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Basque region calls early elections

MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- Spain's Basque region will hold early parliamentary elections on May 13 in a vote which could ease or ignite separatist violence.

The embattled president of Spain's northern Basque region, Juan Jose Ibarretxe, announced the early elections on Tuesday -- a vote which Madrid will be closely monitoring.

The 75-seat parliament, which sets policy in the troubled region, is split among seven parties and early opinion polls predict no major shifts in the upcoming election.

But analysts will be watching for changes in the overall balance of power -- three Basque parties favouring Basque independence currently have an edge, with 41 seats, while parties loyal to Madrid hold the rest.

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graphic Basque conflict: Violence in Spain


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A victory for the parties loyal to Madrid could increase pressure on the pro-independence camp to clearly renounce the violence of the Basque separatist group ETA which has been blamed for about 800 killings in 32 years.

However, a wider margin of victory for the nationalist parties could fuel the independence drive.

But even the Basque parties are split on whether violence is a proper tool to achieve independence for the three provinces comprising the Basque region, home to 2.1 million people.

The leftist Basque party Herri Batasuna (HB) (also as Euskal Herritarrok) has 14 seats in the parliament and is considered to be ETA's political arm.

ETA has reduced its attacks during previous Basque electoral campaigns, apparently hoping to boost support for HB.

ďFrom now on, no one has an excuse to avoid stating what their solution should be for our problem,Ē Ibarretxe said, announcing the election on Tuesday.

Carlos Iturgaiz, leader of the Basque Popular Party
Carlos Iturgaiz, leader of the Basque Popular Party  

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznarís ruling conservative Popular Party (PP) has taken a hard-line stance against the separatist violence, and the PP, with 16 seats, is the second largest party in the Basque parliament.

Spainís Interior Minister Jaime Mayor Oreja is Basque and some predict he could be the Aznarís choice to lead the party in the Basque elections.

The previous Basque election on October 25, 1998, came one month after ETA declared a unilateral cease-fire.

It lasted 14 months, the longest cease-fire in ETAís history, but violence resumed in 2000, after ETA and the government blamed each other for derailing peace efforts.

Last year, ETA claimed responsibility for 23 killings, including politicians and security officials, in its deadliest toll in nearly a decade.



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RELATED SITES:
Association for Peace in the Basque Country
Basque Nationalist Party
Spanish Government
Spanish Socialist Party (in Basque)
Euskal Herritarrok (in Basque)

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