Politics in Pandemic Times

by Iñaki Galdos Irazabal

The extraordinary circumstances that are happening around the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic have turned everything that was planned for these months upside down, and who knows if for the next few years. We live in a situation of disbelief, perplexity and total alarm that few people could have foreseen. We are confined, and our readers are also confined in different ways depending on where they are, with our focus mainly on health, but also with a great deal of concern about what the future holds for us regarding issues such as economics, politics and social relations.

If things were normal, right here and now we would be looking at the situation created in different parts of the Basque Country after the elections which had been scheduled for March and April. Obviously, that was not possible, but politics never cease. In times of a pandemic, politics continue to play a major role in the day-to-day life of Basque citizens and many of our readers have expressed to us their desire to know what is going on in this area. Therefore, aware of the difficulties of performing a thorough analysis in times of unrest, we are ready to offer an initial article, making it clear once again that the realities that are experienced in the different Basque regions do vary from one another.

Lehendakari Urkullu meeting with political parties on April 30th, trying to set the electoral date. Irekia

A Problematic Electoral Delay

Lehendakari (President) Iñigo Urkullu had decided to move up the elections of the Basque Autonomous Community to April 5th. His aim was to achieve an absolute majority of the Basque Parliament between his PNV party (Basque National Party) and the coalition in the Basque Government, PSE-PSOE (the branch of the socialist party that currently governs in Spain). Until now, between them both, they held 37 of 75 parliamentarian seats, so achieving just one more seat between them would have been enough to start a new term with peace of mind. Of the opposition parties, only the pro-independence left EH Bildu aspired for good results, while the Spanish right PP was still in crisis and the federalist left Elkarrekin-Podemos was predicted to have a decline in votes and seats.

With the advent of the pandemic, the elections were postponed indefinitely, but there has been a problematic situation since the suspension occurred when Parliament was already dissolved, so parliamentary activity has been reduced to the standing committee which is between the dissolution of a parliament and the constitution of the new one. That is why opposition parties are calling for parliamentary mechanisms to be activated, beyond the appearances being made by Lehendakari Urkullu to explain his management through the pandemic.

There is still no date for elections but Lehendakari Urkullu has already begun contacting political parties to organize them. The next meeting will be held on May 14th, and July and September are the most feasible options for elections. As we are seeing in the rest of the world, it is unknown how the COVID-19 crisis will affect the future political map. It is also evident that as long as this continues, the ups and downs in the popularity of leaders will be constant, depending on their management, their ability to communicate and the development of events around the pandemic.

Standby in Navarre

The political situation of the Foral Community of Navarre is calmer. There are several reasons for such a circumstance. One is that it is not an election year and therefore the parties are not in this situation of effervescence as in the other three Basque provinces of the southern Pyrenees. The Parliament and the Government of the Foral Community of Navarre were elected last year and the socialist, Maria Chivite is the current president. After many years, the Socialists finally decided to close the path for the pro-Spanish right UPN, even if in doing so they had to negotiate with EH Bildu, something unthinkable just a short time ago. Chivite governs with Geroa Bai (a coalition including PNV) and Podemos.

President Chivite appears in the Parliament of Navarre on April 24th. Parliament of Navarre

As a result of Chivite belonging to the same party as the Spanish President, a critical tone from Pamplona to Madrid hardly exists. On the other hand, considering that in this province, UPN is delivering tough opposition and that the priority objective of the rest of the political parties is to keep UPN from governing again, it is logical that the parties that govern with Chivite or support her in Parliament do not exhibit an excessively harsh tone with her, even if they disagree with some of her actions.

Uncertainty in the Northern Basque Country

The measures to fight the pandemic began in France later and for a few days it occurred that the Basques on one side of the Bidasoa River were beginning to implement confinement measures, while those on the other side continued to live relatively normal lives, although they had started to take precautions. This is why the first round of the municipal elections in France was held on March 15th.

The electoral processes in France are carried out in two rounds, with the second round having been scheduled for March 22nd. But President Emmanuel Macron was forced to suspend them in the face of the seriousness of the situation. In fact, many political and social agents asked him to not even celebrate the first round, but he ignored everyone. Participation declined heavily across the country. There is now speculation about when the second round will be held, but it is also unclear if the first round is even valid, since there are some legal doubts about it.

