All media outlets in the Spanish state were dominated by the images of two men on March 1: one was leaving jail near the northern city of Logrono to the cheers of inmates he was leaving behind; the other was trying to convince the Spanish parliament in Madrid to vote him in as prime minister.
The released prisoner — inmate number 8719600510 — was Basque independence leader Arnaldo Otegi, had completed a more than six-year jail sentence for trying to rebuild the illegal Basque pro-independence group Batasuna (“Unity”). The political party was banned by Spanish courts in 2003 for its supposed links with the armed group Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA).
Otegi is a former leader of Batasuna and its banned predecessor Herri Batasuna (“Popular Unity”) and was an MP in the Basque regional parliament between 1995 and 2005. He is secretary-general of the Basque socialist pro-independence party Sortu (“Create”), first founded in 2011, then banned and finally legalised a year later.
Otegi had a good day on March 1, walking free to be embraced by friends and cheered by supporters — including present and former MPs from the Catalan and Spanish parliaments.
In a brief speech, the man seen by many as “the Basque Mandela” reminded those present that 400 other Basque political prisoners still remain dispersed in Spanish and French jails, often far from their families in the Basque Country.
The other man in the media spotlight, Pedro Sanchez, general secretary of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE, one of Spain's two traditional parties of government) had a less than brilliant March 1.
His one-and-a-half hour speech called for MPs from the radical anti-austerity party Podemos to support the PSOE's “agreement for a reforming and progressive government” with the centre-right party Citizens. It went down like a lead balloon with those it was meant to convince.
Particularly irritating to MPs from Podemos and the coalitions in which it takes part in (In Tide in Galicia and Together We Can in Catalonia), was Sanchez's insistence that an alternative coalition of left parties simply did not have the numbers to form government after the December 20 general elections: its total of 161 seats out of 350 was less than the 163 seats of the ruling right-wing People's Party (PP) and Citizens.
That arithmetic came from adding up the broadly left seats of the PSOE (90), Podemos and the coalitions in which it participates (64), the Valencian left-nationalist force Commitment (5) and United Left-Popular Unity (2), as against those of the PP (123) and Citizens (40).
Sanchez's calculation forgot about the 26 seats occupied by the five Basque, Catalan and Canary Island nationalist forces: could the all-Spanish left not negotiate for their support or at least abstention in the matter of forming government?
No, Sanchez told the parliament that he was committed to “the defence of the prevailing legality, without which we would all be exposed to injustices and arbitrary decisions”. According to PSOE doctrine, this “existing legality” makes it impossible to have a Scottish-style referendum on independence in Catalonia — the demand of the Catalan MPs of the centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the conservative Democracy and Freedom (DiL).
However, this simply is not true. Section 92 of the Spanish Constitution allows the Spanish parliament to hold consultative referenda on issues of importance: for example, under this article Catalonia put the 2006 statute of autonomy agreed between the Spanish and Catalan parliaments to a popular vote.
Moreover, in 2014 the Spanish parliament — including PSOE MPs — confirmed that its prohibition of a referendum was not because it would be illegal or unconstitutional when it voted 47 to 299 to turn down the Catalan parliament's request for such a consultation.
Catalonia — and, more broadly, the national rights of the peoples that make up the Spanish state — was the spectre haunting Pedro Sanchez's attempt to get himself elected prime minister.
Having affirmed his “institutional loyalty”, the PSOE aspirant promised greater dialogue with the Catalan government, increased funding of its social and rural programs, the freezing of the PP's hated educational “reform” and a commission on constitutional reform.
However, he could not make any further concessions for two reasons. The first is the veto within the PSOE from its regional leaders (“barons”) and former prime ministers such as Felipe Gonzalez.
The second reason is that the PSOE's proposed government partner Citizens opposes any extension of Catalan national rights and leads the Spanish-unionist opposition to the pro-independence government in the Catalan parliament. Citizens began life as a movement in Catalonia against the use of Catalan as the primary language in schools.
