By Dick Nichols
Original Post Day: 3 February 2017
On January 21, in Bilbao’s hyper-modern Euskalduna Conference Centre, the Basque left pro-independence party Sortu concluded its refoundation congress by finalising the election of its 29-member national council.
The congress had brought together Sortu members from all parts of the divided Basque Country: its four southern districts in the Spanish state, presently covered by the regional administrations of Navarra and the Basque Autonomous Community (Euskadi) and its three northern districts in the French coastal department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques.
Only four members of the outgoing leadership elected at Sortu’s founding congress in 2013 were re-elected this time–the most public evidence of the “reset” that the leading organisation of the Basqueabertzale (patriotic) left had undergone over the past fourteen months.
The election result saw long-standing leader Arnaldo Otegi, political prisoner in a Spanish gaol until March last year, returned as secretary general, but a number of leaders elected in 2013 made way for a younger, more female, leadership team. The mainstream media speculated intensely as to what this meant as to “winners” and “losers” in the “closed universe” of the abertzale left.
Yet the final composition of the new national council was just one product of what Arkaitz Rodríguez, in charge of political action for Sortu, had called a “revolution in organisation, political culture and mentality” in an interview with the Diario Vasco on August 28 last year.
The position finally adopted, reflecting a discussion and vote involving around 7000 participants, was summed up in the congress resolution. It:
• Reaffirmed Sortu’s socialist identity: “On the road to a better world, the compass of socialism is fundamental as symbol of just socio-economic structures, feminism, care of the earth, radical democracy and equality—setting as horizon the liberation of all peoples and the overcoming of all oppression.”
• Emphasised the progressive dynamic of the democratic struggle for self-determination of nations, especially in a European political context marked by the advance of the racist right. “Now that neo-liberalism is trying to sacrifice all ties of solidarity and community to the logic of the market it would be a serious mistake to leave the banner of attachment to people or community in the hands of the right…in our country liberation as a people is the key to social change.”
• Set 2026 as the target date for the construction of a sovereign Basque Republic “from the left”, with the intervening years to be dedicated to building up a social majority in favour of independence (presently supported by only 25% in the Basque Autonomous Community according to the University of the Basque Country’s October Euskobarometro). National councillor Pello Otxandiano had previously described the 2026 date as “a sort of injunction to ourselves”;
• Made a priority of reviving social mobilisation against the effects of the economic crisis, including, according to the one successful amendment to the political line, “the recovery of spaces of disobedience and confrontation”;
• Stressed the need for an unflagging campaign to return Basque political prisoners in Spanish jails and activists in exile to the Basque Country, as well as to build pressure on the Spanish state to negotiate the disarming of the armed group Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA); and
• Emphasised that change would be ongoing, with the “reset” of Sortu posing the question of whether EH Bildu, the left-nationalist electoral coalition in which Sortu is major partner along with three smaller formations (Aralar, Alternatiba and Eusko Alkartasuna) shouldn’t become a broad movement of all supporters of a Basque right to decide.
In his closing address to the congress, Arnaldo Otegi stressed two themes: the need to learn from the Catalan mass movement for sovereignty and independence, taking every possible concrete step along the road to the Basque Republic, and the need to build that process through social mobilisation aimed at creating social majorities around the issues that matter to people. Otegi emphasised: “Our process of national and social liberation depends upon whether we are capable of convincing a majority in the country that our project is the one that most suits them.”
Otegi ridiculed the idea that “changes can be made from the Official Bulletin [recording administrative decisions], when really changes operate in the minds of the people, and to achieve that we must work, talk, convince and also know how to listen. The institutions only come along to put a seal on the change that has already taken place in people’s minds.”
In a January 23 interview on Radio Euskadi, Otegi described the direction of Sortu’s renewal: “We have to build organisations that are like the kind of society we aim to build. It’s hard to convey to people the idea of an alternative, horizontal, democratic society if you’re building top-down organisations.”
Sortu’s refoundation process, which began in November 2015, was forced on the party by a series of challenging changes to the political landscape that no-one could have been foreseen when it was launched in 2013.
