BILBAO, Spain - A new leftist Basque party with a goal of independence from Spain looks like making a strong showing on Sunday when people vote in elections without the threat of violence for the first time in more than 40 years.
In most parts of Spain, the election build-up has been dominated by worries over the country's economic plight, especially high unemployment and cuts in public spending. Mariano Rajoy of the centre-right People's Party is expected to win the contest and usher in an era of even more hardship.
But in the Basque Country, traditionally one of Spain's more prosperous regions, unemployment is relatively low and people are enjoying a new political scenario.
The armed separatist group ETA announced an end to decades of armed struggle in October and the new party, called Amaiur, is pursuing its quest for an independent Basque homeland through peaceful means.
While the rest of Spain talks about unemployment and the economy, the Basque Country is also talking about Amaiur and what it means, peace or ETA, said Ivan Redondo of the Redondo political consultancy based in Madrid.
Amaiur is positioning itself as the party of peace.
Amaiur, a new coalition of Basque left-wing parties with separatist sympathies, won unprecedented control of city halls under the name of Bildu in local elections in May.
Bildu was the second-most popular party in the Basque Country, taking a quarter of votes after winning support throughout the fractured left and from separatists disillusioned with the moderate Basque Nationalist Party, which some saw as too willing to strike deals with the central government.
Polls show Amaiur could win five seats in the lower house, the same number as the long-established Basque Nationalist Party, a strong enough representation to be able to present bills and have a voice in weekly debates with the prime minister.
But it is unclear how the new party, some of whose members have scarce political experience, would take their separatist agenda to Madrid.
Amaiur has also called on the government to release ETA prisoners or move them closer to their families, and to cut the military presence in the Basque Country, home to more than 2 million people.
We will confront projects democratically and look for agreement, but we won't spend all day (in Parliament) because the two-party system won't approve anything that we could try to present, Inaki Antiguedad, who heads Amaiur's ticket in the Basque province Vizcaya, told Reuters.
Rajoy, tipped to be the next prime minister, was adamantly opposed to separatist talks with ETA but analysts now see political dialogue with parties such as Amaiur as inevitable.
However, given Spain's high unemployment and the risk that it will become the next victim of the euro zone debt crisis, Rajoy is likely to focus his agenda on more economic issues.
If Amaiur does achieve a positive outcome on Sunday, the party is likely to set its eyes on the presidency of the Basque autonomous community and could call for regional elections, not due for another two years, to be brought forward.
ETA cast a dark shadow over the Basque Country and the rest of Spain with a campaign of shootings and bombings that killed more than 800 people.
Its fight began in the days of General Francisco Franco's dictatorship, when Basques faced state repression. But as the Basque region gained more autonomy in democratic Spain and the violence continued, its support waned. A wave of arrests, including of senior leaders, has also weakened it.
In October, it declared an end to its armed struggle and called on the Spanish and French governments to start talks to resolve the conflict.
(Writing by Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Angus MacSwan)