Basque left nationalism launches strategic rebirth

More than 100,000 people march in Bilbao on January 12 in support of the rights of Basque political prisoners.

Nearly 10 years after the Spanish high court outlawed previous Basque left nationalist political groups, the movement has finally given birth to a new legal party ― Sortu (“to create” or “to be born” in Basque).

The new arrival is a powerful force for Basque independence and progressive politics in the Spanish state ― socialist, feminist, ecologically aware and staunchly internationalist.

Its goal is an independent socialist Basque-speaking state that unites the northern Basque region (in the French department of Pyrenees Atlantiques) with the southern Basque regions of Euskadi and Navarra in a single nation.

Its strategy is to build majority support for this goal on three battlefields ― ideological, mass social struggle and in the institutions.

Its founding congress, held on February 23 in Irunea, marked a successful end to a difficult journey. It followed a four-year strategic debate within the Basque left nationalist (abertzale) movement and 15 months of court battles to achieve legal party status.

Initially launched in February 2011, Sortu first had to prove that it had no political dependence on the armed organisation Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA) whose military-terrorist strategy caused more than 800 deaths and thousands of victims on both sides of its conflict with the Spanish state.

The previous abertzale left groups ― Herri Batasuna (HB, Popular Unity), Euskal Herritarrok (EH, Basque Citizens) and Batasuna (Unity) ― had all been outlawed in 2003 under the Spanish law of parties on the grounds that they were political wings of ETA.

Despite Sortu’s statutes renouncing any use of violence, including specifically by ETA, the Spanish high court rejected that party’s application for legal status in March 2011, but this time by the narrow margin of nine votes to seven. When appealed to the Spanish constitutional court, this decision was overturned in June last year on the grounds that it violated the right to association.

However, the constitutional court’s hairline six-to-five decision also specified some spurious triggers for outlawing the party in the future. These included “ambiguity in condemning terrorism” and advocacy of “equality of suffering” between the victims of ETA and abertzale prisoners in Spanish jails.

The legalisation of Sortu was preceded by that of the left-nationalist electoral coalitions Bildu (for the 2011 municipal and shire elections), Amaiur (for last year's Spanish national poll) and EH Bildu (for the 2012 regional election in Euskadi, the Basque Autonomous Community in the Spanish state).

In each of these coalitions, the abertzale left took part with other left nationalist forces but without a party of its own.

Sea change

The road to Sortu’s founding congress began in 2007 with the growing conviction within the abertzale left that its “military-political” strategy was at a dead end.

A turning point was ETA’s December 2006 bombing at Madrid airport. Carried out during a period of official truce with the Spanish government, it killed two workers. In the days after, leaders of the outlawed Batasuna, including spokesperson Arnaldo Otegi, for the first time called on ETA to observe a truce.

Otegi later said the Madrid airport bombing “seriously damaged ETA’s credibility within Basque society and deprived any future initiative of ETA’s of all chance of political credit unless it was plainly and simply permanent and irreversible”.

The bombing also sharpened the differences within the abertzale left between those who felt that without the threat of armed action the Spanish state would never concede anything and those who were convinced, like Otegi, that “the cycle of armed struggle was absolutely exhausted”.

The necessary process of clarification with the left-nationalist community began with the proposal for a strategy based on peaceful mass struggle and broad alliance-building towards the goal of an independent, socialist Basque nation.

From October 2009, the abertzale left carried out an exhaustive debate ― despite conditions of increased state repression and ceaseless dirty trickery from the Spanish government and courts. This included the arrest and trial of Otegi and other leaders on charges of trying to reconstitute Batasuna as a tool of ETA.

In a discussion involving 7000 activists, the position of unconditional and unilateral adoption of an exclusively political strategy won overwhelming support. This led to its codification in the February 2010 document “Arise Basque Country”, and to eventual acceptance of this stance by ETA itself.

Rapid confirmation of popular support for the new stance came in the vote for Bildu (26%), Amaiur (24.4%) and EH Bildu (25%) in elections in Euskadi between May 2011 and October last year.

Creating Sortu

What sort of party does the abertzale left need in the new conditions created by its change of strategy and by ETA’s own farewell to arms in 2011?

