An internal rift between Popular Party (PP) hardliners and members of Mariano Rajoy’s government erupted on Monday during the party’s weekly national committee meeting. According to PP sources, the disagreement arose over the possible release of a convicted ETA kidnapper who is said to be terminally ill.
The fierce debate - unusual for the PP, which is more accustomed to listening to what the party leader has to say without voicing disagreements - came on the heels of recent comments made in the European Parliament by MEP Jaime Mayor Oreja, who criticized the Rajoy government for agreeing to allow Iosu Uribetxeberría Bolinaga to ask the High Court for early release.
Mayor’s intervention in parliament, including his comments that the decision helps strengthen ETA, angered many in Rajoy’s administration, especially Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz.
Using a gentler approach, Madrid regional premier Esperanza Aguirre rushed to Mayor Oreja's defense. She acknowledged that the Cabinet’s August 17 decision to give Uribetxeberría Bolinaga a special status to allow him to apply for early release was legal but said there was room for another decision, one that should have been taken.
The common front between Mayor Oreja and Aguirre supports the notion that there is a bloc within the PP that is deeply concerned over the prime minister’s decisions regarding Uribetxeberría Bolinaga.
The ETA terrorist, who is serving a 32-year sentence for the 1998 kidnapping of prison director José Antonio Lara, was granted third-degree status by the ministry, which enables him to apply for early release before the High Court. A health panel at the Zaballa prison in Álava, where Uribetxeberría is being held, has recommended that the ETA terrorist be allowed to appeal to the court after reviewing a medical report issued by Donostia Hospital, which concluded that the inmate’s cancer was “very serious” and “irreversible.”
Common front supports the notion that there is a bloc that is deeply concerned over the prime minister’s decisions
A subsequent report prepared by public prosecutors concluded that Uribetxeberría’s cancer is not terminal, and that he can continue receiving treatment while serving out his sentence.
During the PP meeting, Rajoy came out in defense of his interior chief, who also got the support of Foreign Minister Juan Manuel García-Margallo.
Fernández Díaz reportedly argued that similar decisions were taken by Mayor Oreja when he served as interior minister during the administration of PP Prime Minister José Maria Aznar. But the MEP immediately responded saying that the circumstances then were entirely different.
Mayor was reportedly unhappy when Fernández Díaz reiterated that the Basque terrorist organization had been defeated. The MEP responded saying that through Bildu, the Basque radical abertzale left party that was legalized thanks to a Constitutional Court decision in May, ETA was at the point of winning the upcoming regional elections.
He went on to say that Rajoy’s decision has angered the victims of terrorism groups, which make up a hefty force of PP voters.
Party sources also said that Antonio Basagoiti, the leader of the PP Basque party, tried to calm the tension by asking for unity before the October 21 regional elections to help stop the independence supporters who support Bildu and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV).
The PP has not had such a tense meeting since 2008, when Rajoy lost the elections and his leadership was being challenged by Madrid regional premier Esperanza Aguirre.
After Monday’s meeting, PP secretary general María Dolores de Cospedal played down the incident, claiming that not one PP member questioned the government’s anti-terrorism policy.