As a result of that first round, two issues can be noted in the Northern Basque Country. On the one hand, the good result obtained by both the abertzales (Basque Nationalists) and the lists supported by the abertzales. The work of Euskal Herria Bai has paid off and its municipal strength is an upward reality in most of the 158 municipalities of the three provinces of Iparralde (the Northern Basque Country), with the achievement of new mayoral seats. On the other hand, there are still important battles to be settled in the second round, if in the end they validate the first round. Among them are those of the two provincial capitals, Bayonne and Maule, where the mayors have a difficult re-election, but also other important municipalities such as Hendaye and Biarritz.

But in the Northern Basque Country another issue of great importance will be made clear in this election. Together, with the mayors and city council members, the representatives of the municipalities in the Euskal Hirigune Elkargoa, the association of the municipalities of the three provinces, are also being elected. Although its competencies have little to do with those of Basque autonomy of Spain, its constitution in 2017 was a major achievement for Basques who longed to have an institution that would allow them to take steps toward self-government. But this institution still has many adversaries both in the Basque Country and in Paris, so it is important that the elected officials for city halls are people who believe in it so that they can strengthen it. This is a battle that no one is losing sight of.

Election day in Bayonne on March 15th. Gari Garaialde / Bostok Photo

The Future of Europe

In short, it is logical that in a region divided into two countries and in three different legal-administrative realities we will encounter disparate political situations. But there is one thing in common in all of them: the belonging to the European Union. And that is another of the great unknowns that the global pandemic is leaving us. Certainly, the data do not invite optimism, because the European Union is, once again, showing its shortcomings. It had already shown its weakness in other crises such as the 2008 economic crisis, that of migrants, that of Brexit or the proliferation of ultras and europhobic movements, but it is now when it will have to show that the European movement is strong and has a future. It is true that if it succeeds, it has to do so with other models of governance and new leadership, but it would be a great historical mistake if, during these times of upheaval and uncertainty, we relinquished Europe.

In short, in the Basque Country we are full of uncertainties about our political future. Even Aberri Eguna (Fatherland Day) was celebrated last April 12th in a peculiar way: it is common for many citizens to hang the Ikurrina (Basque flag) on their balconies on that day, but this year the number of Ikurrinas multiplied. We have a lot of questions and no answers, at least until all of this settles down. But it’s important that we review from time to time what is happening, what has had to be put on hold, and what will resume when conditions allow for it.

Obviously, there are also many other doubts apart from our local political processes: the economy, globalization, freedoms, the role of countries, the environment… Everything will be questioned and debated all over the world (as is already happening) but none of it is the subject of this quick update, which will continue when there are novelties. Hopefully it will be soon; that would be a good sign.

Update as of May 24:

Finally, Lehendakari Iñigo Urkullu has decided to call for elections of the Basque parliament on July 12th. He shared three arguments supporting this decision. 

From a health standpoint, he explained that technical reports are showing that summer may be the most appropriate time, due to a potential surge of the pandemic in the fall. From a legal point of view, he clarified that elections should be held by October 25th and that convening them for July, there would still be time for a plan B in case any complications arise. And from an economic and social point of view, he explained that the new parliament is needed as soon as possible to address the challenge of economic and social recovery.

His decision has been approved by the two parties that form the current government (PNV and PSE-PSOE) and the environmentalist party EQUO. PP has been changing its opinion from an absolute no to a conditional yes, because its own party has also called elections for the same day in the region of Galicia. As for the coalitions EH Bildu and Elkarrekin Podemos, they have criticized the decision, because they consider the call to be the result of the interest of the Lehendakari’s party and this is not a time for elections or political confrontations.

It is now necessary to define what measures will be taken to facilitate mail-in voting and for those who want to vote in person to be assured of health safety. Similarly, other issues such as the duration and characteristics of the electoral campaign will be defined in the coming days.

In addition, the French government has also announced that finally the second round of the French municipal elections will be held on June 28th. The vast majority of mayors in the Northern Basque Country were already elected in the first round, but 18 remain to be chosen, some of them in the most populous cities, such as Bayonne. Negotiations between the first-round lists have already begun to try to establish alliances. Intense campaigns and very tight results are expected. 

The French government has announced that elections will be held under strict health measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

About the Author

Iñaki Galdos Irazabal
Iñaki Galdos Irazabal is editor at Basque Tribune. E-Mail | @inakigaldosira

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