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Basque National Party could fail to win popular vote for the first time since 1980 in Sunday’s election

20 Apr 2024 6 minute read
the Basque parliament. Photo is licensed under CC BY 3.0.

Luke James

For 40 years, there seemed to be two certainties in the Basque Country: Athletic Bilbao would always lose a cup final and the Basque National Party (PNV) would always win the elections.

Now, just two weeks after Athletic fans celebrated their first cup victory since 1984 at the seventh attempt, the PNV could this weekend fail to win the popular vote for the first time since the creation of the Basque parliament in 1980.

Polls show the centrist and federalist PNV is neck and neck with its nationalist rivals Bildu, a coalition of left-wing and pro-independence parties, including some with links to the ETA terror group which disbanded in 2018.

Bildu is expected to win between 34 to 35 percent of votes compared to 32 to 33 percent for the PNV, according to Spain’s public research institute, the Centre for Sociological Research.


“I would compare it to Labour losing in Wales,” said Dennis Sorondo of the University of the Basque Country of the magnitude of the predicted results.

“The feeling until recently was that the PNV would not lose any election. The PNV is losing this invincibility.”

That invincibility has been built on “reliability, good management, honesty and proximity,” the PNV member of the European Parliament, Izaskun Bilbao Barandica, told Nation.Cymru.

“When we began to recover self-government, we were an industrial ruin, a country in which terrorist violence weighed like a burden because of the pain it caused and its very pernicious economic and political effects,” she said.

“In 40 years we have become something else. We have undergone a transformation process that resembles the fairy tale of “The Ugly Duckling”.”


The quality of the healthcare system, long considered the best in the Spanish state, has been a source of pride in the Basque Country and, for the PNV, proof of their “good management.”

But rising waiting times, staff shortages and funding issues exacerbated by the pandemic have now helped transform healthcare into the central campaign theme of Bildu.

It is one of the social issues, along with housing and the cost-of-living, that Bildu has foregrounded in a campaign helping to win over voters who have previously been put off by associations with ETA.

“They have softened their discourse and are putting less emphasis on national issues,” said Sorondo.

Igor Zulaika, a Bildu candidate in Bizkaia, insisted the coalition has not abandoned independence, as some hardliners have claimed.

“We are fully convinced that independence is the best way forward for our country,” he said.

But he added the immediate priority was winning more autonomy through negotiations with Madrid and tackling “new problems” in the Basque Country.

“The main issue in the Basque country is that we have a party which has been in government for 40 years, apart from a three year hiatus, and currently they don’t have a project for the country,” Zulaika said from the campaign trail.

“They don’t have solutions. What we’re saying is: the ruling of this country is being done in 19th century buildings, with 20th century mindsets to respond to issues of the 21st century. We need new responses to new problems and new leaders to put in place those ideas.”

One of those new leaders is Pello Otxandiano, a 38-year-old who wears a black ear stud and holds a PHD in telecommunications engineering, who has been chosen as Bildu’s candidate for the role of president, known as the Lehendakari in the Basque Country.

His profile which couldn’t be further removed from that of Arnaldo Otegi, the ETA fighter turned peace advocate released from prison in 2016, who remains Bildu’s leader.

New voters

Otxandiano has the highest approval ratings of any candidate and is helping Bildu reach out to new voters, particularly young people, outside the mainly Basque-speaking region of Gipuzkoa.

Almost half of the people who voted for Podemos in the last Basque elections now say Bildu is the best choice for the country. Thirteen percent of former PNV and Socialist voters agree.

However Bildu’s new face has still struggled with old questions. During an interview this week, Otxandiano declined to call ETA a terror group.

It was a choice seized on by opponents as proof that Bildu hasn’t changed.

“Bildu needs first of all to abandon its ambiguity, to recognise that ETA’s violence was a regrettable mistake and to apologise for its consequences and effects,” said PNV MEP Bilbao Barandica.

“Because those who are now part of that party’s leadership for years supported these practices.”

With a lack of willing coalition partners in a parliament where one party has never held a majority, Bildu are aware they almost certainly won’t lead the next Basque government even if they top the poll today.

“We have prepared ourselves to go into government if that situation arises but we understand that the PNV and the Socialist party branch in the Basque autonomous community won’t let us go into government,” said Zulaika.

“Not because of ideological grounds and differences but because they have several hundred people who work in those governments. This is not a government of national salvation but of labour salvation.”

Instead, the PNV are likely to continue governing with the Socialist party of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

“Our collaboration with the socialists, however, has a history dating back to the first Basque government during the so-called Spanish Civil War and later in exile,” added Bilbao Barandica.

“We have been working together for decades. And in recent years this collaboration between different parties has produced excellent results in terms of progress and institutional stability.”

Some commentators have suggested Athletic’s victory could have provided late hope for the PNV.

Not only do governing parties generally benefit from the feelgood factor brought by sporting success, they argue, but Bilbao is the capital of the PNV’s heartland in the Bizkaia region.

“The PNV are dominant in Bizkaia and the football could make that even stronger,” added Sorondo. “It can be something to take into account but I don’t think football will be the deciding factor.”

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Y Cymro
Y Cymro
22 days ago

Unfortunately It looks as if the Basque party are now suffering a decline like SNP in Scotland are after coming touching distance from independence. Only difference with both are the Basques actually voted for independence but we’re robbed by an authoritarian state Spain well used to snuffing out countries seen with their South American empire whereas the Scots were fooled with project fear into remaining part of the United Kingdom with false promises of DevoMax. Will they ever get that opportunity ever again? Honest answer. Unlikely.

22 days ago

In most European countries that have moved forward towards the Self Determination that Gwynfor and the founders predicted- we see this pattern. In the Republic of Ireland and in the north of Ireland plus Belgium and Catalyna the Devo Max parties or Federal groupings tend to work in the system and make it better. All good of course but they become part of system they once opposed.

Rhddwen y Sais
Rhddwen y Sais
22 days ago
Reply to  Richard

England as well I gather.

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