AFP - Basque separatist group ETA criticised this weekend's elections in the region as undemocratic and told supporters to return blank ballots, amid fears it could stage new attacks to coincide with the poll.
The regional parliament that will result from these "anti-democratic elections" will be a "fascist parliament," ETA said in a statement released by the pro-independence Basque newspaper Gara Friday.
"For those in favour of independence, of sovereignty, the only vote is blank," it said.
The group also denounced the "apartheid policy" in Spain's northern Basque Country, where pro-independence parties are banned from Sunday's regional election due to their links to ETA and its outlawed political wing Batasuna.
Radical Basque separatist parties draw support from approximately 10 percent of Spain's Basque voters.
ETA has been blamed for the deaths of 825 people in a four-decade campaign for an independent Basque homeland straddling northern Spain and part of southwestern France.
Hours after the Supreme Court banned two pro-independence parties this month, ETA responded with its first attack in the Spanish capital since December 2006, setting off a van packed with explosives in a business district. The blast caused extensive damage but no injuries.
The decision also provoked violent protests by radical Basque leftists in the Basque city of Bilbao.
Last week, another ETA bomb exploded outside the headquarters of the Basque Socialist Party in the town of Lazkao, causing major damage but no injuries.
The bombings raised fears that the regional elections could be marred by further ETA attacks.
The Basque interior ministry said it plans to deploy 5,000 police throughout the region, or more than half of its entire force of 8,000, on election day.
Around 1.78 million people are eligible to vote in Sunday's elections to the 75-seat regional parliament.
Polls show the moderate centre-right Basque Nationalist Party is at risk of losing its nearly 30-year hold on power in the region to the Basque Socialist Party.
The PNV is led by the head of the regional government, Juan Jose Ibarretxe, whose plans for referendums on self-determination were rejected by the Madrid government.
If they win, the Socialists are hope to boost the already substantial autonomy enjoyed by the region.
A Socialist government "must rid itself of any sort separatist temptations," Basque Socialist deputy Jose Maria Benegas told AFP.
Elections are also being held in the rugged northwestern Galicia region, with polls indicating the ruling Socialists could be re-elected with a slightly increased majority over the centre-right Popular Party.
For Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the polls are a chance to gauge his support as the country reels from an economic crisis and Basque separatist violence.
The polls will be the first since national elections in March 2008, in which Zapatero was re-elected for a second four-year term.
In his first term, Zapatero had made resolving the Basque problem one of his priorities.
But negotiations with the armed Basque separatist organisation ETA failed, and the group resumed its attacks.