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Why the ‘Basque agenda’ matters in Spanish politics

No one who crosses Bilbao's Arenal Bridge to enter the city's old quarter can miss the massive banner bearing Arnaldo Otegi's face. Given the predominance of his mug on the sign for EH Bildu, the Basque Country's leading separatist party, you could be forgiven for assuming that Mr. Otegi is actually on the ballot in Sunday's regional elections. But he's not – at least not literally.

Fresh out of prison after serving a six-year sentence for attempting to revive the outlawed political wing of the Basque terrorist group ETA, Mr. Otegi had sought to run for a seat in the Basque parliament until a local electoral commission blocked his candidacy, a ruling upheld this month by Spain's constitutional court. Still, his presence, and what it symbolizes, looms large.

Opinion: Spain looks to Canada for some clarity on separatism

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Read more: Brexit breathes new life into separatism

It has been five years since ETA declared a permanent ceasefire, ending nearly five decades of bombings, assassinations and kidnappings that took the lives of more than 800 in a region of barely two million people. While Mr. Otegi's supporters praise him for negotiating the ceasefire, his critics argue that he has not yet renounced his ETA past enough to merit voters' trust or respect.

That does not mean Mr. Otegi, EH Bildu's de facto leader, won't end up playing a critical role in determining the Basque Country's political future after Sunday's election for the 75-seat regional parliament. Opinion polls predict a second-place finish for the left-wing EH Bildu, behind the centre-right Basque Nationalist Party, which is headed for a plurality of seats and might need Bildu's support to govern.

For a Canadian visitor, Spain offers a reminder that separatist parties take many forms. But wherever they are found, they dictate the terms of political debate, whether they are on the upsurge, as in Spain's Catalonia region, or are proverbial bridesmaids, as in the Basque Country. They force their peers to prove their nationalist credentials, whether they want to or not.

The Basque Country is a case in point. Mr. Otegi is pushing for a three-party nationalist coalition that includes the Basque wing of Podemos and a referendum on Basque independence within the coming mandate.

Podemos is the Madrid-based leftist upstart whose national electoral breakthrough shattered Spain's two-party system and left acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, of the centre-right People's Party, unable to form a government despite two elections in the past year.

A third election will be held in December unless Mr. Rajoy can cobble together a viable coalition by the end of October.

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Sunday's Basque vote could seal Mr. Rajoy's fate. The Basque Nationalist Party holds five seats in Spain's parliament. A deal under which BNP Leader Inigo Urkullu agrees to back Mr. Rajoy nationally in exchange for PP support in the Basque parliament could break the deadlock in Madrid and enable Mr. Urkullu to hold on to power in the Basque Country without turning to EH Bildu or Podemos.

As conservatives, Mr. Urkullu and Mr. Rajoy have a lot in common. But they differ plenty on how much autonomy the Basque Country needs.

Despite its name, the Basque Nationalist Party does not seek separation. It would be happy with a devolution of more power from Madrid, even though the Basque Country already has more autonomy than any other Spanish region. It also happens to have the country's healthiest economy, lowest debt and best public services – you could eat off Bilbao's immaculate streets.

Still, identity inevitably overtakes economics in any discussion of Basque politics. Basque Podemos leader, Pilar Zabala (whose brother was an ETA member tortured and assassinated by a state-sponsored death squad in the 1980s), is pushing for a Spanish version of Canada's Clarity Act to define the terms of a referendum on the Basque Country's political future. Mr. Urkullu has indicated he could support such an act, but adds that it would be up to Madrid to pass it. That is not happening as long as Mr. Rajoy is in charge, even if only nominally.

The People's Party is old-school, with its support rooted in rural, conservative Spain. It insists that any move by Catalonia or the Basque Country to seek independence or more autonomy, through a referendum or otherwise, would be illegal under Spain's constitution. Mr. Urkullu has said he won't support a government that doesn't deal with the "Basque agenda." This must all come to a head, eventually.

Meanwhile, Mr. Otegi, who will be eligible to run for office in 2021, is not going anywhere.

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