Monday, 9 March 2009

Where next for nationalism?

While I was sunning myself (ha) in Spain last week, there was an important election (well, important for my thesis anyway) in the Basque Country. Voters went to the polls in the Basque regions of Álava, Guipúzcoa and Vizcaya to elect members of the Basque Autonomous assembly - one of seventeen such legislatures in Spain.

The results were interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is the first time since democracy and the autonomous community was instituted in the early 1980s that nationalist parties (in this case, the Partido Nacionalista Vasco (PNV), Eusko Alkartasuna (EA) and Aralar) polled less of the (legitimate) votes cast than non-nationalist parties.

I say "legitimate" votes cast because over 100,000 Basques cast their votes for a party that the Spanish government barred from standing in the election due to their links with ETA - and those votes were for a "nationalist" party as well. However, that's a whole other issue. Here's the result in seats:

PNV - 30
Aralar - 4

EA - 2

PSE-EE (Basque socialists) - 24

PP (conservative) - 13
EB (Basque Left/Greens) - 1
UPyD - 1


Interesting in a couple of ways. Firstly, how the government will be formed. For the past 29 years, the PNV have governed the Basque Country and provided its Lehendakari (President) and they remain the largest party in the autonomous legislature. But with the PP pledging their support for the PSE-EE leader, Patxi López (left), as their choice for Lehendakari, it very much looks like the days of nationalist leadership in the Basque Country are over - at least for the moment - though negotiations over this may go one for some time as both the PNV as the largest party and the PSE-EE with a larger "coalition" may claim a mandate.

Secondly, at least from my perspective as a student of nationalist parties in government, it raises several questions about the nature of power and how nationalist parties fit into the party system - and what power does to them. There is an argument to be made (and I think it is one that I might well be making) that nationalist parties, despite having an ideology which transcends day-to-day politics (ie - a distinct constitutional goal) have come to be treated like other political parties. This is especially true when they take over in government - they are then judged on the successes and failures of their policies and not on their ideology, and it is on this basis that their electoral fortunes rests.

The defeat (or victory, depending how you look at it - individual seats over collective anti-nationalist seats would suggest the SNP didn't win the Scottish election in 2007) of the PNV - or nationalist parties plural - in the Basque Country may emphasise this point. Nationalist parties, like other political parties have to maintain a high level of support for their policies in government. When they fail to do so, they will pay for that failure with electoral defeat. But unlike other parties, there does not seem to be a quick way back into government for them. Which begs the following questions: If the PNV could not achieve their constitutional goals in the 29 years they had as a government, has their chance gone?

I don't know the answer to that. But I suspect the question is one the SNP will be thinking about closely in the run up to the 2011 Scottish Parliament election.


Sam 9 March 2009 at 21:12  

One major factor in the PNV being unable to achieve its constitutional goal was the Spanish Supreme Court decision to rule unconstitutional Ibarretxe's planned referendum on further moves towards independence.

I get the feeling there was more to it than that alone, but that would understandably have undermined confidence in his party's abilities to deliver.

But isn't that part of the problem? Political decisions forced upon a less powerful actor within a political system which allows the actor what power it has. In other words, nationalist parties get co-opted by the system.

But in electoral terms, that co-option, or diversifying of policies, is surely what gives the party its broader appeal. If the SNP was a single issue party would it really have got into power?

I suspect the upset in the Basque Country (which don't forget saw the PNV remain as the largest single party) had as much to do with voters tiring of a party which had been in power for 29 years, not least because of it's success. Spain has gradually ceded control over many legislative functions to its Autonomous Communities. Maybe voters saw the party as having done as much as it could for the time being.

The Basque region is one of the wealthiest in Spain and has a per capita GDP well above the EU average, as well as having more autonomy than almost any other region in Europe.

If the SNP could achieve that for Scotland would it not be considered a success? It could be argued that those kind of economic conditions are a prerequisite for independence for a small nation with a long-time dependence on its larger state.

Malc 9 March 2009 at 22:16  


There are several issues, the Spanish Constitutional Court's decision is one of them.

I don't think the co-option is such an issue in itself. Arguably, the SNP is a "single issue party"; not so much diversification of policies but an overarching framework for their policies to exist within.

I think your second point is valid. It probably has more to do with fatigue of the PNV as a party of government - and, don't let us forget, they have succeeded in gaining, as you say, huge autonomy for the region.

