Spain in the 1990’s Part 2
The new government immediately found itself having to face severe social tensions following the first austerity measures: the freezing of public service salaries had in fact caused strikes and protests (October-November), the cuts in education spending had brought students and teachers to the streets (December), while in February 1997 a long strike by truckers paralyzed the town. Social opposition to the government’s austerity line did not prevent Aznar from obtaining parliamentary approval of his ‘economic stability plan’, with the IU voting against (April 1997). The crisis that had hit the PSOE did not seem to be resolved in the meantime: in June 1997González withdrew and was replaced at the secretariat by the moderate J. Almunia, defeated in turn by J. Borrell in the party’s primary elections (April 1998).
While in November 1997 the credibility of Aznar suffered a setback due to the statements of J. de la Rosa, a Catalan businessman involved in a trial for fraud and embezzlement of capital, which confirmed the rumors that emerged since the summer of one of his substantial funding for the PP in the campaign for the elections to the Catalan parliament in 1991, starting from the autumn the stability of the government was subjected to a severe test: PNV and CIU repeatedly announced the withdrawal of support for Aznar (the first, in September 1997 and then again in March 1998, on issues concerning funds allocated to the regions).
Meanwhile, in July 1998 the long procedural process of the GAL affair ended with the conviction, by the Supreme Court, of J. Barrionuevo, former Minister of the Interior, of R. Vera, former Secretary of State for Security and of J. Sancristóbal, former director general of state security, for kidnapping and embezzlement of public money, as well as minor convictions for nine other senior figures of the state and the PSOE.
The signs of crisis for the Aznar government, to which were added the results of the European elections of June 1999, with the resumption of the PSOE and the slight decline in the PP, did not change the political framework of the country, while within the socialist party they strengthened Secretary General J. Almunia, who was therefore elected Socialist candidate for the presidency of the government in July to replace Borrell, who retired in April. In December 1999the government, however, suffered the repercussions of the nationalist turn of the PNV, a turning point that had led the Basque nationalist party to make an agreement with the other independence forces of the region in the name of the right to self-determination: the PNV in fact withdrew its support to Aznar, accusing him of suspension, after the breaking of the truce by ETA (November), of negotiations with the terrorist organization. As far as the question of the Basque Country was concerned, the second half of the 1990s had been marked by an uninterrupted production of terrorist acts by the ETA which was striking now – with a different strategy than in the past when the victims were chosen above all among the security forces – local politicians and members of the ruling party (first the PSOE and then,1996, the PP), while, in order to finance itself, it resorted to systematic extortion from businessmen and entrepreneurs. The terrorist activity of ETA provoked a progressive distancing of Basque public opinion from the reasons of the independence movement, a distancing that was translated into harsh condemnation then expressed at national level in the massive demonstrations of July 1997 when, following the he murder by ETA of a young PP adviser, MA Blanco, hundreds of thousands of people (in Madrid alone they exceeded one million) demonstrated their protest by parading in the streets of the main cities of the Spain, including those of the Basque region. In the context of the progressive isolation of the ETA, in December 1997the Supreme Court had sentenced the 23 members of the management of Herri Batasuna (Unity of the People, HB), the political arm of ETA – which has always supported its autonomy from the terrorist organization – to seven years in prison each for collaboration with a gang armed. But a reversal of the trend seemed to take shape between the end of 1998 and 1999: the proclamation, by ETA, of a unilateral truce to close the 30 years of struggles for the independence of the Basque Country (September 1998) and a correction of the line by the HB, now critical of ETA’s destabilizing policy and favorable for the first time in its history to participate in local governments, followed the results of the regional elections (October). In addition to the strengthening of the PNV and the PP, the coalition of separatists, Euskal Herritarrok (EH) – which also included the HB – achieved an important success and, in December 1998, a new Basque government was formed consisting of PNV and EA (Eusko alkartasuna, born from a split of the PNV) with the external support of the EH; starting in June 1999Finally, the Aznar government initiated a series of meetings with the leaders of the Basque organization and in July the Constitutional Tribunal issued a sentence of acquittal of the directors of the HB in prison since December 1997. However, in November 1999 the ETA broke the truce, while the front of the nationalist parties was consolidated with the decision of the PNV to support the request for the right of the Basque Country to self-determination (December).
In international politics, the Spain already starting from the early nineties intensified relations with Portugal and with the countries of Latin America, especially through the Ibero-American summits which took place annually since 1991. In April 1997 Madrid contributed its own contingent to the multinational force in Albania, and in March-June 1999 it participated in the NATO intervention in Kosovo, obtaining the support of all political forces except the IU. The entry into the military structure of NATO (December 1997) revived the dispute with Great Britain over Gibraltar, which however reached moments of tension on several occasions during the nineties: in December 1997, however, London accepted the entry of the Spain into the military structure of the Atlantic alliance, declaring itself willing to deal with the question of Gibraltar separately through bilateral negotiations.
In the early months of 2000, despite the lack of an absolute majority in the Congress of Deputies that had always forced him to negotiate their external support with the nationalist parties, Aznar and his government seemed to enjoy a great consensus for having been able to ensure the country a government stability and important economic successes. The country’s economy had in fact experienced significant growth in the wake of the recovery already underway since 1994This growth had largely mitigated the costs of the austerity policy implemented by Aznar to comply with the commitments undertaken with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty. Indeed, even in Spain as in other European countries, the ‘challenge’ represented by the entry into the Economic and Monetary Union constituted a moment of strong national cohesion: the result of this political atmosphere was, for example, the agreement between trade unions and entrepreneurs in the field of labor law which concerned issues such as causes of dismissal or employment contracts of indefinite duration (April 1997). The legislative elections of March 2000 therefore awarded Aznar and his party a clear victory (44.6 % of the votes, against 34.1% of the PSOE, 5.5 % of the IU, 4.2 % of the CIU) which, by guaranteeing him an absolute majority in the Cortes, allowed him to govern without having to resort to the support of nationalist parties.