He is the most popular politician in Spain, always outpointing his boss, Prime Minister José María Aznar, in opinion polls. Jaime Mayor Oreja has a deep, calming voice, is rarely ruffled and, during five years as Interior Minister, had a good record as overseer of police actions against the Basque terrorist group ETA. A Basque himself, he seemed to be the perfect pick when Aznar made him the Popular Party's candidate for 'lehendakari', or president, of the autonomous northern region in the May 13 elections. Most commentators agreed, especially after the PP and the Socialists joined in an informal coalition to dislodge the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), whose incumbent 'lehendakari', Juan José Ibarretxe, looks a lot like Mr. Spock from Star Trek, and whose oratory is as awkward as Mayor Oreja's is fluid.
But the road to political wilderness is paved with perfect election strategies. There was an 80% turnout among the 1.8 million Basques eligible to decide the control of one of Europe's bloodiest regions, and the majority of them decided that while Mayor Oreja may be popular with Spaniards, he is anathema to Basques. Or rather, they flatly rejected the idea of the central powers stepping in to resolve the separatist issue that has been marked by ETA's murder of some 800 people over the past three decades. "The PP deserved to lose," said Basque lawyer Marta Cebreros. "They came in like a colonial conqueror."
In coalition with a smaller nationalist party, Euskal Askatasuna, the PNV won 33 of the 75 seats in the Basque parliament, five short of a majority, but nevertheless one more than the combined total of the Popular Party and the Socialists. Today, Mayor Oreja is a regional opposition leader, while Ibarretxe bathes in the glow of a 6% boost in support for his leadership.
The only good news for the central government and for those Basques who are both nationalist and nonviolent is that Ibarretxe's gain was at the expense of Euskal Herritarrok, the party seen as the political face of ETA. In past elections its refusal to condemn the terrorists' actions has not stopped EH attracting 200,000-plus votes. This time the party's representation was halved to seven seats.
Ibarretxe avoided gloating after his victory and said his door is open to all parties, though Euskal Herritarrok must first publicly condemn violence. His party's leader, Xabier Arzalluz, called for a start to dialogue "once the hatred and bitterness" of the campaign dies down. Arzalluz, whose bitterness toward Aznar is fully reciprocated, suggested a solution "along Irish lines." But any possibility of talking with terrorists was dismissed by the PP. "We will sit at a table against ETA," said Mayor Oreja, "but never at a table with them."
Meanwhile, terror continues. A week before the polls, ETA gunmen shot dead a PP politician as he walked to a soccer match with his son. Last week, a letter-bomb seriously injured journalist Gorka Landáburu, a frequent critic of ETA. Landáburu is as Basque as Basque can be: his father Francisco, also a journalist, was a leading nationalist who rose through the PNV ranks to become vice-'lehendakari' in exile. Which is yet more proof that terror is blind, and that newly elected lehendakari Ibarretxe is going to need all the help he can get to find the exit to one of Europe's darkest tunnels.