Basque election race begins
MADRID, Spain -- Campaigning has kicked off in Spain's troubled Basque Country for a regional election set to be the closest since limited self-rule was introduced 23 years ago.
Election day is May 13 and parties on both sides of the only real issue -- independence or the status quo -- have launched formal campaigns, with walls in Bilbao and other Basque centres plastered with campaign posters.
"Never has an autonomous election meant so much to so many people," declared Spain's El Mundo newspaper.
For the first time parties opposed to independence appear to have a good chance at power -- albeit in a coalition.
Until now, the government has always been led by the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which favours independence but says it opposes violence as the way to achieve it.
But the latest poll, published by Cadena Ser radio on Friday, gives the PNV just 27 percent of the vote, with Spain's ruling Popular Party (PP) -- which opposes Basque independence or greater regional autonomy -- second, taking between 20 and 25 percent.
Post-election alliances thus appear crucial to shaping the next Basque government.
Under the scenario above the PNV could retain power by once again depending on moderate nationalist party Eusko Alkartasuna and the left-wing Euskal Herritarrok (EH) - often called the political wing of armed separatist group ETA.
The Socialists - which oppose independence -- have so far poured cold water on suggestions they might back either the PP or the PNV after the elections.
Former Interior Minister Jaime Mayor Oreja is representing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's Popular Party in the race for president.
A native of the Basque city of San Sebastian, he is adamantly opposed to Basque separatism and favours police measures, rather than negotiations, to end the conflict.
"Now freedom's possible ... Now it is possible to bury our fear and destroy the terrible and cruel group that is ETA," Mayor Oreja told crowds of supporters in Bilbao shortly after midnight.
The PNV struck back, saying that voting for Mayor Oreja could exacerbate the conflict.
"I think Mayor Oreja will bring more violence. ETA members will feel more justified in their actions," said Xabier Arzalluz, longtime PNV party boss.
ETA has claimed 29 lives since calling off a ceasefire in late 1999. Altogether ETA -- meaning Basque Homeland and Freedom in the Basque language -- has killed about 800 people since 1968 in its drive for an independent Basque homeland straddling the French-Spanish border.
Basque rally against violence
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