A regional election for the Parliament of the Basque Autonomous Community was held on 12th July. The Basque Nationalist Party (Renew) was the election winner and got 31 seats (+3), despite losing 50,000 votes. EH Bildu achieved an outstanding result with an increase of four seats and 6% of the vote.
Since the 2016 elections, PNV (Renew) and PSE-EE (S&D) have shared a minority government and have, more often than not, relied upon the support of the PP (EPP) to pass critical pieces of legislation and their budget.
The election on 12th July was a snap election, as the due date would have been October 2020. But in February, the Lehendakari (President) of the BAC decided to call the election for 5th April. That election had to be called off due to the Coronavirus crisis, and, as soon as the state of emergency was lifted, the Lehendakari called a new election.
In both cases, the decision to move the elections forward was to do with the partisan position of the parties in government. In April, they were trying to consolidate the gains every poll was giving them to get a majority, and in July, they wanted to avoid the possible backlash from the COVID-19 crisis.
The Basque Parliament is composed of 75 deputies representing citizens from the three provinces of the Basque Autonomous Community. Each province (Araba, Gipuzkoa and Biscay) elects 25 deputies, despite them having very different population levels. The elections are held using closed-list proportional representation, with seats allocated on a provincial basis using the D’Hondt method and a 3% threshold for each province.
The election campaign was carried out under difficult conditions due to COVID-19. No mass meetings took place, and direct contact with voters was very limited. Media coverage was also lower than usual.
There were a number of issues, but overall, the campaign was a low-profile campaign.
The COVID-19 crisis, and the management of it, was a defining issue, and the upcoming crisis was broadly discussed during the campaign.
The collapse of a landfill over a highway last February, burying two workers who remain missing, was also an important point. The landslide of the rubbish dump uncovered the dubious procedures in place on the site and became a political issue.
The management of both crises has revealed the limitations of the Basque self-government and the current government, as their responses have been slow and restricted by their lack of powers.
Finally, we should note that the campaign and its narratives were heavily influenced by the polls. PNV was portrayed in every poll as an unbeatable party, while EH Bildu was under-represented. This may have gone against PNV, as it may have demobilised some of its voters. But it also deprived opposition parties of winning narratives, as the general mood was that the PNV victory was inevitable.
Turnout and COVID-19 Disruption
Turnout plummeted to 52.86%, the lowest turnout ever in a Basque Autonomous Community election. Election turnout has been steadily decreasing since 2001, but it has never fallen to this extent. COVID-19-related fears seem to be the most logical reason for this, but the late date of the election, in mid-July during the holiday season, might also have had an impact.
The election was held under special health conditions: mandatory face masks at polling stations (which are mandatory indoors in any case), use of hand sanitiser and restrictions on maximum capacity.
The ruling party refused to call off the election despite a COVID-19 outbreak in a town of 10,000 inhabitants during the week leading up to the election and the fact that the overall R0 had risen to more than 1.8 in the Basque Autonomous Community. People with COVID-19 symptoms were denied the right to vote, as the deadline to request a proxy vote (only available for ill people) ended on 2nd July.
PNV had a very sweet but slightly sour night. They won the election clearly, obtaining 31 seats and winning with an extra seat in each province. They are not expecting any problems in forming a government with PSE-EE (PSOE), but they did lose some 50,000 votes. The gap to EH Bildu closed by 75,000 votes. which is still significant, but the Sunday results were consistent in the three provinces and showed a steady trend over the last four elections.
EH Bildu’s goals were to increase both its number of votes and seats, from the 225,000 (21.1%) votes and 18 seats it achieved in the 2016 elections, and to maintain the growth trend established across recent elections in April, May and November 2019, which saw EH Bildu go from strength to strength.
Despite the collapse in turnout, which went from 60.02% to 52.86%, EH Bildu obtained four more seats and 23,516 extra votes. This confirmed EH Bildu’s increasing strength and reinforced its role as an alternative to the current government.
PSE-EE got one more seat, losing 4,000 votes. Taking into account the low turnout, this should be considered a good result, but their expectations had been set higher by the polls.
The election result was disappointing for Elkarrekin Podemos. They lost five seats and were reduced to six. Podemos has had four different secretaries general in the Basque Autonomous Community since its first internal election in 2015.
PP had a very bad night, continuing on their downwards trajectory. They lost four seats and kept just five.
Vox got into parliament with one seat, as the low turnout made it easier. It’s not the first time that "radical" pro-Spanish options have obtained representation through the low threshold in the province of Araba. Their presence will pose a challenge for the rest of the parties, as it is important to agree on how to prevent them from using the Parliament as a loudspeaker.
Possible Majorities and Political Outlook
Although both PNV and PSE made it clear throughout the campaign that their coalition suits both parties, the results present interesting possibilities regarding alternative majorities:
- PNV + EH Bildu (53/75): Pro-sovereignty/independence parties carry over 66% of the seats.
- PNV + PSE-EE (41/75): The current coalition government would have a majority.
- EH Bildu + PSE-EE + Elkarrekin Podemos (38/75): A left-wing majority would be possible. Such a coalition would face a number of difficulties, but the three parties have already reached agreements regarding the COVID-19 situation and labour legislation, among other issues.
If, despite the challenges that lie ahead (COVID-19, economic crisis, etc.), there is a return to a PNV/PSE-EE coalition government, we will unfortunately see a government that will continue the same policies that have brought us to the current situation.
EH Bildu has stated that it is willing to continue its work to promote an alternative and explore every possible agreement for the Basque Country so that it can face the coming challenges under a government with the ability to build the country we deserve.