Voter rebuff could force Spanish government to find new partners

Regional assembly elections in Spain's northern Basque country have dealt a severe blow to the ruling Democratic Center Union party (UCD). Two weeks ago in the south, the UCD suffered a similar defeat on a regional autonomy referendum for Andalusia. And although the UCD's lessons are different , they are equally damaging.

In each region the results showed a drop in the UCD position from second to fourth place compared with general election results one year ago. Opinion polls also indicate that the UCD will lose ground in Catalonia's regional assembly elections March 20.

In the light of these developments, many observers wonder if the UCD can continue governing on its own or only with the support of the right-wing party for the remainder of its term. Following the changes in Spain's political map, the UCD may well be forced to govern by consensus or to introduce sweeping Cabinet changes.

In the Basque country the results reveal a deepening suspicion of the intentions of the Madrid-based parties over the devolution program -- especially those parts of it that refer to the pacification of the Basque region.

This is confirmed by the fact the nationalist parties among them won 42 of the 60 seats in the new regional assembly. The liberal Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) topped the list with 25 seats.

In these circumstances the PNV may decide to form a Basque government on its own or it may seek alliances with other political groups. These alliances are considered essential if the Basque country is to have a strong regional government capable of confronting the region's twin problems is extremist violence and rising unemployment.

If the PNV does strike an alliance with the UCD, this will almost certainly be conditioned by the speed with which the UCD cedes power to the region.

Another important lesson of the Basque elections is the continued strong showing of the far left Herri Batasuna Party, which openly supports the most militant wing of the Basque separatist guerrilla organization, Euzkadi ta Azkatasuna (ETA), and which came in second, winning 11 seats. Together with the votes won by Euzkadiko Ezkerra, another radical Basque party which defends the moderate wing of ETA, these results show that in Guipuzcoa and Vizcaya, the Basque region's two most densely populated provinces, more than 23 percent of the Basques who went to vote March 9 support extremist tendencies.

The results in Andalusia's referendum were even more serious, first because it was here that the drift against the government really started, and second because the UCD was in large measure responsible.

The government made of serious miscalculation that a campaign of abstention would be successful in Andalusia, whereas in fact in six out of Andalusia's eight provinces there was an absolute majority in favor of autonomy. This was the position supported by Andalusia's regional party and by the Communists and Socialists.

By pursuing a campaign of abstention the government seemed to be undermining the regional policy it had itself promoted two years ago, and this had two consequences: It made Spain's other regions suspicious of the government's good faith, and it led to serious divisions in the ruling UCD party itself.

Andalusia is not only Spain's largest region with a population that equals that of the Basques and Catalans together, but also is the region with the richest cultural heritage seen in what remains of the five centuries when Andalusia was under Arab rule. It has its distinctive architecture , its special flamenco music and dance, and its heterogenous economy based on sugar-beet, cotton, tobacco, and olive production.

Against this background, far from diminishing regional demands, the government's maneuvring actually accelerated them, drawing attention to Andalusia's profound economic and social problems -- mass unemployment, migration, high rates of illiteracy, and an uneven distribution of wealth between landless laborers and wealthy absentee landlords. All of this could prove much more divisive in the near future than existing problems in the Basque country and Catalonia.

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