-nationalist candidates. Polls last week showed that the region’s two non- nationalist parties, the Popular Party and the socialist pse-psoe, stand to win anywhere from 34 to 39 seats in the 75-seat parliament; but PP officials were confident those numbers would bump up further by Sunday. Polls often underestimate the strength of non- nationalist support. Says Leopoldo Barreda, a top PP official: “Seven out of 10 Basques don’t feel free to express their opinions, especially when it comes to politics.”

Still, a non-nationalist triumph will not soon spell the end of the Basque struggle against violence. Some observers like Landaburu fear a Popular Party victory could prompt a fresh killing campaign. “ETA wants Mayor Oreja to win,” he says. “It would force the PNV into opposition and allow them to claim the country is being governed by the enemy. The greater the political tension, the better it is for ETA.”

Many pro-PP Basques are prepared to take the risk. “Things can’t get any worse,” says Consuelo Ordoñez. “But I think change is more possible than ever.” She is convinced her life — and those of the countless other Basques targeted for their beliefs — may literally depend on it. “We are playing for very high stakes,” she says. “If things don’t change, some of us will not be around at the next election.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com