Elections in Basque Country

One of the first things that attracted me to the idea of studying abroad in Basque Country was their long and controversial history of nationalism. At once, they are a society that is fighting to fit into the rest of Spain, and fighting tirelessly against it.

Nationalism has become a sustained thread of interest for me throughout my time in Bilbao. It pops up in classes, in the news, in conversations, in ways that I wouldn’t have expected. I’ve heard the entire spectrum of opinions, from those who are strong supporters of Basque separatism, to those who regard it as something dangerous.

That is why I was so pleased to be present for the Basque Country’s regional elections this past Sunday. I had the opportunity to witness first-hand the democratic process in a region that struggles with it’s definition of statehood. I hoped that the results would be telling of the majority’s attitude towards Basque nationalism and, more importantly, the direction in which the region hopes to travel in the future, politically speaking.

These elections had a special significance.

First, they were held in light of the renewed and growing independence movement in Cataluña. The Basque Country and Cataluña are often thrown into the same hat, since both regions are identified as something slightly separate from the rest of Spain. Both regions have their own unique languages and cultures that many of their inhabitants recognize as their true identity. The current conservative federal government, headed by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, has been nervous about the independence movement in Cataluña, concerned that it may spark similar movements in other autonomous communities, particularly the Basque Country.

Second, this is the first election to be held in the Basque Country without the looming shadow of ETA. The Basque terrorist organization declared a permanent ceasefire and cessation of armed activity one year ago. This has been the Basque Country’s first exercise in the democratic process without fear of violence. This is a political victory for all Basques, nationalist or no.

However, nationalist sentiments, or those opposed, where not at the forefront of this election. Like the rest of Spain, citizens of the Basque Country were most concerned with the economy.

The last regional government of the Basque Country was lead by Partido Popular, or PP, Spain’s most prominent conservative party. This was the first Basque regional government not to be lead by a Basque nationalist party, such as Partido Nationalista Vasco, or PNV. Unfortunately for PP, the economic situation that hit Spain since the last regional elections shed a rather poor light on their leadership. There was no doubt that PP would not be receiving the majority vote this time around.

Like most elections past, PNV was the political favorite. PNV is marked as a left-leaning nationalist party, though strongly opposed to ETA. Historically, PNV has preferred increased autonomy to outright independence from Spain.

The party that people were holding their breath over was Euskal Herria Bildu, or EH-Bildu. It is a leftist, Basque nationalist and separatist party, newly formed from a coalition of smaller separatists parties in San Sebastian last July. EH-Bildu has gone by a variety of names in the past, partly from a recurring need to revamp their identity. There is a long-running connection between members of EH-Bildu and ETA. For this, the party, then called Batasuna, was refused participation in the 2009 regional elections by the federal government of Spain. The coalition was allowed participation in this year’s election thanks to ETA’s ceasefire. Nonetheless, EH-Bildu still makes many citizens of the Basque Country nervous.

“They say they aren’t associated with ETA anymore, because of the ceasefire, but I still don’t trust them,” my host mother, Julia, told me. Her doubts are not unfounded. Members of EH-Bildu erroneously denied their connections with ETA multiple times in the past. Whats more, ETA has declared ceasefires more than three times in the past, only to see them broken. It is still too soon for some to trust EH-Bildu’s peaceful intentions.

However, on the other side of the line, the strong support for EH-Bildu is not a surprise for many Basques. Certainly, there are citizens of the Basque Country who support EH-Bildu’s independence policy, but more importantly, they support EH-Bildu’s important role in ETA’s peace process. For this, among other reasons, many Basques expected the party to receive more votes. It certainly speaks in the election results:

PNV came out with the greatest number of seats, with EH-Bildu trailing not far behind. No party won a clear majority, which requires a minimum of 51% of votes. Therefore, the two parties with the most seats in parliament, PNV and EH-Bildu, will form a coalition to make a majority. The coalition between PNV and EH-Bildu is being called Abertzale, which, loosely translated, is Basque for “patriot”. This election has resulted in the most nationalist Basque parliament in history.

While the current economic condition makes it highly unlikely that an independence movement rivaling that of Cataluña will spring up in the Basque Country any time soon, it will be interesting to see how politics, especially those surrounding nationalism, progress in the Basque Country in the years to come.

