(Updates with comment in seventh, eighth paragraphs, poll details in 11th.)
Oct. 21 (Bloomberg) -- Basque terror group ETA’s move to lay down its arms prompted a “restrained” welcome from Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as opposition leader Mariano Rajoy called for proof that the group is disbanding.
ETA, which has killed more than 800 people in a four-decade fight for independence from Spain, called a “definitive end to its armed activity” in a statement posted late yesterday on the website of Basque newspaper Gara. Zapatero said the move was of “transcendent importance,” accepting for the first time a statement from ETA, which has a record of breaking cease-fires.
“Even as history obliges us to be restrained, let’s enjoy the satisfaction of the victory of democracy, law, and reason,” he told reporters in Madrid. His office issued a dossier entitled “ETA is over.”
Zapatero has traditionally responded to statements from ETA, which started its campaign of shootings and bombings when Spain was a dictatorship in 1968, by saying they don’t go far enough. The latest move by the group comes one month before a general election that pits Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, who fought ETA as the Socialist government’s interior minister until July, against Rajoy of the opposition People’s Party.
Rajoy, who polls indicate will win the election on Nov. 20, struck a more cautious note, saying while the statement was “an “important step,” he still needed to see proof.
“Spaniards will only be completely at ease once ETA has been irreversibly dissolved and completely dismantled,” Rajoy, also a former interior minister, told reporters. He said the announcement was an “important step,” distancing himself from members of his party who played down the announcement and criticized the government’s handling of the issue.
The statement will have a limited impact on the outcome of the election, according to Antonio Barroso, a London-based analyst at Eurasia Group, which monitors political risk.
“Rajoy and Rubalcaba are going to be very careful not to politicize the issue,” said Barroso, a former government pollster. “Rajoy knows that reacting badly to this could hurt him in the polls, and that’s why he’s being so prudent.”
Rajoy’s PP is set to win as many as 190 of the 350 seats in Spain’s parliament in the general election, according to a poll by El Pais on Oct. 16. Zapatero’s Socialist Party may see its representation cut to 115 lawmakers, its worst-ever result, the poll showed. The dossier issued by Zapatero’s office detailed the Socialists’ efforts against ETA and criticizing the PP.
Spaniards care more about the 21 percent unemployment rate than terrorism, according to a poll by the state-run Center for Sociological Research in September. More than 60 percent said unemployment was Spain’s biggest problem, compared with 0.2 percent who said it was “terrorism and ETA.” That’s the same percentage of people who said drugs were the main concern.
“The economy is going to determine this election and on that, the Socialist party looks set to lose,” Barroso said.
ETA, whose initials stand for Basque Homeland and Freedom, aimed to carve an independent nation out of northern Spain and south western France. It announced in January a permanent ceasefire that the Spanish government said didn’t go far enough. Rubalcaba, interior minister at the time, said the only statement the government wanted to see was one that declared “the end, in an irreversible and definitive way” of ETA.
ETA’s move to renounce violence may strengthen Bildu, a party that backs Basque independence and denies links to ETA, which ran candidates in the May municipal election and is expected to do the same in the national poll.
Zapatero has hardened his line against the group since the peace talks he initiated collapsed in 2006, when ETA bombed a car park at Madrid’s Barajas airport, killing two people. Police have made 100 arrests of suspected ETA members since that cease- fire was broken, and at least seven alleged leaders have been detained in the last two years, according to the Interior Ministry. ETA hasn’t killed anyone in almost three years, according to the government.
An end to violence may aid the economy of the region that borders France and includes the cities of San Sebastian and Bilbao. The region is Spain’s richest in terms of gross domestic product per capita and has the country’s lowest unemployment rate at half the national average.
Spain, the country in continental Europe most affected by domestic and international terrorism, has suffered from ETA violence for more than a generation. ETA was formed to fight the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, who suppressed the Basque people and banned teaching of their language. In 1973, the group killed Franco’s prime minister and likely successor Admiral Luis Carrero-Blanco in a Madrid car bombing.
--With assistance by Sharon Smyth in Madrid, Editors: Craig Stirling, Andrew Davis
To contact the reporter on this story: Emma Ross-Thomas in Madrid at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Craig Stirling at email@example.com