Peace in the Basque Country? Zero Tolerance in the Fight against ETA

Patxi Lopez is the Spanish government's great hope in the struggle against ETA. The separatists have been in retreat since the Socialist politician took office as president of the Basque country one year ago. He is even being talked about as a future prime minister.

AFP

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Early one recent Friday evening, a man in a white shirt and jeans takes a seat in the shade on the terrace of the Espejo café on Madrid's main Castellana avenue, a stone's throw from the Interior Ministry. The pensioners eating ice-cream at neighboring tables immediately begin whispering to one another. Couples who have come to start their weekend with a refreshing glass of beer crane their necks to get a better view.

"Is that him?"

"Sure, it's him. But where are his bodyguards?"

Risking His Life

When the 50-year-old lehendakari (president) of the autonomous Basque country is in the Spanish capital, his presence doesn't go unnoticed. Francisco Javier "Patxi" López Álvarez wants to bring peace to Spain's terror-plagued northeast -- and thus rid the entire Iberian peninsula of the scourge of ETA-sponsored terrorism. Everyone knows that the man in the white shirt is risking his life. After all, ETA separatists have assassinated plenty of well-meaning Socialists in the past.

But in Madrid, López embodies the hope for a more peaceful future for the country as a whole. He may well succeed. In the nearby ministries along the Castellana, the unassuming Basque leader is already being talked about as a possible successor to fellow Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the country's prime minister, who is currently under pressure over fallout from the global financial crisis.

Summer is the busiest time of year for the Espejo café. It's also the busiest time of year for ETA. This is when the organization likes to show tourists that the Basque separatists have not ceased their campaign of terror, simultaneously putting pressure on the government by spreading fear among the people wandering along the boulevard.

The inhabitants of Madrid have grown accustomed to seeing police officers with sniffer dogs out on the streets checking one parked vehicle after another. Sometimes a police van will even block off one lane of the Castellana to better monitor the cars, which are forced to slow down to a crawl.

Customers in the café nod to the man from the Basque country, who smiles and lifts his beer glass to say cheers. A woman stands up and says, "Congratulations, Lehendakari! You're doing an excellent job."

Open Challenge

A Basque lehendakari who is also a member of Spain's ruling Socialist Party is something of a novelty in the Basque capital Vitoria, which the locals themselves call Gasteiz. In fact, it's an open challenge to the separatists. The Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) had been in charge in the autonomous province ever since the death of the Spanish dictator Franco in 1975. The PNV shares the terrorists' aim of full independence from Spain. And yet for just over a year now, Patxi López has dictated policy in this key Spanish region between the Atlantic coast and the border with France.

In March 2009 López's socialists broke the PNV's stranglehold on power by entering into a precarious anti-extremist alliance: Despite getting fewer seats than the PNV in regional elections, López formed a minority government with the support of the conservative Partido Popular (PP), a party hell-bent on removing Zapatero from the prime minister's office as soon as possible.

With his brown eyes behind rimless glasses, his inquiring though friendly manner, and his seemingly carefree smile, López appears as down-to-earth and relaxed as his nickname "Patxi." In the space of just one year he has met his objective to bring about "gentle change" in his home state. López has a small, unadorned office in the Vitoria parliament building. From there it's just a short walk down a spiral staircase to the main chamber, which he can quickly reach whenever a bell warns him about an impending vote.

Instead of being in constant confrontation with the opposition and the government in Madrid, as his predecessor was, López is a man who seeks dialog and consensus. "We have a plenary session every Thursday when we vote on legislation," he says. "Because we don't have a majority, we have to negotiate." His is the politics of debate rather than blind governance. It's an approach he appears to cherish. And although the terrorists have threatened to kill him, he really does speak to all sides.

Coffee and Politics

Every morning he leaves his art nouveau official residence, the Ajuria Enea, and walks over to a bar for breakfast. Standing at the counter, he chats with fellow customers about the stories in the morning's newspapers between sips of milky coffee and bites of pintxo de tortilla, a small piece of potato omelet.

López is the opposite of the Spanish political macho. During the election campaign he unabashedly kissed his wife Begoña Gil -- a socialist who's already spent 15 years on the Bilbao municipal council -- thus providing the photographers with material for their papers. In a break with tradition in the strictly Catholic Basque region, López took the oath of office not on the Bible but on the Spanish constitution that the nationalists so vehemently oppose. This was such a novelty in the Basque country that he first had to have a suitably lavish deluxe edition of the 1978 constitution printed for his swearing-in ceremony.

With small gestures like this, and without grandiose statements, the affable López has given his region the kind of civil normality that is taken for granted in most of Europe, but which had been denied to the Basque country for decades due to a permanent state of emergency fuelled by bitterness, delusion, and fear.

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