In the May 2015 local and regional elections in the Spanish state, EH Bildu lost government in Euskadi’s Gipuzkua region and its capital Donostia (San Sebastian). Next came the bursting upon the Basque political scene of Podemos and later Elkerrin Podemos (Basque affiliate of the all-Spanish alliance Unidos Podemos, bringing together Podemos, the United Left and the green party Equo): this coalition became the lead Basque presence in the Spanish parliament at the general election last June 26.
That poll also saw no recovery from the collapse in abertzale left representation that had taken place at the December 2015 Spanish general election. Between 2011 and 2016, electoral support in Euskadi and Navarra for the abertzale left in Spanish parliamentary contests fell from 334,000 to 184,500 (seven seats to two). This result, and the growth of support for Elkerrin Podemos, revealed that tens of thousands of Basques had been voting for abertzale organisations because of their left social stance more than for their commitment to Basque independence.
In sharp contrast, in Catalonia over the same time the rise of the mass independence movement propelled into government a administration committed to carrying out an independence referendum. The same wave lifted the representation in the Catalan parliament of the left-independentist People’s Unity List (CUP)–the Catalan force closest to EH Bildu–from three seats to ten.
The broad abertzale left also experienced divisions over two key issues: the October 2011 decision of armed organisation Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA) to declare a permanent end to its military activity and the effective dropping by the Collective of Basque Political Prisoners (EPPK in its Basque initials) of the historical demand for amnesty and of its stance of non-collaboration with the Spanish and French prison regimes. In December 2013, an EPPK declaration said: “We could accept that our process of return home be carried out using legal channels, even when that involves us accepting our sentence.”
In January 2016, 35 leading members of the abertzale left, including former Sortu spokesperson Pernando Barrena, avoided a prison sentence by conceding that they had acted outside Spanish law and by declaring their “commitment to giving up all activity related to the use of violence, desiring that this acknowledgement contribute to the compensation to the victims of terrorism for the loss and suffering caused to them.” This legal settlement was accepted by the Association of Terrorism Victims (AVT) and Dignity and Justice, the two main Spanish organisations representing families who have suffered from ETA violence.
Disagreements within the abertzale left community over these changes of orientation saw the emergence of the Revolutionary Committees (IBIL), which “maintain and defend the legitimacy…of all forms of struggle”, and the Alliance for Amnesty and Against Repression (ATA), which insists that the struggle for amnesty must remain the main demand of Basque political prisoners.
ATA has gained some support. In May 2015, 93 former prisoners of ETA and its French Basque Country equivalent Iparraterrak, supported the ATA approach in an open letter that demanded amnesty “without kowtowing to anyone”. According to July 5, 2016 edition of the internet daily El Español, “in recent months various ETA members have communicated in writing their desire to break with EPPK, saying that they feel represented by ATA.”
In a January 2016 comuniqué, ATA rejected campaigning solely on the grounds of the prisoners’ human rights because “their situation is a result of their political militancy…We must again unite the forces of the people behind the demand for amnesty, given that it will be the only way to guarantee the freeing of the Basque political prisoners and reprisal victims and the resolution of the conflict.”
Over the past two years, ATA has mobilised up to a thousand in pro-amnesty demonstrations. However, this figure should be set against the 65,000-75,000 that since 2012 have attended the annual January march demanding the return of all Basque political prisoners to jails in Euskadi and Navarra as well as reform of the draconian Spanish prison system and the release of all those who have completed three-quarters of their sentence or are suffering chronic illnesses.
At the time of the Sortu congress the EPPK released the draft of a new orientation for its work, to be discussed and voted upon by the prisoners. The draft, if adopted, would allow prisoners to pursue any legal path favouring their release, reduction of sentence or transfer to jails in the Basque Country, but not if the price of improvement in their situation is compulsory repentance or turning informer.
Beginning the ‘reset’
Despite these setbacks and tensions, the picture since 2013 has not been all black for the abertzale left. Most importantly, its electoral losses in no way translated into gains for the Spanish-centralist parties, People’s Party (PP), Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and Citizens. Rather, the rise in the Podemos and Elkerrin Podemos vote was accompanied by growing support for the right of self-determination of the peoples of the Spanish state; by the marginalisation of the Spanish-centralist parties in Euskadi (cut back from 26 to 18 seats in the 75-seat parliament); and by these forces being consigned to opposition in Navarra and its capital Iruñea (Pamplona) whose mayor is now EH Bildu’s Joseba Asirón.
