BASQUES vote in pivotal election amid wave of separatist violence

Sunday, May 13th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BILBAO, Spain (AP) _ Residents of Spain's Basque country voted Sunday for a new regional Parliament following a week of separatist violence and fears that an upset victory by anti-independence politicians could spawn more shootings and bombings.

The elections came two days after ETA, one of western Europe's last remaining armed separatist groups, claimed responsibility for a car bomb blast that injured 14 people in the Spanish capital, Madrid.

A week earlier, ETA was blamed for the fatal shooting of a senator from Spain's governing Popular Party, the 30th slaying since the Basque separatist group ended a 14-month cease-fire in December 1999.

The election of lawmakers to the 75-seat Parliament was seen as one of the most important since the tiny, three-province region in northern Spain achieved partial autonomy in 1979 following the end of Spain's dictatorship. For the first time, the center-right Popular Party, in a partnership with its Socialist foes, could gain a majority and end 21 years of dominance by the Basque Nationalist Party, which favors self-determination.

Election officials reported a 22 percent turnout after four hours of voting, a 3 percent increase from the last Basque election in 1998.

Police reported no major incidents of violence. About 15 protesters shouted separatist chants as the Spanish government's candidate, Jaime Mayor Oreja, cast his vote at a school in San Sebastian, reports said.

Spanish television also showed demonstrators trying to obstruct the entry of the Popular Party's regional chairman, Carlos Iturgaiz, to a polling booth in Bilbao.

After depositing his ballot, Mayor Oreja called on Basques to cast their votes against ``these barbarians and savages who try to intimidate and coerce PP voters,'' according to the Spanish Efe news agency.

Incumbent Basque President Juan Jose Ibarretxe cast his ballot in the town of Llodio and appealed to the electorate to ``vote today and work together tomorrow to resolve the problems of Basque society and reach peace.''

Topping the electoral campaign agenda was the issue of how to handle ETA, which is accused of killing more than 800 people in its 33-year independence effort. Politicians and the electorate of 1.8 million also debated whether the wealthy mountainous region on the Atlantic coast should separate itself further from the central government in Madrid, 250 miles to the south.

Although it mostly targets police, soldiers and other security forces, ETA is accused of killing 14 Popular Party members since 1995, as well as several Socialist party representatives.

The Popular Party and the Socialists say they want to restore civil liberties in the Basque region and end the ETA violence. But many fear greater turmoil if they win.

Spanish Prime Minister and Popular Party leader Jose Maria Aznar, a survivor of a 1995 ETA car-bomb attack, picked Mayor Oreja as candidate for regional president. Mayor Oreja recently resigned as Spain's interior minister after overseeing the police battle against ETA since Aznar took office in 1996.

Most Basque nationalists abhor ETA's actions but believe the conflict is ultimately political and want a dialogue on the future of the region.

Madrid fears a breakaway by the Basques _ an ancient people whose language is not connected to others in Europe _ could spur nationalists in other regions such as Catalonia and Galicia to follow suit.

Mayor Oreja's main opponent for regional president is Ibarretxe, whose Basque Nationalist Party, in coalition with another nationalist party, Euskal Alkartasuna, hopes to dash the governing party's desire to gain control of the region.

Pre-election polls indicated Ibarretxe would again need the support of ETA's political ally, Euskal Herritarrok, a party that has traditionally gotten up to 15 percent of the vote.