– Emily Bowman, DUSA Student Blogger 2012

Decisions, Decisions, and Premonitions on your Destination for Study Abroad

You know when you have that feeling in your gut that something important is just about to happen? When I was little, I used to think these feelings were special indicators of future events – I called it reverse déjà vu. As I’ve grown, I’ve come to the less supernatural conclusion that I must just have particularly strong intuition.

But someties, these feelings catch you by the wayside, and it’s only after the realization’s come to surface that you can see how it’s been stuck to you for awhile and you’ve just been blind to its meaning.

One of the most significant moments of my life happened this way. As a kid I’d lie awake at night sometimes and wonder what it would be like if I lived in another country – what if I wasn’t born as an American? If I were a Britishschoolgirl instead, what would I be doing right now? Or if I were from Zimbabwe? China? Argentina? The thought of it would make me breathless.

Then, when I turned fifteen, my family and I moved to Melbourne, Australia. During the first few months of the five years I lived there, I would wake up astonished with my situation. I – am living in Australia? Then I’d remember those night I spent wondering about life in far away places…it made sense. Of course, I was always meant to be this person, an expat, a traveler. It’s what led me to my current path as an International Studies major at the University of Denver.

The same thing happened with Study Abroad. As soon as the start of my first year at DU I was looking at my options. I considered everywhere – and I’m not kidding; destinations as diverse as The Hague and Hong Kong. I even considered returning to Australia. For a spell, I was dead set on going to the Dominican Republic. Then there was Bilbao.

After mulling over my options, I was drawn to Spain. Somewhat reluctantly to tell you the truth, but I had a feeling. Soon enough, I was swept up with the idea of living in Madrid, the pulsing cosmopolitan heart of the country. Having worked with texts by Frederico García Llorca in high school, I was charmed by visions of life in Andalucía. The whimsical paintings of Salvador Dalí made me curious to see the landscape of Catalonia. I could practically see myself surrounded by the Moorish architecture of Granada. But Bilbao? No. Who goes to the north of Spain, when you can revel in the fiery south?

But something would say to me, “I bet that’s where you’ll be going, Emily,” and inside I would sigh at the thought. My intuition was speaking to me, but I didn’t want to listen.

You see we get so caught up in what we think we should do, where we should go, how our future should look, the kind of person we should be. That takes a lot of planning and organizing and lists. Lots of lists, with pros and cons and comparisons all for making decisions on our lives. I made lots of lists for study abroad, in my head and on paper. I know a lot of my friends did too. But travel shouldn’t be that way at all. Travel’s meant to break routine and throw us out on a limb. We leave what we know and what’s familiar in order to be confronted with what we didn’t plan for, don’t we?

So, I brought my list of what I wanted in a Study Abroad locale with me to my meeting with the Study Abroad advisor last Fall. Lo and behold, after looking over my list, the advisor looked and me and said, “It looks like Bilbao would be a perfect fit for you,” more or less.

“Well, of course it does,” I said to myself.

But you know, she talked me into it.

“Go to northern Spain,” she said.

“Why?” I countered.

“Because it is entirely unlike the rest of the country. It’s lush and green. There are mountains all around. The coast is beautiful. I know you hear all about la Costa del Sol, but all the Spaniards run to the northern coast for their holidays.”

I was listening.

“The culture up to the north is entirely unique to the region. There’s a very strong Celtic presence, they even play bagpipes, which you wouldn’t expect in Spain would you?”

“No, not at all.”

“Exactly. Most people don’t know much about the north of Spain because, well, most people don’t go there. And that’s one of the best parts, you’ll be one of few foreigners studying abroad in the region.”

That piqued my interest.

Then she winced and added, “It’s true that people can be a bit – apprehensive – to travel to the Basque country, and if you ask a Spaniard what they think of the idea they’ll probably advise you against it because of the ETA, but, really, it’s not dangerous. In fact, the ETA declared a ceasefire last month and, anyways, they never plant bombs inside the Basque country, so you’d actually be much safer, in theory, from terrorist threats in Bilbao than if you were anywhere else in the country.”

For some twisted reason, it was the idea of studying abroad in a place with an active national resistance movement that got me hooked.

So, I gave in to fate. I will be studying abroad en la otra costa, with ISA in Bilbao, Spain come September. And I couldn’t be happier. In my experience, the best journeys don’t fit within our carefully considered expectations. The destination draws you in, without any preparation on your part, sometimes against reason. Get rid of expectations when you travel, you’re better without them. Instead, follow your premonitions, because they know where you are going, and I’ll bet you can’t wait to find out.

Emily Bowman, DUSA Blogger