The Otegi factor
While Sanchez was trying to wheedle an abstention from Podemos and the nationalist forces (that would have given the PSOE-Citizens coalition a 130-123 majority over the PP), Otegi was addressing a meeting in his home town of Egoibar.
The Basque leader had two central messages for his audience: the need to work with all forces in the Spanish state who support the right to self-determination of its peoples, and not to be afraid of self-criticism.
“I want to welcome the people from the Catalan Lands who are here, from the CUP [the left-independentist People's Unity List] and from the ERC. They are giving us a real lesson — a real lesson! — about what has to be done. And I thank them very much for the lesson they are giving us.
“And I also thank the comrades from Andalusia [a nationality in the south of the Spanish state] for their presence here.
“Because our struggle has never been against the Andalusian people, nor against the Castilian people, nor against the workers of [Madrid working-class suburb] Vallecas, nor against the Andalusian rural workers.
“Our struggle has always been against that Spanish state, dominated by those economic and oligarchical elites who deny freedom to the peoples and equality to the workers.”
Otegi also addressed those within the abertzale (patriotic) left movement who reject the self-criticism made of ETA's “armed struggle”, saying: “There are people who say that self-criticism or admitting that something has been done badly is a sign of weakness. I think the opposite — it is a sign of strength and political maturity.
“But we aren't going to make a self-criticism because certain party elites are asking for it, though they have the right to do so [a reference to the conservative Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), governing in the Spanish Basque Country]. Even less because the caste in Madrid is demanding it.
“We carry out self-criticism because we were born from this people, and we love this people, and we have a commitment to this people, and the only force that we accept is this people. And so we have no problem saying to this people what we have done well and what we have done badly.”
In his first interview after being released, on Basque public television ETB on March 4, Otegi said: “We should have identified considerably earlier the people's need to get beyond the stage of armed confrontation and to settle into a stage of democratic, political confrontation ... my conscience tells me we should have made this step before.”
'Open a second front'
At a 15,000-strong March 5 rally that overflowed the Anoeta velodrome in Donostia (San Sebastian), the Basque left-nationalist activist said that the best contribution that could be made “to the Catalan people” is to “open a second front against the [Spanish] State as soon as possible”.
Addressing Podemos (which he called the “Spanish new left”), Otegi added: “We Basque supporters of independence are ready to collaborate in the democratisation of the State, but we don't believe it is possible.
“However, if the historical opportunity arises, we would have no problem in taking part in that process, but I tell you that process won't happen.
“I ask you to be honest, and the day you realise that such a thing is impossible, join independence supporters in the nations of the State in setting [their own] constituent processes in motion.”
In contrast to Podemos's vision of a plurinational Spanish state, Otegi said it was within Spain's nations without a state that the social balance of forces most favoured the radical democratisation needed to ensure a decent life for the majority.
By contrast, “the project of domination of the Spanish elites revolves around Spanish unity”. This was reconfirmed for Otegi by a recent revelation that in 1975, the dying dictator Franco's final wish to his successor King Juan Carlos was that he do everything to preserve the unity of Spain.
Competing left perspectives
The competition between these two left perspectives on national liberation, most advanced in Catalonia, is now likely to intensify in the run-up to regional elections due in the Basque Country (Euskadi) in October: here the abertzale left will be looking to recover as many of the 100,000 votes it lost to Podemos in the December Spanish general elections as it can.
Responding to Otegi, Podemos general secretary Pablo Iglesias said: “I am proud to be Spanish and of course my motherland can be democratised ... We are not going to become supporters of independence, but I don't think that it's bad that they exist and that we can discuss the political differences between us in a sensible way.”
Otegi's return to the political stage gives the Spanish-centralist elites another headache that they could really do without as they squabble over how to keep Podemos out of the corridors of power.
This is especially the case as it is likely that Otegi will be chosen as lead candidate for EH Bildu, the coalition of left pro-independence forces that includes Sortu, in the October elections.
[This is the first part of a much longer article that can be read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]