Secessionist violence doesn’t work. In the post-Second World War era, no secessionist movement has successfully challenged a contiguous state of which it is a part without engaging in what is known as institutional methods – for example, electoral politics.

Those methods may be married with protests and the like, but there is no evidence that violence helps secessionists achieve their goals.

It is a lesson often learned too late and too reluctantly by too many blood-soaked secessionist movements across the world. Consider the thousands lost in The Troubles, lives senselessly taken and families torn apart in violence that achieved nothing – lives that can never be restored and families that can never be made whole.

The same lesson in the futility and pointlessness of secessionist violence took even longer to be learned in the Basque Country, where secessionism of a democratic hue is making a quiet resurgence in the peace following the disbandment of the terrorist organisation, ETA.

Basque nationalism began with the Gamazada in 1893, a popular reaction in the province of Navarre against the efforts of Spanish finance minister Germán Gamazo to levy in the Basque provinces the same taxes levied in other Spanish provinces, suppressing what remained of Basque autonomy.

Tens of thousands marched against the Spanish government, but in the end, Basque autonomy was preserved only by the Spanish state’s unwillingness to intervene militarily – for fear of a generalised rebellion and civil war – and the resignation of Gamazo following the outbreak of the Cuban War of Independence.

The Gamazada was a formative experience for the Basques and for Sabin Arana particularly, whose writings are considered the foundational texts of Basque nationalism and who founded the Basque Nationalist Party in 1895.

In its early years, the Basque Nationalist Party advocated for the independence of all seven provinces in France and Spain, considered to constitute the Basque Country. But by 1916, it had adopted a more moderate stance advocating Basque autonomy within Spain.

Inevitably, splits among Basque nationalists emerged. The most prominent was the split from the Basque Nationalist Party of Basque Nationalist Action in 1930 – the first Basque nationalist party to run on a socialist platform, marking the birth of what we now refer to as the Abertzale (literally “fond of the fatherland”) left-wing Basque nationalism.

ETA, which stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, Basque Homeland and Libert’ in English, was founded in 1959 by students frustrated by the Basque Nationalist Party’s moderate politics.

Over the next half-century, ETA orchestrated a campaign of terrorist violence against the Spanish state and civilians.

Much of the Abertzale left fell into ETA’s orbit, coming to be collectively known as the Basque National Liberation Movement. The most prominent of these political groups, by the 1980s and 1990s following Spain’s transition to democracy, was Herri Batasuna.

In the two decades of Herri Batasuna’s activity, it was eclipsed by the anti-ETA Basque Nationalist Party in both Spanish and Basque regional elections. Its high water mark was 18.2% of the vote and 13 of 75 seats in the 1990 Basque regional elections.

In contrast, the Basque Nationalist Party has governed the Basque Country continuously since 1980, except for a 2009-12 Socialist minority government.

The Basque National Liberation Movement began to fall apart in the late 1990s and collapsed in the 2000s. ETA broke a 1998 ceasefire in late 1999, ending negotiations with the Spanish government that the success of the peace process in Northern Ireland had inspired.

ETA resumed and intensified its campaign of terrorism. Herri Batasuna dissolved, and its successor coalition, Euskal Herritarrok, won the Abertzale left’s lowest-ever vote share at the 2001 Basque regional elections.

In 2003, the reformed Batasuna became the first political party banned since the transition to democracy due to its links to ETA. For the remainder of the 2000s, what remained of the Abertzale left political apparatus languished, and a slew of additional parties were banned in the late 2000s, including Basque Nationalist Action.

ETA’s terrorist campaign finally ended in 2010, followed in 2011 with a declaration that the group had ceased all armed activity. It had unilaterally disarmed by April 2017 and completely disbanded in April 2018.

The number of deaths ETA is responsible for is contested, but the Basque and Spanish governments agree that the total is at least 829 (343 of those murdered by ETA were civilians).

It has only been since the end of ETA’s campaign of violence that Basque secessionists have begun to make serious inroads in public support. EH Bildu, the modern incarnation of the post-ETA Abertzale left, won a quarter of the votes in the October 2012 Basque regional elections. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength.

In July 2020, EH Bildu recorded the highest vote share ever won by the Abertzale left in a regional election, 27.6%, taking 21 of 75 seats. In this year’s Spanish general election, they won just shy of 24% of the vote and took five seats, level with the Socialists and the Basque Nationalist Party.

In a poll released last week, EH Bildu was found to be leading with 32.5% of the vote to the Basque Nationalist Party’s 32.1% and the Socialists’ 17%. This was the first poll ever to record a lead for the Abertzale left.

If borne out in next year’s elections, not only would this level of support mark a remarkable resurgence for Basque secessionism, it would also cement a dominant Basque nationalist majority in the Basque Parliament and potentially create space for the Abertzale left to enter government for the first time.

EH Bildu is not free of ETA’s taint. It is the political successor to Herri Batasuna. Dozens of its candidates in next year’s regional elections have been previously convicted of terror-related crimes. Its political successes and the presence of former ETA members and collaborators in its ranks serve to repeatedly reopen the wounds of ETA’s victims.

No number of apologies from its leadership will fix that.

But its successes in the post-ETA era also embody an instructive lesson for secessionists everywhere. There is only one ethical and viable path to establishing a new state for your people – persuasion and democracy. Basque secessionists may be far from achieving that goal today but have made greater strides towards doing so in the past decade of peace than in half a century of violence.