ZAPATERO IS TESTED by Basques, writes in a news analysis Renwick McLean, Spain's correspondent for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune:
The Basque country's declaration last week that it has the right to secede from Spain has pushed Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero toward the first domestic crisis of his tenure, political analysts say.Meanwhile, Zapatero has so far issued very tepid statements about this: he says he opposes, but doesn't say how:
Through nearly nine months in office, Zapatero has largely promoted policies that are solidly supported by the Spanish public, which has helped him to avoid major setbacks or controversies.
But critics say that his affinity for following the polls has kept him from taking on tough issues. Chief among these are the growing signs in recent months that the Basque country is moving toward an overt challenge to the central government's authority.
"Now it's time for him to respond," said an editorial in the Madrid daily El Mundo. "The coherence and decisiveness of his answer will determine, not only his own political future, but also the survival of the current federal model endorsed by the Spanish people."
The political principles invoked by Zapatero in his previous policy decisions offer little guidance on how he will handle this challenge, analysts say. Since taking office in April, Zapatero has stressed that the central policy of his government is to follow the will of the people. But now he finds himself staring at a possible constitutional standoff with a man making the same claim.
Juan José Ibarretxe, the president of the Basque country and the driving force behind the declaration last week, says that he is simply being a good democrat by proposing that the future of the region he governs be decided by its people and not by Madrid. As the leader of a democratic government, he says, he must follow the principle of majority rule.
Zapatero has used the same argument to fend off criticism of many of his policies, from withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq to sanctioning gay marriage. The looming conflict between the two men in many ways reflects an age-old question about democracy. What are the rights and powers of the minority in a system based on majority rule?
The Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said the Basque plan for greater independence from Spain "is not going to prosper".Which is probably not the right thing to do: when the plan is discussed in Madrid's Congress sometime in the future, it will certainly fail since both the Socialist and the Popular parties are against it and they hold the vast majority of seats. But then it will allow Ibarretxe and Basque ultra-nationalists to contend that it's been a political decision by the "evil Spaniards" which stopped the so-called legitimate will of the Basque people (as I mentioned, this is not the case, it's just that Basques opposing separation plans are intimidated, attacked and even killed, as they have been in several hundred cases during the last decades.) It would be much wiser to take the issue to the Constitutional Court and let the judiciary branch to rule on whether the secession plan is legal or not. And that, before any referendum takes place; under the violence and intimidation of Basques who oppose the plan, a referendum wouldn't reflect the real, free and authentic will of the Basque people. Of all of them.
In a a press conference in Seville, the Spanish premier added: "No-one is above the law."
[...] Though united with the Socialists in their opposition to the project, members of the PP nonetheless expressed disagreement on Sunday about the best method to derail it.
While urging Zapatero to refuse to meet with Ibarretxe, the PP argues in favour of the government immediately presenting a case against the plan before the Constitutional Court.
That option has been left to one side by the Socialist administration, which said at the weekend that it will wait until the project is voted on in Congress, presumably in February, before taking further action.