In addition, in last September’s elections for the government of Euskadi EH Bildu held off the challenge from Elkerrin Podemos, holding onto second place with 18 seats (down three) to the newcomer’s 11. By contrast with its losses in Spanish general elections, the abertzale left vote in regional contests in Euskadi and Navarra fell by only 47,500.
So what, in the light of these shocks, had to change and what had to remain in Sortu’s political DNA? To get a reliable answer to this question, the abertzale left launched in November 2015 a non-party process of popular consultation and discussion within the left-independentist community called Abian(“on the verge”). It was this process that determined that Sortu’s second national gathering was a refoundation congress.
The document summarising its results had sharp things to say: “Although Arise Basque Country [the February 2010 document enshrining commitment to exclusively peaceful political methods] revealed an ability to shake up the political situation, the abertzale left has displayed obvious shortcomings.” These included “thinking that we would advance almost spontaneously on top of that original wave”; “a very limited ability to develop the social, political and popular agenda along with other protagonists”; and “obvious gaps in relation to creating a new political culture”.
In his Diario Vasco interview Arkaitz Rodríguez attributed these inertias to the fact that the abertzale left had lived a decade underground (from the 2003 banning of Batasuna and other abertzale left organisations until the legalisation of Sortu in 2012): “Sortu’s own organisational model and our political culture were very marked by that previous phase of resistance. And cultural and organisational inertias, unlike structures, can’t be changed from one day to the next.”
Abian spelled out that the abertzale left’s political perspectives had to be based on the recognition that its struggle had basically moved from a phase of resistance to one of laying the foundations of a Basque Republic. Its framework analysis said:
Everything appears to indicate that this XXI Century will be marked by the clash between life and capital. In this global context, the demand for sovereignty has a transforming social dynamic: it becomes increasingly obvious to peoples that that they need their own state structures in order to guarantee citizens a decent, sustainable and democratic life. In that sense, the process of building a state of their own has become more than ever a project of social emancipation. In the present historical context, pro-independence processes based on popular sovereignty are developing popular anti-oligarchical projects across Europe, given that they are creating broad alliances between the different sectors and social classes affected by the policies of the oligarchies.
In the Basque case the strategic updating proposed by Abian laid out a process of building the Basque state and democracy from below—in the communities, the trade unions, the social movements and the cultural struggle to extend the use of the Basque language (euskara)—with the abertzale left’s work in the institutions directed at strengthening this process.
As for winning a majority of Basque society to its perspectives when only a quarter presently support Basque independence, Abian placed the Basque right to decide at the centre:
With the right to decide as axis, those who would want a new status (more self-government and more sovereignty) are a majority. Therefore, with a view to strengthening and extending strategic goals [independence, unification of the Basque lands], those proposals and dynamics aimed at winning control of the spaces that determine minimum contents (recognition of the nation, the right to decide) are indispensable levers, always on the condition that they are correctly expressed in relation to general social demands (social welfare, housing, work etc).
Arkaitz Rodríguez indicated in his Diario Vasco interview that winning majority support meant that the nature of the “independence offer” had to change, giving it “a deep social content that allows its social base to expand by incorporating broad layers of people and the main political, social, trade union and cultural protagonists of the country.”
We believe that we don’t only have to refound the abertzale left or Sortu, but the pro- independence offer itself. Formulating a concept of independence not exclusively linked to a national identity like the Basque one, but with a social and economic content and able to draw around itself different national identities. In Catalonia there are pro-independence forces that identify as Spanish but who understand that given this Spanish state it’s better to have a state of one’s own.
In his Euskadi Radio interview Otegi pointed out that Basque society already had two majorities—one for the right to decide and one for social justice: the problem was that different people made up the two majorities. The challenge for Sortu and the broader abertzale left was to fuse those two majorities into one.
