Basques Nationalists win poll
BILBAO, Spain -- The stage has been set in Spain's Basque region for weeks of intense political bargaining to build a coalition after an election failed to produce an outright winner, according to exit polls.
As the voting booths closed on Sunday night, the polls showed that Nationalists who have governed Spain's Basque region for two decades have polled more votes than their rivals.
But the mainstream Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which favours moves toward independence by peaceful means, appeared to fall short of a parliamentary majority again as it faced a strong challenge from non-nationalists.
Television surveys released after polling closed showed the PNV and a smaller nationalist ally jointly taking about 30 seats, which if confirmed, would give them the first chance to form a new government.
But it is estimated it will fail to reach the 38 seats needed for a clear majority in the 75-seat parliament.
CNN Correspondent Al Goodman said: "The vote has been swinging first in favour of the ruling Nationalist party, then it seemed to swing away from them as more retunrs came in.
"Now, with about 75 percent of the votes counted, according to official returns it is swinging back in their favour.
"No party is going to get a majority according to all the analysts here...however a leader from the Conservative Popular Party is saying, 'it's not over yet -- wairt for the returns from the big cities'."
If the PNV fails, the two big anti-independence parties -- Spain's ruling Popular Party (PP) and the opposition Socialists -- could forge an alliance aimed at ousting the nationalists for the first time since the return to democracy in the late 1970s.
Three exit polls showed the Madrid-based parties together short of a 38-seat majority while one survey showed it exactly achieving it.
The campaign was dominated by bitter debate over how to end a 33-year campaign of violence by the Basque separatist group ETA, which is fighting to create a separate state in the Basque areas of northern Spain and southwestern France.
ETA, the last major guerrilla group still active in continental Western Europe, has claimed 29 killings since ending a 14-month ceasefire in December 1999 and was blamed for the assassination of a PP senator last Sunday in northern Spain.
On the eve of the election, a car bomb exploded in central Madrid, injuring 14 people.
Despite the threat of fresh ETA attacks, a record 78 percent of the Basque electorate turned out at the polls.
One woman who voted in central Bilbao said she had little hope the outcome would contribute to ending the bloodshed.
"No matter who wins, nothing will change," he said.
Voting was tense during the day, with supporters of ETA shouting and jeering some political leaders on their way into the polling stations.
In the Basque city of San Sebastian, 15 young protesters tried to force their way into the room where Jaime Mayor Oreja, candidate for the government's centre-right Popular Party, was voting.
They shouted slogans and held banners reading: "Ahead with Basque youth."
The climate of fear and division surrounding Sunday's ballot was in sharp contrast to the last Basque election, when ETA's ceasefire declared just weeks before raised hopes for peace.
Euskal Herritarrok (EH), a leftist party widely considered ETA's political wing, looked set to pay a political price for the separatists' return to arms. Exit polls showed it losing up to half of its 14 seats.
Many of Spain's 2.2 million Basques saw Sunday's vote as a referendum on the Spanish government's hardline anti-ETA policy versus the PNV's call for broad-based talks to reach a Northern Ireland-style peace settlement.
Regional President Juan Jose Ibarretxe was forced to call elections a year and a half early because of a political crisis caused by ETA's renewed violence.
His party supports ETA's goal of self-determination but condemns its violent methods.
Ibarretxe's PNV was up against the regional PP headed by Oreja, who vowed to crush ETA and halt what he termed a nationalist-led slide toward secession from Spain.
Tensions as Basques vote
Basque Nationalist Party
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