THE likely success of a coalition of moderates and Socialists in the Oct. 28 Basque elections signals the decline of popular support for the region's terrorists. Newspaper headlines are trumpeting ``a new climate of stability.'' Some even speculate that the days of the Basque Homeland and Liberty (ETA), the separatist guerrilla group whose acts of terror have become synonymous with the Basque country, may be numbered.
``Even if ETA maintains some operational capability in the foreseeable future, the French government's help, the existence of an effective political alternative and the deployment of a local police force are reducing the power of its barbarous threats,'' argues Javier Pradera, political analyst for the El Pa'is newspaper in Madrid.
This new climate follows an upward turn in the economy over the past five years and the coalition's success in passing a local parliamentary motion condemning terrorism, say political analysts.
``The pact, signed in January 1988 by all political parties [with the exception of the ETA's political wing], has been decisive in stripping the men of violence and their accomplices of any ideological or moral justification for their acts and in isolating them politically,'' Mr. Pradera says.
For years, the region had been in decay because of the terror campaign and the region's dependence on old-fashioned heavy industry.
The economic progress was in part artificially engineered by subsidies and favorable taxation rates negotiated by the Basque Socialist Party (PSE) with the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), its partner in power in the region, explains Patxo Unzueta, author of many books on the region.
The moderate PNV holds 17 of the 75 seats in local Basque parliament.
After the last elections in 1986, it formed a governing coalition with the Socialists, who had 19 seats.
Pradera and the Mr. Unzueta describe the PNV as ``the nationalist party of compromise.''
``It is the party that most people can live with - some out of genuine conviction, but many out of pragmatism,'' Unzueta says.
On Oct. 28, the region's 1,500,000 voters will choose among it and six other political parties.
Opinion polls in the run-up to the election predict a strengthening of support for the PNV; renewal of the coalition with the socialist PSE; a decline in the number of votes for the other nationalist parties (in particular, United People, the political branch of the ETA); and increased support for the conservative Popular Party.
``What I think the polls are showing, and the election will confirm, is a shift away from radical towards moderate opinion,'' claims Fernando Lopez Agudin, a political analyst who has spent the past two years concentrating on the Basque country.
Voting patterns in the region before the ETA campaign showed backing for three distinct groups: Basque nationalists, nonnationalist conservatives, and nonnationalist Socialists.
Fear of ETA was a significant factor in the overwhelming shift of voters toward nonviolent nationalist parties.
``For 10 years, no one dared vote for anyone else. Supporting the nonviolent alternative was seen as the only way of defusing ETA,'' Unzueta says.
In his opinion, an increased vote for the conservative Partido Popular, which does not oppose autonomy but is not specifically nationalist, will be as encouraging an indicator of stability returning to the region as the fact that ETA has not succeeded in leaving its violent imprint on the campaign.
In the first week of the election campaign, police defused two powerful car bombs and evacuated a political meeting because of a bomb threat, which proved to be a false alarm.
The Basque problem was one of the most pressing to confront the transitional government after Gen. Francisco Franco's death in 1975. A once highly prosperous region had been virtually shut down by the ETA's campaign aimed at achieving full independence for the three Basque provinces in the northwest of Spain.
A ban on any expression of the Basque language or culture during the years of Franco's dictatorship made it hard to judge the genuine extent of support for ETA's extreme form of separatism. Spain's new democratic government granted the Basque region autonomy and its own parliament in 1979.