The incumbent Basque Nationalist Party suffered a major political setback in regional Basque elections. Without a majority, it may have to cede leadership for the first time since it got its own assembly 30 years ago.
Basques seemed tired of the self-determination discussion
Outgoing Basque Prime Minister Juan Jose Ibarretxe's Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which wants to loosen ties with Spain, won the regional elections on Sunday, March 1, but did not achieve enough of a majority to govern in a coalition with its pro-separatist partners.
The PNV came away with 30 seats in the 75-seat assembly, while the three Basque nationalist parties claimed a total of 38.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialist Party, on the other hand, could form a regional government if they enter into a coalition with the conservative People's Party (PP) and the new party UPD.
The Socialist Party came away with 24 seats, up from 18. The PP took 13 seats and the UPD one.
With the vote, the Basque region is distancing itself from the militant separatist group ETA
The conservatives said they were willing to join such a coalition in order to end nationalist rule in the Basque region, despite years of tension between the socialists and the PP on national level.
Voters tired of self-determination debate
The electoral success of Basque Socialist Party leader Patxi Lopez was considered to reflect voter fatigue with the ongoing separatist debate. It was also seen as a boost for Zapatero, whose support had suffered as a result of the country's deepening recession.
Analysts had attributed the Socialist Party's rise in popularity ahead of the vote to Zapatero's pledge to negotiate peace with the violent separatist group ETA.
However, an alliance between the Socialists and the PP was expected to cost Zapatero's minority government the support of the PNV in the national parliament, which would force him to find new partners.
A coalition between the Socialists and PNV is also plausible, but unlikely, as Lopez has clashed with Ibarretxe over the latter's pet project of holding self-determination referendums.
A hefty blow to Basque separatists
Spanish daily El Mundo called the election result the opening of a "new era" for the troubled northern region of 2.1 million residents and a "great setback" for Ibarretxe.
Granted regional autonomy in 1979, the Basque region has been governed by the PNV ever since.
There would be "no more room in the Basque parliament for sovereignty plans or... complicity with terrorism," commented the daily El Pais.
ETA, which has been responsible for more than 820 deaths since 1968, is not officially supported by any of the Basque political parties. But critics of Basque nationalism have long accused nationalist politicians of being in cahoots with the terrorist group.
Ibarretxe had campaigned for self-determination referendums
Last month, Spain's Supreme Court had banned two nationalist Basque parties from participating in Sunday's election due to their ties to Batasuna, the outlawed political wing of ETA.
Conservatives regain power in Galicia
Elections were also held in the north-western Galicia region, where the PP was expected to form a government after getting an absolute majority.
The conservatives will thus restore their traditional domination in Galicia, after four years of rule by a coalition of Socialists and Galician nationalists.
The Galician result was seen as a blow to Zapatero and as a boost to PP leader Mariano Rajoy, whose leadership had been questioned after two successive national election defeats and over corruption allegations affecting his party.