The results of October 21 election for the parliament of Euskadi, the Basque autonomous community within the Spanish state, are expected to confirm the rising popularity of the left nationalist coalition, Euskal Herria Bildu (EH Bildu―Basque Country Assembly).
Regardless of whether EH Bildu tops the vote or is pipped by the conservative Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), progressive politics in Euskadi seems certain to record its best ever result.
The Basque Country is divided between its Spanish-ruled southern zone, made up of the three provinces of the Euskadi plus the autonomous community of Navarra, and its northern zone, Iparralde, covering three regions within France.
EH Bildu unites the nationalist left. It includes Eusko Alkartasuna (EA―Basque Solidarity), which began as a left split from the PNV; Alternatiba, a split from the former Basque affiliate of the Spanish-wide United Left; and Aralar, which started life as a dissident current within the nationalist camp.
The common point united quite different forces is recognition of Euskal Herria’s right to self-determination and sovereignty, combined with a platform of social, environmental and gender justice, and participatory democracy.
The latest expression of growing agreement among Basque left forces follows the creation of Bildu (which stood in the May 2011 municipal elections) and Amaiur (which won seven seats in the November national Spanish poll last year).
It has inspired thousands of unaligned progressive people, especially youth, to become politically active. Its main rally drew 12,000 people in Barakaldo and, in a rarity for Basque politics, its lead candidate was a woman and its candidates 50% men and 50% women.
To date, the highest vote for the broad Basque left-nationalist camp in the Euskadi parliament was the 17.9% won by Eusko Herritarrok (EH―Basque Citizens) in 1998.
Since the end of the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s, this vote has varied greatly, depending whether the party representing it was legal or outlawed, or whether the nationalist movement was advocating an election boycott.
If the EH Bildu vote is in line with the polls, it would win up to 26% of the vote and 21-25 seats in the 75-seat parliament of Euskadi. That result would mark a major step forward for Basque nationalism as a whole, and for social resistance and socially progressive policies across the Spanish state.
Unsurprisingly, all rival opposition political force have treated EH Bildu as the main threat.
All are set to lose support on October 21, most of all the governing Socialist Party of Euskadi (PSE, the Basque affiliate of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party―PSOE). Going by final polls, the PSE could lose up to 13% of the vote and ten seats, putting it back into third place behind the two nationalist forces.
The Popular Party (PP), which backed the PSE to form the government after the 2009 Euskadi election (but withdrew its support), looks set to lose one-to-three seats.
The PNV, traditional ruling party in Euskadi, is also set to lose three-to-five seats. However, while the PNV will lose most in Gipuskoa, where the nationalist left is strongest and runs the regional administration, it is also set to pick up a seat from the PP in Alaba and may suffer only small losses in its stronghold, Biskaia.
It will be touch-and-go whether either of IU’s present and former Basque affiliates ― respectively Esker Anitza and Esker Batua Berdeak (EBB) ― will get more than the 3% threshold needed for parliamentary representation. The Spanish centralist Union, Progress and Democracy and the green Equo face the same challenge.
A 180 degree turn
The most important factor driving the rise of EH Bildu was last year's decision by the Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA) to suspend and then definitively end its “military” campaign against the Spanish state. As a result, the Basque political situation has turned 180 degrees and Euskadi has experienced its first election free from fear.
When combined with EH Bildu’s acknowledgement of the pain and damage done by ETA’s armed campaign (as well as the state terrorism of Spanish governments), ETA’s farewell to arms has greatly weakened the Spanish centralist claim that left Basque nationalism always comes with death and destruction.
Indeed, the repressive policies of the Spanish state and its judiciary ― most recently typified by banning visitors to imprisoned nationalist leader Arnaldo Otegi after he sent a message to the main EH Bildu election rally―now run the risk of reducing hostility towards ETA's prisoners.
This is especially so, given that the European Court of Justice has upheld appeals against Spanish “justice” in a number of cases involving them.
Even while reaffirming her support for an independent Basque Country, Laura Montegi, EH Bildu’s candidate for chief minister of Euskadi, made EH Bildu’s position clear to a Basque Public Televison quiz-the-candidate audience: “All, absolutely all, the formations that make up this coalition have made an acknowledgement of the pain that this country has suffered, an acknowledgement of absolutely all victims, which is the first step that has to be taken towards healing the very deep wounds that we have in this land.”
