Prime Minister Aznar (L) with the
president of the Popular Party in
the Basque Country, Carlos Iturgaitz.

The separatist Batasuna party has been banned for three years by Judge Baltasar Garzon, who accused it of supporting the outlawed armed separatist group ETA.

It is the first time since the 1975 death of dictator General Francisco Franco that a political party has been banned.

Although Batasuna has angered many Spanish politicians for its refusal to condemn ETA bomb attacks, the party denies any links with the armed group.

The party's former leader, Arnaldo Otegi, had warned the regional government that siding with Madrid, or Judge Garzon against Batasuna would have "undesirable consequences", but he did not elaborate on what may happen next.

New alliance

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has called for the Socialist Party (PSOE) to put aside their differences and form an alliance in the Basque Country to keep Basque nationalists from running town councils.

Otegi: Undesirable
consequences

Earlier, socialist regional leader Patxi Lopez criticized Aznar’s Popular Party's (PP) hard line approach in the Basque Country, which he said was aimed to win votes elsewhere in Spain. However, he left the door open to a political pact.
 
"The PP is playing with the Basque Country, and not in favor of it," he said, adding “we have not pacted with the PP for a year and a half, but a deal after May 25? Well, why not."

Aznar's ruling Popular Party has much at stake in Sunday's municipal vote across Spain.

The opposition parties could perform strongly as voters punish Aznar's unpopular support for the US-led war on Iraq and his government's mishandling of the Prestige oil slick last year.

Consequences

Batasuna traditionally attracts around 10% of Basque votes, so the ban will mean 250,000 people will now be denied their voting preference.
 
But in the last four years support has begun to dwindle for a party that at one time had a representative in the European Parliament.

In the face of the government crackdown, the closing act of Batasuna’s "campaign" in Bilbao on Saturday drew only a few hundred supporters.