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Radical Basque Amaiur in bid for seat among Congress leaders

Popular Party handed a quandary after pro-sovereignty grouping stretches the spirit of the law

Radical Basque separatists are putting the newly elected, conservative-controlled Congress between a rock and a hard place.

Amaiur, a radical pro-sovereignty group that did well in the general elections of November 20, is now using a legal trick to try to form an official group of its own in Congress. The elasticity of congressional rules and a series of legal precedents suggest that it might get its way despite the majority party's real wishes.

The rules say that a party must have 15 percent of the vote in the region where it ran in order to request its own group on Congress' steering committee - which means more speaking time and greater power to put forward motions, among other privileges.

Failing to secure a group on the committee means sharing resources with all the other minority parties, thus greatly reducing a grouping's leverage.

Amaiur obtained six congressional representatives in the Basque Country and one in Navarre. On Tuesday, only the six Basque deputies officially took office, thus complying with the 15-percent requisite, and claimed their group. The Navarrese deputy, who did not make the cut, will take office in coming plenary sessions. The letter of the law was therefore respected, if not the spirit.

The decision now lies with the Mesa del Congreso, the committee in charge of house rules, which is dominated by the conservatives of the Popular Party (PP) after they swept to victory with an absolute majority in the November elections. Yet even if the PP ideologically opposes the notion of a congressional group for a party it widely views as a continuation of Batasuna, the outlawed wing of terrorist group ETA, it is unclear whether it can oppose the move.

For one thing, there is another minority party, Unión Progreso y Democracia (UPyD), that wants its own congressional group even if it falls very slightly short of the five percent of the national vote requested of parties with a nationwide constituency. If House leaders were to allow UPyD to form a group, they would be hard pressed to explain why Amaiur could not, even if it did not obtain fully 15 percent of the vote in Navarre.

On the other hand, it would be difficult to deny UPyD its own group, considering it obtained over a million votes throughout the Spanish territory. Amaiur, by comparison, received 330,000, and then only in the Basque Country and Navarre regions.

A look at congressional history shows that other parties have been granted groups in the past despite not quite meeting all the requisites. During the last term, for instance, the Catalan republicans of ERC and the United Left coalition were allowed to join forces in the lower house and were given a group of their own.

Even if House officials were to deny Amaiur the right to a group based on a technicality, it is certain that the latter would appeal to the Constitutional Court, which has ruled in favor of other minority groups in similar situations in the past.