In the one public debate during the campaign lead UPyD candidate Gorka Maneiro was reduced to interrupting Montegi, yelling that all this was just hypocrisy, while the PP’s Antonio Basagoiti floundered around trying to score points over Montegi’s past as a candidate for EH.
In their own way, the PP, PSE and PNV continue to demand a mea culpa from the nationalist left in order to distract attention from their own social and economic policies. They are either directly implementing European Union austerity plans or weakly criticising them.
By giving priority to pro-people measures, EH Bildu has exposed all three parties, especially the demagogy of PSE chief minister Patxi Lopez.
The coalition’s proposals include a moratorium on public sector debt repayment and debt renegotiation; an audit of vacant housing with the goal of making this available to families most in need; an end to forced evictions; a 35-hour working week; restoring the pension age to 65; and job-creating public and community investment.
This revived and expanded public and community sector would be funded by a progressive income tax, a wealth tax, higher company tax, an inheritance tax and a war on tax evasion (already under way in Gipuskoa).
Savings would be centred on wasteful “white elephant” projects like a High Speed Train link (on which EH Bildu proposes a referendum). Another source is a cut in MPs' wages and perks, already implemented in Gipuskoa while other parties howl.
The new fiscal framework proposed by EH Bildu would also seek to defend Euskadi’s beautiful environment, most immediately by eliminating all anti-ecological subsidies. That would combine with the immediate closure of the Garona nuclear power station, a ban on fracking, major investment in energy efficiency and a big switch from road to rail.
Genetically modified organisms would be banned, and local community and cooperative agriculture developed. This is already the practice in Gipuskoa, where the administration provides its school meals program with organic produce sourced from local cooperatives employing and training the young unemployed.
Going on feedback during the campaign, the most controversial area of EH Bildu policy is “linguistic normalisation” — proposals for making Basque (euskera) “the customary and preferred language of the Basque citizenry in all daily settings”.
The anti-nationalist media have portrayed this as involving a war on Castilian (Spanish), spoken by a large majority in Euskadi. Their fear campaign that was reflected in a question to Laura Mintegi at the quiz-the-candidate program, to the effect that EH Bildu's language policy was as discriminatory as Franco’s.
In her reply, Montegi made it clear that there should be no discrimination against Castilian, but that Basque, presently spoken by a minority, should join Castilian and other languages on an equal footing in a sovereign Euskal Herria.
The EH Bildu program and approach also aims to defend and extend democratic rights. This applies to its opposition to populist “Jobs for Basques” sentiments and anti-immigrant measures implemented by the national PP government of Mariano Rajoy.
Its election platform says: “We believe that expanding present-day democracy is indispensable, by implanting mechanisms of direct and participatory democracy; in order to move from a culture of delegation and representation to one based on participation and taking responsibility.”
Beyond reaffirming the right to decide Euskadi’s own future, the platform does not outline a specific line of march to an act of self-determination and the final goal of sovereignty.
Commenting on the latest poll, which shows 24% of those interviewed supporting independence and 24% greater autonomy within the Spanish state, Mintegi told the October 16 El Pais: “We are talking about increasing quotas of autonomy as a process leading towards independence. We are not talking about launching a demand for independence right away.”
However, the EH Bildu campaign has forced the PNV into developing its own scenario for Euskadi’s future, one which holds up the prospect of a 2015 referendum on “a new national political status” for the region within the European Union.
Other left positions
What of other left campaigns and positions? The United Left affiliate Esker Anitza has run a campaign against austerity and for the rights of workers and the poor, but with practically no mention of the Basque right to decide in general or EH Bildu in particular.
EBB lead candidate Raquel Modubar has claimed that “voting for the PSOE is voting for the PP and PNV” while “voting Bildu is to commit to independence”.
The 15M movement, that broke out across Spain last year against austerity and for greater democracy, has called for people to leave the ballot paper blank or spoilt as a protest against undemocratic elections and the political class. The Anti-capitalist Left has said it “will not call for a vote for any political force”.
It seems unlikely that such positions will have much weight in Euskadi’s highly politicised environment.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed version of this article will appear at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Read more articles by Dick Nichols.]