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Politicians under pressure in the Basque region

While the separatist Basque party calls for citizens to abstain from the March 9 legislative vote, non nationalist politicians fear for their security. (Report : A. Percept, C. Perrouault)

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Spain's general elections will be a key test for Basque nationalists after the failure of a peace process, the resumption of ETA attacks and Madrid's rejection of the regional government's plans for a referendum on the region's future.

"I'm not optimistic at all. I was sure the peace process would work and that was not the case," the spokesman for the small, non-violent Basque separatist party Aralar, Mikel Basabe, told AFP in the Basque regional capital Vitoria.

Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero came to power in 2004 after promising to bring peace to Spain, where ETA has killed 819 people in nearly 40 years of fighting for independence for the northern Basque region.

Zapatero launched a dialogue with ETA in June 2006, three months after it declared a ceasefire, but the talks failed to produce concrete results.

ETA in December 2006 bombed a car park at Madrid's airport killing two men -- its first deadly attack since 2003 -- saying it had grown frustrated with the lack of concessions in the peace talks on the part of the government.

It formally called off its ceasefire in June 2007 and since then Spanish authorities have adopted a hard line against it, detaining dozens of suspected members of ETA and its banned political wing Batasuna.

Last month the Supreme Court banned two small Basque separatist parties, the Basque Nationalist Action (ANV) and the Communist Party of Basque Lands (PCTV), from taking part in the March 9 elections.

The court argued the two parties were fronts for Batasuna, which was outlawed in 2003 for refusing to reject violence and cut its links to ETA.

ANV won 437 seats in Basque towns and villages last year while the PCTV won seven seats in the Basque regional parliament in 2005 elections.

"I ask Basques to give me their vote so that I can have enough strength to end ETA and allow freedom to win," Zapatero said at a campaign rally attended by some 6,000 people in Bilbao, the Basque region's financial centre.

Batasuna, along with ANV and PCTV, have called on Basques to boycott the elections.

Haizpea Abrisketa of Batasuna's international department told AFP the boycott was aimed at "facing up to a Spanish state which does not offer democratic conditions."

ETA issued its own appeal for Basques to stay away for the polls on Friday just hours after it set off a bomb at the headquarters of the ruling Socialist Party in the Basque town of Derio.

In bastions of support for Basque independence like Hernani, whose mayor belongs to the ANV, walls are plastered with purple posters depicting a voter throwing his ballot into the garbage.

The posters feature the slogan written in Basque: "Abstention, independence for the Basque Country!"

Sitting in a bar in Hernani, Jon Ander said he planned to heed the party's call to refrain from voting.

"With the ceasefire, we expected something, but nothing happened, only more arrests and repression. But I imagine that in the long-term we will be independent," he said.

The Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which governs the region which already has considerable autonomy from Spain, argues that banning the two parties from the election causes more problems that it solves.

"It allows ETA and Batasuna to present themselves as victims," PNV president Inigo Urkullu told AFP.

The PNV captured 34.2 percent of the vote in the Basque region in the last general election in 2004, giving it seven seats in the national parliament.

Last year Basque regional prime minister Juan Jose Ibarretxe unveiled plans to hold two referendums from October 2008 as part of a "road map" for a new relationship for the region with the rest of Spain, which is understood to include independence.

Urkullu said the PNV does not expect to pick up Batasuna voters despite this proposal and has no plans to turn the general election into a plebiscite on the "road map", whose referendum proposals are deemed unconstitutional by the Madrid government.

"These are general elections, not a referendum," he said.

Batasuna captured 12.5 percent of the vote in the Basque region in a general election held in 1996, the last one it was allowed to contest.

"At a time in Europe when Kosovo has declared its independence, has exercised its right to self-determination, Spain has taken the opposite course," said Miren Nekane Erauskin, a PCTV lawmaker in the Basque parliament.

Polls put the Socialists ahead in the Basque region, followed by the PNV. The Socialists captured 27.6 percent of the vote in the Basque region in 2004 against 34.2 percent for the PNV.

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