Spain holds its first elections since Covid-19 struck this Sunday, and both scheduled ballots have been overshadowed by concerns about new outbreaks of the virus.
The elections in the regions of Galicia and the Basque Country were originally due to be held in April, but were postponed as coronavirus started to peak in Spain, where it has killed at least 28,000 people. At the end of June, Spain lifted a three-month national lockdown.
But in the northwestern region of Galicia a new outbreak of the virus in A Mariña, on the Atlantic coast, has cast doubt on whether the election could take place in normal circumstances. The area’s 70,000 inhabitants have been in quarantine throughout this week, with travel in and out of the zone tightly controlled by police.
The mayors of several towns in the affected area have called on the regional government to delay voting there. However, with the quarantine due to be lifted on Friday, the election was scheduled to go ahead as normal.
In the Basque Country an outbreak in the town of Ordizia has led to tighter regulations regarding the use of face masks, requiring them to be worn in public spaces even when social distancing is possible. A similar policy has also been introduced across Catalonia, where the area of Segrià has been isolated.
The mayor of Ordizia, Edur Ezenarro, has said the election should be postponed in his town, warning that “there are not the necessary guarantees in terms of safety or democracy”. However, on Friday the vote was still set to go ahead as planned.
Polls suggest the moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which has dominated the region for four decades, is once again heading for a clear victory. With the more overtly pro-independence EH Bildu also expected to perform strongly, Basque nationalism could increase its existing majority in the regional parliament.
“Sometimes history presents the conditions that allow a spark which puts in motion processes of great social and national transformation,” Arnaldo Otegi, leader of EH Bildu, said on the campaign trail.
However, the immediate future is unlikely to see a drive for independence by the region. After 40 years of separatist violence, the Basque Country has now enjoyed a decade of peace and the terrorist group Eta disbanded two years ago. The PNV does not share the overtly secessionist ambitions of the leftist EH Bildu, which is seen as the successor to Eta’s political wing.
The Basque president, Íñigo Urkullu of the PNV, has said as much, citing Catalonia’s failed unilateral bid for secession.
“From a practical point of view we are of the opinion that the Basque Nationalist Party is not going to go down that road and nor will it follow the Catalan example of recent years which, with respect, was mistaken,” he said.
But although separatist violence is in the past and Basque independence is barely on the political agenda, Spain’s right continues to conjure the ghost of Eta as it warns of the dangers of nationalism.
“We come here because it’s necessary to defend freedoms, because Eta no longer kills thanks to [our] constitutionalism,” said Pablo Casado, leader of the conservative Popular Party (PP), which is running on a joint unionist ticket with Ciudadanos.
Both parties have attacked the Socialists for their willingness to do parliamentary deals in the region with EH Bildu and for a supposedly soft approach to the Basque terrorist issue.
This week the PP accused the Socialist-led Spanish government of seeking “to curry the favour of those linked to Eta” by allowing a convicted Eta murderer, José Luis Barrios, to be moved to a Basque prison.
The far-right Vox party, which is hoping to gain a parliamentary presence in the Basque Country for the first time, has been even more outspoken. One of Vox’s candidates, Amaia Martínez, labelled Basque nationalists “cowards and traitors”.
However, according to polls, the PP-Ciudadanos ticket is likely to struggle in the Basque Country on Sunday, and Vox will need a strong performance in order to obtain any seats.
Political scientist Pablo Simón, of Carlos III University, says that the relatively unchanged political landscape in the region reflects how entrenched Spanish politics has become nationwide, particularly during the Covid-19 crisis. “Polarisation in Spain is so great, and it was already so before the pandemic, that we have a situation whereby nothing shifts between [left and right].”
Similarly, in Galicia the overall landscape is not expected to see any major changes. The PP, which has governed there for 31 of the last 38 years, is again heading for victory.