MADRID — The most controversial decision that Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has made in his three years in office was not to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq or legalize gay marriage. Instead, it was the prime minister's move this month to convert the prison sentence of a high-profile member of ETA, the Basque separatist group, to house arrest.
The decision has convulsed Spain and sparked the most significant crisis of the prime minister's term, sharpening a growing national debate ahead of upcoming elections over how best to deal with ETA.
Though the government ceased discussions with ETA when the group – which it considers a terrorist organization – upended a self-declared cease-fire in December, the opposition Popular Party (PP) has found in the sentence conversion an opportunity to dramatically escalate its criticism of the government. On Saturday, hundreds of thousands marched in a demonstration organized by the PP – the first time in Spanish history that an opposition party has called for a protest against the government's antiterrorist policies.
In November 2006, ETA member Iñaki de Juana Chaos began a hunger strike to protest a second jail sentence, which he received for "inciting terrorism" (he had already completed an 18-year term for the murder of 25 people).
After 115 days on strike, he was reportedly near death. On March 2, Spain approved Mr. de Juana's transfer first to a Basque Country hospital, and later home, where he will remain under house arrest until he finishes his sentence. "One of the differences between terrorists and us is that for us, life is important, no matter whether the person is a terrorist or not, and this is where our moral legitimacy derives," said Interior Minister Alfredo Rubalcaba.
But the PP believed it was not morals that guided the decision, but weakness and deception. Although it had granted grudging support to the government when ETA declared a cease-fire in March 2006, the party's members soon began criticizing Mr. Zapatero for pandering to terrorists and threatening Spain's unity. When ETA blew up an airport parking garage in December, killing two, it brought an end to the fledgling peace process, but not, according to PP members, to the government's willingness to negotiate with terrorists.
"This government has made an immense error," says Gustavo de Arístegui, a PP congressman. "It is still negotiating with ETA, and ETA is still demanding gestures from it."
During the eight years it was in power, the PP had itself transferred ETA prisoners back to the Basque Country and conducted its own negotiations with the separatists. But these distinctions have been lost in the outrage that the party has whipped up. At Saturday's march, protestors chanting "Zapatero, resign!" cheered as PP leader Mariano Rajoy told them, "We have been mobilized by ... a government which has let itself be blackmailed by a murderer and that has ceded to that blackmail."
Iñaki Anasagasti, a senator from the Basque Nationalist Party, isn't surprised by the rhetoric. "We're in an election year," he says. "And the Popular Party, which is obsessed with ETA, is going to manipulate the issue." Indeed, with municipal elections in May and national elections eleven months later, many say the PP has seized on Zapatero's stance on ETA – which has killed nearly 850 people in the past 40 years – as his chief political liability. "They've decided that this is the issue they can win on," says Gorka Landaburu, editor of the weekly newsmagazine Cambio 16.
Many see Zapatero's politically risky decision as a sign of his willingness to restart the peace process after the December attack. "With this decision, Zapatero has left a door open," says Mr. Landaburu.
Others suspect the gesture was in part an attempt to support moderates within the separatist movement. "The issue is fundamentally humanitarian," says Sagrario Morán, an ETA expert at Madrid's Universidad de Rey Juan Carlos. "But certainly it helps strengthen the position of those elements that want an end to the violence."
Whatever the rationale, the de Juana decision has dramatically divided the country. And that, says Landaburu, is precisely the problem. "When our democracy is divided, ETA is strengthened. It's only when we're united that ETA is weakened."