Transforming culture and organisation
Turning Sortu into an instrument capable of mobilising people to drive such a strategy also required rethinking the existing relationship between party and social base. “We have to realise that citizens can’t live in a state of permanent mobilisation. Processes of mobilisation are not linear; like wave dynamics they contain moments of start-up and moments of pause. Strategic patience is as important as determination.”
As for Sortu’s own operation, the Abian document noted: “In many of the contributions received different problems related to internal functioning and deficiencies in political leadership have been put on the table, in a blunt way and with severe criticisms. Beginning to solve all of that will be the thermometer of the validity of this process; it’s there that its credibility will be put to the test.”
Designing a Sortu congress decision-making process that rebuilt trust and commitment then became the next challenge. The approach adopted was to have the congress process run by an independent commission and be open to participation by anyone agreeing with the abertzale left’s political project and the conclusions of the Abian process: once registered they would be free to present documents and amendments, vote and stand for leadership positions.
Those proposing documents would have to present a team (with their responsibilities specified) for nine of the 29 positions on the national council, as well as for five regional representatives. The remaining 15 national council members would be elected via open primaries in which all registered process participants could vote. Ten of these would be elected on an all-Basque Country basis and five would be elected regionally. Any lists proposed would have to have a 40% minimum of female or male members and all candidates would have to have enough proficiency in Basque to be able to take part in Sortu’s internal processes.
In the end, only one document was presented—proposal Zohardia (“clear sky”) put forward by Otegi and his team. When questioned by the media on November 19 as to why only one document had emerged from a process meant to foster participation, national councillor Pello Otxandiano said that much of the strategic debate had already taken place in the Abian process and that “maybe most of the issues that had to be resolved have already been debated.” As if in confirmation, Zohardia received 91.5% support when submitted vote in late November.
The final phase of the congress process then opened, with 919 amendments being received to the adopted Zohardia text. Of these, 574 were accepted, and 14, bringing together concerns needing a congress decision, submitted to a vote. Of the six amendments that passed, the most significant advocated Sortu identifying as “ecological”: it received 77% support.
In the elections for the remaining 15 national council vacancies, eight men and seven women were successful, with the highest vote going to Anita Lopepe, well-known activist and candidate for EH Bai! (Basque Nation Yes!) in the northern (French) Basque region.
What are the chances of advance for the abertzale left project? Reminded in his Radio Euskadi interview that support for Basque independence was low and falling, Otegi pointed to the looming clash between the Spanish state and Catalonia:
“The moment Catalonia approves its disconnection laws and calls the referendum, the political conjuncture in the Spanish state changes radically. We’ll be discussing the status of the Basque nation in the parliaments of Navarra and Euskadi when the Spanish state applies judicial repression against [Catalan parliament speaker] Carme Forcadell.”
Asked if the “key term” was still “independence” Otegi answered: “The key term is democratic revolution…There is not going to be any democratisation of the Spanish state, any recognition of the Basque people as a nation. So it’s either the road to independence and sovereignty or the road to misery.”
Otegi also speculated that if Catalonia became independent and the Spanish state lost the income from Catalan taxpayers, it would no longer be able to afford the special economic status enjoyed by Euskadi. This, in contrast with other regional administrations except Navarra, gives its government the power to raise taxes and largely meet its own spending needs before redistributing a part of the income collected to the Spanish state. The end of that arrangement would undermine the relatively more favourable economic position of Euskadi and with it popular support for the ruling Basque Nationalist Party (PNV).
Nonetheless, given the present political balance in the Spanish state and Euskadi, the Basque establishment seems to be keeping under control any threat of the abertzale left rapidly broadening its support base and upsetting existing political equilibria. For example,the government in Euskadi, an alliance of the PNV with the Socialist Party of Euskadi (the PSOE’s Basque affiliate) as junior partner, was described as good by 49% of those interviewed for the latest Euskobarometro and the political situation in the region as good or normal by 78% (the Spanish political situation was described as bad by 88%). The economic situation is Euskadi was reckoned to be good or normal by 68% while 73% judged the Spanish economic situation to be bad.
