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Socialists and opposition downplay role of peace process at the polls

Both Rubalcaba and Rajoy hail victory for democrats over Basque extremists

ETA's announcement last Thursday that it is abandoning its "armed struggle," as it describes 43 years of terrorist attacks that left 829 people dead, has managed to create some consensus among leaders of Spain's mainstream parties. Despite decades of fierce public attacks on each other over antiterrorist policy, the ruling Socialists have been careful to credit "all democrats" for this latest breakthrough, while Popular Party (PP) leader Mariano Rajoy made a point of talking about a need to "rise to the occasion" and avoid "sterile debates."

"The unity of democrats has taken us to the final victory against barbarity," wrote Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the Socialist prime-ministerial candidate, in an article published in EL PAÍS. "This is what allows us to say that we don't owe the terrorists anything. This is what we can proudly claim in the name of Basque society and all Spaniards, who resisted the blackmail of terror with infinite patience and restraint, showing the international community an image of a serious, modern, democratic country that can skillfully and intelligently resolve an extremely complex problem of political violence that festered for over 40 years."

Although the more conservative sectors of the PP hold that Rubalcaba will try to use this event as an electoral weapon, a Metroscopia poll for EL PAÍS shows that the impact on election results will be minimal: 55 percent of respondents said the announcement is a victory attributable to both parties in their fight against terrorism, and there is hardly any difference between Socialist and PP voters in this respect.

"If the definitive end to violence had an electoral impact, it would be minimal," agreed Rubalcaba aides, contradicting some theories that ETA's decision is meant to help the ruling Socialists get better results in the November 20 elections they are widely anticipated to lose because of the economic crisis.

Even PP leader Mariano Rajoy is seeking to play down these theories, and asked for a curb on "speculation, frivolity and funny notions."

At the weekend, Rajoy said, "This is good news. It is a victory for Spanish society and the victory will be complete when ETA dissolves irreversibly. [...] It is now the time to be calm, to show greatness and to plan for a future based on the union of all Spaniards."

The regional leaders of both main parties in the Basque Country also had words to say about an announcement that is widely viewed with relief but also skepticism, as ETA has not explained how or when it plans to actually turn in its weapons and disband. Also hanging in the air is whether ETA will eventually obtain anything on its wish list, such as early release for some convicts.

Antonio Basagoiti, the Basque PP leader, categorically denies that a Rajoy government would sit down with ETA to discuss such issues, despite the terrorists' public call last Thursday on Spain and France to open a direct dialogue to "resolve the consequences of the conflict."

"We don't owe ETA anything. A Rajoy government is not contemplating that, and I imagine neither would a Rubalcaba government. ETA is the only one that has to prove anything, not the democrats."

Meanwhile, regional leader Patxi López of the Basque Socialist Party said that "we cannot forget how we got here, lest we make a mistake in how we need to proceed from here."