By Marian Hens
BBC News, Madrid
Basques go to the polls on Sunday in a regional election which could set the Basque country on a new course.
Basque nationalists are expected to win the vote on Sunday
Central to the elections is the Basque regional government's plan to achieve self-rule verging on independence from Spain.
The project seeks to introduce Basque citizenship, an independent judiciary, a penal system and the power to sign international treaties.
It also stakes claims to Navarre and the French Basque region. Critically, it states that Basques have the right to secede - an assertion directly at odds with Spain's constitution.
The Spanish parliament in Madrid rejected the proposal, but Basque President - or Lehendakari - Juan Jose Ibarretxe is hoping strong voters' support on Sunday for his nationalist coalition will force the Spanish government to negotiate.
After 25 years in power in this wealthy northern region, Mr Ibarretxe's Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) is expected to win again. Victory by a broad majority could strengthen his apparent determination to push ahead with a referendum on his plan, despite contravening Spanish legislation.
Critics of the proposal in the Basque country say it has polarised Basque society and that it has been cynically drafted to maintain the PNV's hold on power in the region.
The Basques opposed to independence are particularly worried about Mr Ibarretxe's partisan use of Basque identity, and the danger that his initiative would turn non-Basques into second-class citizens in the small region of two million people.
In the last week of campaigning, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero called the plan a dead letter and insisted that the Basque country "needs a Lehendakari who abandons the language of nationalism".
But in a conciliatory move, he has offered increased devolved powers if two-thirds of the Basque parliament are also in favour.
Such an upgrade would add to existing substantial autonomy from Madrid.
The Basque government collects taxes and there is a Basque police force, Basque education, a Basque health service, and a Basque government.
The second divisive issue is Batasuna, the political wing of Basque armed militants Eta. The party was banned in 2003 under a law drawn up to ensure that neither Eta nor its supporters would have any parliamentary presence.
Spain recently barred another pro-independence party, Aukera Guztiak, from the electoral lists, on the grounds that it too was deemed close to Eta.
The Spanish parliament rejected the Ibarretxe plan for greater autonomy
But an obscure pro-independence party, the Communist Party of the Basque Lands, that Batasuna has endorsed, is being allowed to run in Sunday's elections, and polls suggest it might win up to four seats.
Spain's opposition Popular Party urged the government to disqualify the party, arguing that it was a cover for Eta. But Mr Zapatero rejected the calls, on the basis that the government so far had no evidence it was linked to the armed separatist group.
"We cannot engage in preventive bans," he said.
Fear on streets
After being behind more than 800 deaths from bombings and shootings across Spain since the late 1960s, Eta today seems much weaker. Low-intensity violence has continued, but the group has not killed anyone since 2003.
Joint raids by French and Spanish police have netted dozens of Eta suspects, including its top leaders, over recent years and busted many of the group's hideouts in southern France.
Eta has not killed anyone since 2003, but its attacks continue
Tough anti-terrorist laws, implemented in 2002 to crush the Basque insurgency, have also helped stamp out Eta violence.
But the shadow of the armed group still hangs over the elections. In the streets of San Sebastian, fear is tangible.
"This is a community under threat. Our society is made up of nationalists and non-nationalists, we are all Basques and we should not make that distinction. I am a fluent Basque speaker and I shouldn't have had to suffer as I did when Eta threatened me," says Mikel.
"I think that the Basque country now has a historical opportunity to change after 25 years of a nationalist regime which has been unable to handle our main problem here - the lack of freedom. The political parties and the citizens who do not agree with nationalist ideals are hunted by Eta terror," adds Joseba, a Socialist voter.
But polls suggest that political change at the helm of the Basque country is unlikely and observers expect the deadlock between the Basque government and the ruling Socialists in Madrid to continue.