The answer was thrashed out through Sortu’s exhaustively democratic founding process, in which all left nationalists who agreed with the orientation of “Arise Basque Country” were urged to take part. Over five months, three main documents were first drafted, then discussed and amended in nearly 300 local meetings involving over 6000 participants.

The texts outlined Sortu’s ideological bases, political strategy and tactics, and organisational model. The task of the 400-delegate founding congress was to vote on the three documents as amended and adopted by local meetings.

Before that, however, the congress delegates heard a message from the imprisoned Otegi, for whom the position of party secretary-general is being kept vacant for when he leaves jail. He asked the delegates for a “mental revolution” and “less self-satisfaction and more self-criticism”.

“It would be a mistake to believe that the only thing that differentiates us from the past is the disappearance of the armed struggle,” Otegi wrote.

He added that he wanted to “share a doubt with you that has been buzzing in my head for some time now, namely this: have we explained, internalised and shared enough the profound significance of the strategic change we have set in motion? Are we aware that here and now our huge historical task is to build up that large popular majority that will declare the Basque State and build an alternative social model?”

Issues

The congress then heard reports on the local discussions and voting on the three documents.

The debate on Sortu’s ideological bases had added feminism to the abertzale left’s traditional goal of an independent, socialist and Basque-speaking Basque Country. This led to a wide-ranging discussion of how the party should relate to and promote the struggle for women’s liberation. The importance of the feminist goal in a party where the participation of women was still only 35% was reaffirmed.

On socialism, the final text affirmed that Sortu could and should be home to all versions so long as they met agreed minimum conditions ― how the socialist project would develop in Basque conditions would be decided through struggle.

On Europe, the final position reached was that “the goal of Sortu is to create a Basque State in Europe and to consult its citizens as to whether or not it should become part of the European Union”.

On the Basque language (euskara), this would be the only official language in an independent Basque Country, but linguistic diversity would also be encouraged.

The amended document captured two issues not covered in the original draft: anti-militarism ― a Basque State would have no standing army and would not belong to NATO ― and sexual freedom and equality.

Local debate on Sortu’s political line had focused on the adequacy of the concepts of the “Basque working people” as the revolutionary subject and of the political phase as one of “democratic revolution”.

Many amendments stressed the importance of setting in place the economic and social stepping-stones to a future Basque state, pointing to Bildu’s work in places where it already governs, such as the province of Gipuskoa.

Others took up the issues of the social and political alliances needed above and beyond formations like Bildu, especially with regard to the Basque ruling class and its party, the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV).

Another point of discussion was how Sortu should further develop its policy towards the political prisoners in Spanish jails and the hundreds of Basque activists in exile.

The organisational model document produced the most debate in the local meetings. This was probably due to the need to reconcile two potentially conflicting needs ― for Sortu to be an organisation open to all left nationalists while still being a party organising committed activists in all arenas of struggle.

In the original draft, this tension led to a proposal for a complicated three-tier membership system. But after discussion, it was simplified to one of members and sympathisers.

A second debate centred on which of the three areas of struggle ―ideological, mass and institutional ― was most important and how they could best be combined. The draft document’s original prioritisation of the ideological struggle was changed to favour the mass social struggle.

On the right to form tendencies within the organisation, the position finally adopted was recognition of the right, but without any automatic right to representation on leadership bodies.

All the documents were adopted by majorities of more than 90%, as were proposals covering Sortu’s structures and its National Council, which combined respected leaders from the Batasuna days with new faces such as president Hasier Arraiz.

Solidarity

Greetings from the ETA prisoners collective (EPPK) met with stormy applause. A public meeting heard from speakers engaged in conflict resolution and struggle in Colombia, Kurdistan, Palestine and the Western Sahara.

The international solidarity greetings from Sinn Fein, the African National Congress, Syriza and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine set the rally roaring, providing the perfect prelude to the closing speech from Pernando Barrena, one of Sortu’s three spokespeople.

Barrena said: “Sortu is going to be in the front line of the struggle for social and national justice. Sortu will not disappoint the expectations of peace and freedom that this country needs … No ambit of struggle will be alien to us.”

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. He attended the Sortu conference as a representative of the Australian Socialist Alliance. A longer version of this article will available at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]