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Tired of “killing himself for politics,” Basque PP leader walks away

Centrist politician opened the party to society, but at the cost of electoral clout

n May 2012, during preparations for the 13th Basque Popular Party Congress in Bilbao, Antonio Basagoiti approached his number two, Iñaki Oyarzábal, and told him: "I want to quit and leave the country." The secretary general of the regional branch asked him to reconsider, but the decision was made: "I owed it to my wife and daughters, all of whom were born with a bodyguard," says Basagoiti, who on Tuesday stepped down as leader of the Basque PP.

"Basagoiti is one of those people for whom politics has had a personal and financial cost," says a colleague of the scion of a family with business and banking interests. "He had everything and no need to accept an invitation to join a party where we know what suffering in silence means."

It was his aunt, Ascensión Pastor, then a senator, who urged Basagoiti to join the PP in 1995. A law graduate of Deusto University and a die-hard Athletic Bilbao fan - "the only thing I could agree with a [nationalist abertzale coalition] Bildu member on" - this lover of motorbikes and a good Cuban cigar could not bear any more for his daughters to be bullied in the schoolyard over their "fascist father."

In truth, say those that know him in politics and personally, Basagoiti has put up with "more than enough." And he has done so in silence until his final day in politics. Only after installing his successor, Arantza Quiroga, who will retain Oyarzábal as number two, has Basagoiti felt able to admit the truth: "I have killed myself for politics these last years."

"What really stands out is that he never had a bad word for anybody, even knowing that others did not feel the same way," says a PP colleague. Basagoiti does not have to worry about accounts being settled, either over former Basque PP leader María San Gil's challenge to Mariano Rajoy after the lost 2008 general elections, or the fight against ETA. The Gil affair led to Basagoiti's ascension to the regional leadership, an invitation he accepted in an uncomplicated manner despite an internal war waging within the party.

With the support of 82 percent of convention delegates in 2008 - in 2011 it rose to over 90 percent - Basagoiti took a risk in laying out a mandate to "open the party to society and play the role of centrality." He even retained Gil supporter Carmelo Barrio, precisely because of his sense of loyalty. But the favor has not been returned by Gil and her supporters, who criticized Basagoiti after the regional elections last October.

With 129,907 votes, 11.73 percent, and just 10 seats won, the result was the coup de grâce for Basagoiti's fading political fire. His agitprop style, seeking the young vote in a region now accustomed to living without fear of terrorism, was abandoned in the October ballot as Basagoiti became obsessed with the perceived separatism of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and the electoral threat of UPyD. "It didn't sound like him," said a market researcher. "He gave a more hardened speech, without the openness that characterized him."

When ETA declared a cease to armed action in 2011, Basagoiti was pictured in the street in Bilbao, cigar in hand. "The most difficult things remain; respect, cohabitation and recognizing the damage caused, which will not come for free," he said. But since then Basagoiti and his family have had more freedom to travel within the Basque Country and without: after the summer, Basagoiti is to take up a post with Grupo Santander in Mexico.