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
TOTAL NATIONALIST - 36
PSE-EE (Basque socialists) - 24
PP (conservative) - 13
EB (Basque Left/Greens) - 1
UPyD - 1
TOTAL NON-NATIONALIST - 39
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.