In Bilbao’s hyper-modern Euskalduna Conference Centre on January 21, the Basque left pro-independence party Sortu concluded its refoundation congress by finalising the election of its 29-strong national council.
The congress 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 Pyrenees-Atlantiques.
Only four members of the outgoing leadership elected at Sortu’s founding congress in 2013 were re-elected — the most public evidence of the “reset” that the leading organisation of the Basque abertzale (patriotic) left had undergone.
The election result saw longstanding leader Arnaldo Otegi, political prisoner in a Spanish jail until March last year, returned as secretary general. But many leaders elected in 2013 made way for a younger, more female, leadership team.
The final composition of Sortu’s new national council was just one product of a deep-going renewal of its political message, culture and organisational methods, driven by discussion involving about 7000 participants.
The position finally adopted was summarised in the congress resolution, which:
- Reaffirmed Sortu’s socialist identity. “On the road to a better world, the compass of socialism is fundamental as a 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 neoliberalism 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 people is the key to social change.”
- Set 2026 as the target date for building a sovereign Basque Republic “from the left”. The intervening years are to be dedicated to building a social majority in favour of independence (presently supported by only 25% in the Basque Autonomous Community, according to an October poll by the University of the Basque Country).
- Made a priority of reviving social mobilisation against the effects of the economic crisis, including “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 pro-independence group Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA).
- 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 a major partner along with three smaller formations, shouldn’t become a broad movement of all supporters of a Basque right to decide.
In a January 23 interview on Radio Euskadi, Otegi described the party’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 renewal 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 foreseen at its founding.
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).
Then came the bursting upon the Basque political scene of Elkerrin Podemos (affiliate of the all-Spanish anti-austerity party Podemos). It became the lead Basque party in the Spanish parliament at the general election last June.
That poll also registered 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).
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 10.
Yet the picture was not all bleak for the abertzale left. 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 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.
Also, 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. In contrast to its losses in Spanish general elections, the abertzale left vote in regional contests in Euskadi and Navarra fell by only 47,500.
So, in the light of these shocks, what had to change and what had to remain in Sortu’s political DNA?
In November 2015, to get a reliable answer to this question, the abertzale left launched a non-party process of popular consultation within the left-independentist community called Abian (“on the verge”).
The document summarising its results made sharp points: “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”.
The 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.
“Starting to solve all of this 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 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. 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.
Voting and presentations
In the end, only one document was presented — Zohardia, put forward by Otegi and his team. When questioned by the media 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 it was submitted to the vote in early November.
The final phase of the congress process then opened, with 919 amendments being received to the adopted text. Of these, 574 were accepted, and 14, 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. The highest vote went to Anita Lopepe, a well-known activist and candidate for EH Bai! (Basque Nation Yes!) in the northern (French) Basque region.
In his closing address, Otegi stressed two themes — the need to learn from the Catalan movement, taking every possible step along the road to the Basque Republic, and the need to build that process through social mobilisation.
He 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.”
And what are the real chances of change? 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.”
Asked if the “key term” was still “independence”, he replied: “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.”
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed article congress will soon appear at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]