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Setback for Basque nationalists

The election is over and coalition talks are on  

BILBAO, Spain -- Mainstream nationalists in Spain's Basque region have failed in their first attempt to draw together a coalition government.

The ruling Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and its smaller coalition partner Eusko Alkartasuna together won 33 of 75 seats in the Basque parliament and had hoped to attract Spain's leading opposition Socialist Party to join a government of unity.

But the leader of the Socialists, who were the PNV's partner for over a decade until the nationalists adopted a more pro-independence line in 1998, announced that his party would remain in opposition.

graphic Basque conflict: Violence in Spain

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"The Socialist Party will exercise responsible and constructive opposition in the Basque parliament," Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told a press conference, adding that the "concrete conditions" were not right for an alliance.

During the campaign the Socialists -- who took 14 seats -- had said they would not back the PNV as long as it continued to challenge Spain's constitution that prevents moves toward independence.

The PNV favours moves toward independence but is opposed to the violent means of armed separatist group ETA.

The spectre of violence overshadowed Sunday's election, with the shooting of a conservative Popular Party senator a week before and a car bombing in Madrid wounding 14 people on Friday.

Both attacks were blamed on ETA which has claimed over 800 lives in its 33-year campaign for a Basque state straddling the French-Spanish border.

The biggest loser in the elections was Euskal Herritarrok (EH) -- widely seen as ETA's political arm -- which lost half its 14 seats and saw its percentage of the popular vote plunge to about 10 percent, the lowest since Spain's return to democracy in the late 1970s.

EH leader Arnaldo Otegi, who has refused to condemn ETA bombings and assassinations, blamed his party's losses on a "fear campaign" waged by non-nationalists.

But the election outcome was also a blow to Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a fierce opponent of Basque self-determination who had made ousting the nationalists one of his government's top priorities.

His ruling centre-right Popular Party (PP) maintained its position as the Basque region's second largest political force due to its coalition with a smaller conservative party, but only managed to gain a single seat for a combined total of 19.

Winning the most votes gives the nationalist parties the right to negotiate a new coalition government.

Analysts say the PNV, who have governed for 21 years, could now look to the communist-led United Left Party, which has three parliamentary seats.

The PNV formed a government after the 1998 election by gaining the support of EH, with whom it had worked to secure ETA's first ceasefire in nearly a decade.

But the alliance broke down when ETA resumed its attacks, and re-elected Basque president Juan Jose Ibarretxe has vowed this time to make no deals with EH.

"We are going to run a responsible government," Ibarretxe told the Associated Press. "We are going to build a region based on dialogue and agreement."

Voter participation in the weekend's poll was a record 79 percent.

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Basque Nationalist Party
Humanist Party of the Basque Country
Popular Party
Socialist Party

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