- Basque separatists - elections - ETA - José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero - peace - Spain
AFP - Spain's ruling Socialists were ousted from power in Galicia and trailed the incumbent party in the Basque Country in regional elections on Sunday seen as the first test of voter sentiment since the country plunged into recession.
In northwestern Galicia, the Socialist leader of the regional government, Emilio Perez Torino, conceded defeat to the conservative opposition Popular Party, which won a majority of 39 seats in the 75-seat regional assembly.
The leader of the PP at the national level, Mariano Rajoy, had campaigned hard in his native Galicia with a victory in the regional polls seen as throwing him a lifeline in his battle to stay at the helm of the party.
In the separatist-minded Basque Country on the border with France, the Socialists of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero had been looking to oust the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which has ruled the region since 1980.
The PNV captured 30 seats in the 75-seat Basque regional assembly and the Socialists 24, up from 18 in the outgoing parliament, according to final results. To secure an absolute majority, 38 seats are required.
But the moderate nationalist PNV would struggle to form a majority coalition as the three other smaller nationalist parties in the race won a combined seven seats.
The Popular Party picked up 13 seats and the tiny UPD party won one seat meaning that non-nationalist parties will have a majority in the Basque regional assembly for the first time since it was set up in 1980, soon after Spain returned to democracy.
Basque Socialist leader Patxi Lopez refused to concede defeat, and said he hoped to be the new leader of the Basque government.
"We have received the best results in (Basque) elections in our history," he told a cheering crowd of his supporters.
"I don't renounce presenting my candidature and gathering the necessary support to be the next head of the regional government."
Opinion polls before the election had shown a rise in support for the Basque Socialists, which analysts had attributed to Zapatero's bid to negotiate peace with the armed separatist group ETA, blamed for the deaths of 825 people in its 40-year campaign for an independent Basque homeland.
The tentative peace process collapsed when the group killed two people in a bomb attack at Madrid airport in December 2006.
Spain's Supreme Court last month banned two pro-independence parties from participating in Sunday's election due to their links to ETA and its outlawed political wing Batasuna.
Some four million people were eligible to vote to elect regional parliaments in the Basque and Galicia regions in what were the first elections since Zapatero was returned to power one year ago for a second four-year term.
Since then, the global financial crisis has accelerated the collapse of Spain's property market after a decade-long boom, pushing the country into recession late last year.
The unemployment rate soared to 13.9 percent in the last quarter of 2008, the highest in the 27-nation European Union.
In Sunday's polls, Zapatero was seeking to gauge the degree of support for his measures to tackle the crisis, which include an 11-billion-euro (14-billion-dollar) infrastructure plan to create over 300,000 jobs.