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Political instability adds to troubles in Spain's Basque region. Collapse of ruling party spurs early vote -- and no clear winner

After a summer of separatist bombings and shootings, the political scene in Spain's troubled Basque country looks particularly chaotic. A predicted call for elections, announced Friday by Basque Premier Jos'e Antonio Ardanza, followed a split in the ruling Basque Nationalist Party (PNV). Over the past several months, the PNV has been crumbling. Eleven members of the regional Parlaiment broke ranks with the PNV earlier this month and formed a new nationalist party. The new group, known simply as the Basque Nationalists, already numbers more than 300 members.

The split is viewed by Basque politicians and the national government as a sign that Spain's most violent region has also become the most politically unstable.

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Deputy Premier Alfonso Guerra Gonz'alez appeared to sum up general opinion as he expressed fears that the coming election ``would not make the Basque country any more governable.'' The election will be held Nov. 30 -- 15 months ahead of the end of the Parliament's term.

The call for elections breaks off a two year period of d'etente with Madrid, based on Premier Ardanza's legislative pact with the Socialist government of Prime Minister Felip'e Gonz'alez M'arquez. Following the walkout by PNV dissidents, the Socialists' pledge to support the Ardanza government was hardly comforting.

Owing to controversy over the Basque's agreement with Madrid on regional autonomy, the PNV cannot afford to be seen at the mercy of the Madrid-oriented partners. The current row with Madrid over increasing the Basque region's yearly contribution to the state budget was an added factor in the decision to call elections.

PNV leaders have been reluctant to hold elections at a time when internal divisions have seriously damaged the party's image. Whatever the outcome, the split probably means more fragmentation for Basque nationalist forces.

In the years before Spain's civil war began in 1936 and the ensuing dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, three main groups competed in the Basque political scene: the leftist socialists, the Madrid-leaning rightists, and the nationalists. Currently, the nationalists are divided into four groups: the establishment PNV, the extremist Herri Batasuna, the leftist Euzkadiko Ezkerra, and the PNV splinter group, the Basque Nationalists.

Moreover, the PNV split has undermined its position as the dominant force in Basque politics since the nation's return to democracy in 1977. Until now, as a moderate party, the PNV had managed to stave off more radical sentiment. Madrid government officials are now concerned that the coming elections will force parties to sharpen their differences. In the past, Basque parties have often resorted in times of trouble to more radical language to rally nationalist feeling and votes.

The 11 PNV defectors promise a strong stand on self-determination for the three Spanish Basque provinces, the neighboring partially-Basque province of Navarre, and three ancient French Basque provinces. Their claim is based on a ``confederal'' vision of the Basque country within Europe.

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The issue today still basically pits ``modernizers,'' who want to consolidate more autonomy for the region as a whole, against those who want more power for each province. The inflexible attitude of the PNV leadership largely contributed to the party split.

A majority win by any group looks unlikely, but despite the PNV's disarray, early elections may give it an advantage or two. First, they would not give the new party enough time to get its political act together. Also, in the aftermath of the PNV's split, former party president Carlos Garaicoetxea Urizza can be portrayed as the man who torpedoed the Basque nationalist movement.

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