My argument doesn't make the case that the PNV are a "failure" because they have not achieved their constitutional goal. Rather, I'd make the case that, while they have succeeded hugely in proving that nationalist parties can govern effectively and obtain much more in the way of autonomy for their region, they have not yet succeeded in achieving their primary goal.

I reckon that's not the clearest way of making that point, but I think you know what I mean.

Anonymous,  10 March 2009 at 09:54  


I think it would be interesting to analyse the total amounts of votes.

Nationalist parties:

EAJ: 396.557
EA: 37.820
D3M (ilegalized party): 101.000
Total amount: +-600.000 votes

Spanish nationalist parties:
PSE: 315.893
PP: 144.944
Total amount: +-460.000

EB (left party) it has been in the basque government for the last 8 years: 36.134. They are basque federalist, not basque nationalist nor spanish nationalist.

As you can see, there is somenthing wrong in this system. Even the basque nationalist are at least 120.000 votes over the spanish nationalist, these last ones have the majority in the parlament. Even without the votes from the ilegalized party, there are more people who voted basque nationalist.

Malc 10 March 2009 at 11:05  

That is a fair point Anon.

But Lopez makes a decent point on his blog - that the PNV run local authorities in Guipuzcoa and Alava as the second and third largest parties in each respectively and you don't hear talk from them there about the unfairness of the system.

I don't think D3M should have been on the ballot if they were not going to be accepted as a legitimate party. Despite that, it is clear from those votes that there is much more in the way of nationalist sentiment in the Basque Country than the "official" result would suggest.

However, you can only work with the system that you have. And in terms of seats and collective votes, the PSE and PP's power is significantly more than the PNV potential coalition.

But yes, I guess what you would say is that they won the battle (votes and seats) but lost the war (government status).

Sam 10 March 2009 at 13:43  

Those voting figures rather support my point; that a party can only do so much from within the system that empowers it.

And by saying D3M should not be on the ballot "if they were not going to be accepted as a legitimate party" you're ignoring the fact that it was the Spanish Government (obviously opposed to Basque nationalism) that decided to ban the two parties for alleged links to ETA, a politically motivated decision if ever there was one.

Malc, I think we discussed the idea of SNP as a single-issue party before (and obviously I accept you know more than I do). So I probably said this before, but I really don't see how the SNP can be considered single-issue. Its making legislative & executive decisions in response to the challenges of being in power, which every party would have to take in the same situation. It may well be attempting to create a favourable situation for independence, but as you have said that is not going to be for a long time, a time in which the SNP will have to fight Assembly elections. Winning those is clearly the priority, as it is for every government.

And the SNP (& probably most nationalist parties in power) knows that it depends on Westminster to grant independence. It would be impossible to govern on such a narrow basis while waiting for that to happen, if it ever does.

I think there is a big difference between being a single issue party, and having to present coherent policies to a broad electorate and govern on them. Its the latter situation which almost inevitably leads to what I called co-option earlier. As you said, those policies are then what the party is judged on.

Malc 10 March 2009 at 14:12  

Sorry Sam, I should really have read over my comment before I made it. Should have read:

"Arguably, the SNP is NOT a "single issue party"; not so much diversification of policies but an overarching framework for their policies to exist within." Nationalism provides the framework, but they still have to govern. Missing out the "not" changed the whole meaning of what I was trying to say!

I wasn't "ignoring the fact" that the Spanish Constitutional Court (not the Govt) banned D3M from standing. Which yes, was a politically motivated decision but, in the long-run (ie, to combat terrorism) might have been wise-ish. The Basque situation is sufficiently different from NI with Sinn Fein/ IRA that letting them stand is not that clear cut.

But yes - both the arguments that you & Anon make point to the same thing: the system. Both in Scotland & the Basque Country, the electoral system is designed to limit the opportunities for nationalists to have power and to wield power. And both the SNP & PNV have had to prove their merit as governing parties in the same way that other governments have. But they don't make the rules, so its a difficult game for them to win.

Anonymous,  13 March 2009 at 21:47  

I would like to point that although it could be true that the electoral system limits the opportunities of nationalists parties in the Basque Country (the banning of D3M is a complex issue; but an issue of some sort, after all), we must not forget that the electoral system of Spain as a whole is designed in such a way that supports nationalists parties. You just have to see that right now the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), with only 306.108 votes holds 6 seats in the Spanish Congress of Deputies; while the Spanish United Left party, with 969.871 votes holds only 2 seats.
In fact, it has been argued that this very system has encouraged nationalism in certain regions with a high vote/seats conversion rate.

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