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Lawmakers reject Basque power plan

From CNN Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman
Zapatero said before the vote he was prepared to talk about more home-rule powers for the Basque region.

MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- The Spanish Parliament has overwhelmingly rejected a sovereignty plan for the troubled northern Basque region.

Some analysts predicted the plan's chief proponent could try to snatch political gain back home in the Basque region from the defeat in Madrid late on Tuesday.

The defeat of the plan, by a vote of 313 to 29, with two abstentions, had been widely expected. The ruling Socialist Party and the main opposition conservative Popular Party joined forces to halt the initiative, viewed as unconstitutional in Madrid.

But Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told Parliament before the vote he was prepared to talk with other political parties, including the Basques, to negotiate an increase in home-rule powers for the region.

Parliament voted at 11:40 p.m. (5:40 p.m. ET) Tuesday after a seven and a half-hour debate.

The vote was the latest flashpoint in a long-running dispute between the central government and the Basque region, which has been torn by three decades of separatist violence by the outlawed ETA group, blamed for more than 800 deaths across Spain.

A bomb authorities attributed to ETA exploded just last Sunday at a hotel in Denia on the Mediterranean coast, causing two minor injuries and extensive property damage.

The Basque region already has broad home-rule powers, including a regional police force, under Spain's 1978 constitution and a Basque autonomy statute.

But the plan's main proponent, Basque regional President Juan Jose Ibarretxe, of the moderate Basque Nationalist Party, wanted to take a further step toward sovereignty.

It would make the Basque region, with 2.1 million inhabitants -- about 5 percent of the nation's population -- a "free associated state" with Spain, with power over its courts and a major role in foreign policy.

The plan won a narrow victory in the Basque regional parliament in December and the next hurdle was the Spanish Parliament in Madrid, which is also wrestling with strong nationalist sentiments in another region, Catalonia, whose main city is Barcelona.

"Don't think by saying 'no' you'll end the Basque desire for a solution," Ibarretxe warned Parliament late in the debate.

He also defended "the right of the Basque people to decide their future," and repeatedly called for talks toward a Basque political solution. He blasted the Socialists and conservatives for joining forces to defeat his plan.

Some political analysts said Ibarretxe's speeches were aimed at his Basque constituency. It was a rare moment in the national limelight for him. Regional presidents don't usually get to speak to the national Parliament, and the whole affair was broadcast live on Spanish television and radio networks.

Some predicted Ibarretxe would call early Basque elections, angling to use the defeat in Madrid to boost support for his moderate party, which favors more Basque power but rejects ETA's separatist violence.

"They know they can't win here," the conservative party leader Mariano Rajoy told Parliament, referring to Ibarretxe's group. "Maybe they want to win something. Maybe votes?"

Prime Minister Zapatero said, "The relationship of Spain to the Basques will be decided by all of the Basques, not half of them" -- a reference to the slim majority Ibarretxe has for his plan in Basque parliament -- "and by all Spaniards."

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