international analysis and commentary

Spanish democracy and ETA’s long decline


In a belated acknowledgment of ETA’s marginalization, the group recently declared a “definitive cessation of its armed activity”.  In 1973, after months of painstaking preparation and not without a certain dose of luck, ETA managed to assassinate Luís Carrero Blanco, Francisco Franco’s right-hand man and the dictator’s likely successor. This audacious attack sent shockwaves through the Basque Country. The Basques, having for decades suffered the repression of the ultranationalist Franco regime, could now believe in the electrifying notion that there were groups out there who were willing to take up arms against the oppressor. Almost forty years later, there is little to nothing left of the heroic image or great expectations that catapulted ETA into widespread popularity in the first years after Franco’s death. The unilateral ceasefire of October 2011 is the result of a long process in which state policies played an important role and is a good opportunity to stop and think about whether the Basque conflict holds any lessons for other democracies that are facing terrorist or insurgent threats.

The accepted wisdom among analysts and practitioners is that counterterrorism and counterinsurgency require a broad approach, meaning that addressing the grievances of the rebels and their constituency should go hand in hand with the deployment of the military or the police to disrupt the insurgents or terrorists. While ETA’s defeat does certainly not dispel the importance of the softer approach, it does show that, when applied under the right circumstances, a purely repressive approach can be effective as well. What matters, is the sequencing of the various tools that are used.

Spain is the most devolved major state in the world. The Spanish government in 1978 went out of its way to address Basque grievances by introducing the Basque Autonomy Statute, although this was not exclusively intended as a soft counterterrorism measure. The Basque Country then had its own parliament and police force, and its government could collect its own taxes and was granted the liberty to follow its own policies with regard to healthcare and education. The Basques thus gained a degree of autonomy that is unmatched in Europe, but they were not yet convinced of the legitimacy of the Spanish state. The problem was that the Spanish security apparatus was left largely untouched in the first post-Franco years. Using the same methods as before the caudillo’s death, the various police forces fought Basque separatism with a heavy-handedness and brutality that seemed to lend support to ETA’s argument that democracy in Spain was a thin veneer to hide what was in essence still a fascist dictatorship. Mistreatment of Basque prisoners, mass arrests and especially the use of illegal death squads to track down and kill ETA members severely undermined the legitimacy of the Spanish government in the eyes of the Basque population. This changed when the security apparatus was reformed, and in the mid- to late 1980s, the distrust of the Basques against the Spanish state began to subside.

The consolidation of Spanish democracy was crucial in the weakening of ETA’s appeal among the Basque population. The percentages of votes for political parties openly associated with ETA started a downward trend, and the popular revulsion against ETA’s violence increased. The latter was most clearly demonstrated in large protest marches against ETA in the 1990s. On several occasions, mostly after a high-profile terrorist attack, tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of Basques took to the streets to distance themselves from ETA’s methods. Polls showed that less and less people felt that ETA’s violent actions were necessary to achieve political change in the Basque Country. This was the setting in which the Spanish government could afford to treat ETA as a law enforcement problem.

The Spanish police, often in cooperation with the French police, scored major successes against ETA, beginning in 1986, when legendary ETA leader Txomin Iturbe was arrested. Another major victory took place in 1992, with the arrest José Luis Alvarez, Francisco Múdiga and José Arregui, the three most important ETA leaders at the time. Similarly, since 2008 ETA has seen the dismantlement of its most active cell as well as the apprehension of at least six major leaders, most of them from the group’s military branch. Meanwhile, the various administrations that came to power during this period all followed a “no concessions” policy, and refused to talk to ETA-representatives about anything other than disarmament procedures. Displaying a strong commitment to the hard line, the Aznar administration in 2002 even ended the social reintegration programs for ETA prisoners, who from then on had to find their way back into society without government support.

The effects of this hard line on ETA were considerable, as the group slowly but surely lost the ability to wage a violent campaign of any significance. The arrests drained the group of manpower and expertise, and these were not assets that could easily be replaced with the decrease in popular support. In the late 1990s, ETA was even forced to resort to kale borokka (street violence), for which it recruited youngsters to engage in what was little more than vandalism and ordinary street crime against ETA’s political enemies. Also, the group’s logistics became a problem. With the police constantly on its tail and the population increasingly unwilling to lend a hand, it became very difficult to store large quantities of weapons.

Deprived of any realistic prospect of political success, ETA’s membership began to lose morale. The cracks became visible in 2004, when a letter from a group of incarcerated leaders to ETA’s political chief Mikel Albizu was leaked to the press. In this letter, the prisoners suggested that perhaps it was time to admit that the armed struggle had failed and that ETA should consider switching to political action to generate popular support. An even more dramatic demonstration of the waning commitment to armed struggle came in late September this year, when 700 ETA prisoners issued a call to their leaders at large to end their violent campaign.

This brief examination of ETA’s confrontation with the Spanish state illustrates how accommodating measures in the earlier stages of the conflict made it possible for the Spanish government to successfully take a predominantly repressive approach later on. Thus, although the Basque Country’s history with terrorism has been long and painful, the lesson we can take away from it is really a hopeful one. We witnessed a post-dictatorial state that introduced democracy for a repressed minority, and showed that it is possible for new democracies to stand by a democratic polity while fighting off a threat the size of ETA, one of the most highly organized terrorist organizations in European history. This truly is, in the words of Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero, “a victory for democracy, law and reason”.