Moreover, in the February 2016 Sociometro Vasco (of the Euskadi government) support for independence had fallen to its lowest point in 18 years (19%), with opposition to independence at 38% and those saying they could be pro-independence depending on the circumstances at 30%. According to Euksobarometro, if a referendum on independence were held in Euskadi, 39% would vote No, 31% Yes, with the rest either undecided or abstaining. Nonetheless, discontent with Euskadi’s present institutional status in the Spanish state and with the functioning of the Spanish constitutional regime is significant: according to Euskobarometro 59% support having a referendum on independence and a relative majority (37%) would vote against the Spanish constitution if it were resubmitted to a vote (as against only 11% in 1978). However, support for Euskadi’s statute of autonomy has recently been climbing (from 30% to 47% since March 2014).
In this contradictory context, where the pro-independence position is still to gain support as the answer to widespread discontent with the status quo, the issue of the abertzale left’s attitude to its past support for ETA’s “armed struggle” will continue to be exploited by the parties committed to openly fighting a Basque right to decide (PP, PSOE, Citizens) or to running dead on it (PNV).
Here a contradiction remains to be resolved between the perceptions of the abertzale left and the majority of citizens in the Basque Country. While the Zoahardia text adopted in the Sortu refoundation process talks of ETA’s farewell to arms in 2011 as “a landmark symbolising the end of that historical cycle that gave so much to our people”, 82% of those surveyed by Euskobarometro said ETA’s trajectory of the past 40 years had been negative (while only 5% said positive). At the same time, 40% of those interviewed wanted all ETA prisoners released, 25% wanted all except those guilty of violent crimes released, while 29% wanted all to complete their full sentences.
Podemos Euskadi, whose general secretary Nagua Alba attended this year’s march of support for the prisoners in a personal capacity, addressed this contradiction in a January 4 statement that also condemned the vindictive treatment meted out by the Spanish state and the PP government of prime minister Mariano Rajoy:
We urge the people in jail to continue advancing in the rejection of violence, recognising from a critical review of the past the damage done. Regret does not entail any abdication of political goals, but definitely of totally mistaken and unjustified methods. It’s obvious that a statement of regret can only be the fruit of genuine willingness, and that reintegration into society is a right … but it is no less true that a broad majority in our society is asking for it [an acknowledgement]…That review, that delegitimising of the use of violence, is the best guarantee against any repetition in the future.
As Sortu’s struggle to create social majorities in favour of social justice and the Basque people’s right to self-determination advances, it will become clearer how much the abertzale left needs to heed the existing social majority that expects a reckoning with its past as a precondition for paying attention to its proposals for the future. It will also become clear if such a reckoning is an essential precondition for exposing and making politically unsustainable the sadistic policies of the PP.
In the meantime, modest advances accumulate. On January 1, the Basque community in Iparralde (the Basque region in France) saw its longstanding demand for a single umbrella body finally met with the formation of the Basque Country Community covering 300,000 inhabitants in 158 municipalities—the first ever Basque institution in the French state. French Basques now have an instrument with which they can pursue collaboration and joint projects with institutions in Euskadi and Navarra.
On January 20, the four main union confederations in Euskadi—the nationalist unions Basque Workers Solidarity (ELA) and Patriotic Workers Commissions (LAB) and the all-Spanish Workers Commissions (CCOO) and General Union of Workers (UGT)–reached a single agreement with the Basque employers confederation Conferbask, armourplating Euskadi workers’ contracts against being downgraded to all-Spanish levels. The hope is that this pact will enable 350,000 workers who have not been able to renew their Spanish state contracts to move across to better local agreements. In the meantime, LAB and ELA , respectively aligned with the abertzale left and the PNV, are negotiating with a view to merger into a single union.
Finally, on January 28 EH Bildu announced a comprehensive 68-point peace plan aimed at achieving advances in the areas of remembrance of and reparation for all victims of the conflict, the disarming of ETA, the resolution of the situation of the prisoners and exiles and the demilitarisation of Basque territories.
All supporters of the democratic rights of the Basque people will only hope that such advances continue to come and that a renewed Sortu can build on them to help bring closer the day when the Basque people is free to decide its future.
* Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. An initial version of this article has appeared on its web site.