(For comment on the election results elsewhere in the Spanish state see https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2016/01/14/spanish-elections-result-in-most-fragmented-parliament-since-1936/ and https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2016/01/14/the-disunited-and-fading-spanish-left-handing-on-the-baton/)
As the votes in the General Election in the Spanish state result in huge gains for the Podemos party and the most fragmented Parliament since before the Spanish Civil War, the Abertzale Left’s party in the elections also loses massively to the newcomer. This occurs in the context of wide discontent within the Abertzale Left, especially among the youth, with a potential split emerging around the issue of political prisoners.
The Spanish state includes within its borders most of the Basque Country and the Catalan Countries, which have their distinct cultures and languages. Also with a significantly different culture are Asturias and Galicia, both of them considering themselves Celtic rather than Latin-Hispanic and also having their own languages. There are in fact small movements seeking independence or greater autonomy in all other regions of the state, including in the political centre itself, Castille.
Four of the Basque Country’s seven provinces are currently inside the Spanish state and they were included in the Spanish state’s General Election on 20th December. A number of financial scandals affecting the ruling Spanish right-wing Partido Popular in recent years no doubt made their leaders reluctant to go to the polls but holding off longer might have resulted in even worse outcomes.
On the other hand, the PP’s main parliamentary opposition, the social-democratic Partido Socialista Obrero Espaňol (PSOE) were also embroiled in some financial scandals during the same period, though not as many.
In the event, both main parties achieved disastrous results and neither can form a majority government. The new party of the social-democratic Left, Podemos (“We Can”), which did not even exist two years ago, has leapt into third place and a new party of the Right, Ciudadanos (“Citizens”), is in a poor fourth place. No two of the aforementioned parties can form a coalition government except in the case of a PP-PSOE coalition; however that would cause massive problems for each party and also dispel the political myth of a democratic choice between “Left and Right” in the Spanish state.
The Spanish state has long been the most unstable in the core European Union. Collusion between fascists, alleged social democrats and alleged communists internally, along with the support of the USA and the tolerance of its European partners has kept it afloat. Nevertheless, it represents the part of the EU most vulnerable to revolution, with immediate impact should that happen on the French and Portuguese states and further ripples throughout the EU. However the revolutionary and potentially revolutionary forces are weak, divided and riddled with opportunism. (see separate article focussing on the elections and the Spanish state in )
Despite the weaknesses in the Spanish state, the Basque Abertzale Left has made little headway against it and has been slipping electorally badly this year.
Election Results in the Basque Country
EH Bildu (“Basque Country Unite”), the social-democratic coalition party under the direction of the Basque Abertzale (Patriotic) Left, came out of the Spanish state-wide elections badly (as it did in the regional elections earlier this year in the Basque Country also, with the exception of in Nafarroa). With a drop of nearly two-thirds of its previous percentage of the vote, it lost five seats and now has only two in the Spanish Parliament (the Cortes). The christian-democrat PNV (Basque Nationalist Party), traditionally the dominant in the three southern provinces of Euskadi (i.e. excluding Nafarroa, the fourth), also took a drop in its percentage but a much smaller one and despite that, increased its numbers of seats from five to six. The Basque nationalist coalition in Nafarroa, Geroa Bai (“Yes to the Future”), lost its only seat.
The winner that swept up the ‘missing’ votes in the Basque Country was Podemos, a party that did not even exist until last year. Although gaining one seat less than the PNV in the “Euskadi” or CAV (three provinces region), Podemos actually won more votes and its share was 25.97%, against the PNV’s 24.75%. Shockingly, at 15.72%, EH Bildu has now been reduced to fourth place after the other two and the PSOE, with only the PP worse off but with the same amount of seats. Even in Gipuzkoa, the province most loyal to the Abertzale Left, their share fell to 20.89% and their coalition party EH Bildu lost two seats. In the same province Podemos topped the poll in votes and gained two seats. In the fourth province, Nafarroa, EH Bildu lost their only seat and took a 9.90% share against UPN-PP’s 28.93%, Podemos’s 22.9%, and PSOE’s 15.53%.
(www.eitb.eus/es/elecciones/elecciones-generales/resultados and http://www.eitb.eus/eu/hauteskundeak/hauteskunde-orokorrak/emaitzak/kongresua/nafarroa/– hover cursor over the pie-chart sections for more info).
It seems clear that in the Basque Country, Podemos took votes both from the PSOE and from the Abertzale Left’s coalition party, EH Bildu and even some from the PNV. For the PSOE, a party in Government in the past and implicated in the GAL murders, also involved in a number of recent financial scandals across the state, to lose votes in the Basque Country to a radical-left coalition, would have come as no surprise to most people. It is a different matter altogether for EH Bildu, with a strongly patriotic Left following, never tainted with a financial scandal and never yet in Government, to lose votes to a newcomer like Podemos — and that needs some explanation.
The fact is that the AL leadership flirted with Podemos – even proposing a joint electoral platform — and thereby sent the message that voting for them would not be such a bad thing. But there were sufficient reasons for the AL to have done otherwise, even without the objective of safeguarding their own vote. It has been clear for some time that the leadership of Podemos is hostile to aspirations towards independence of nations within the State. Their leader recently criticised the decision of a Catalan pro-independence coalition to use the regional elections as a quasi-referendum on Catalunya’s independence. Also one of their ideologues, in the midst of an intervention in discussions within Colombia, likened ETA to Columbia’s fascist assassination squads (who murder trade unionists, human rights workers, socialists, even street children). In addition, Podemos has never come out against the repression in the Basque Country.
There were enough reasons for the AL leadership to draw a deep line between themselves and Podemos. But they did the opposite. This contrasts with the left-republican Catalan nationalists (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya-Catalunya Sí) who engaged in a public battle with Podemos’ leadership. Incidentally, they increased their share of the vote by 1.33% and their representation from three seats to nine.
Another vulnerability of the AL movement to a party like Podemos is precisely the road of conciliation with and concession to the Spanish state taken by the AL over the recent five years and longer. If that road is seen to be OK then, some might say, why not vote for a radical reformist left party and one which, crucially, has a large following throughout the State? Such thinking combines a perception that revolution is not possible, implicit in the approach of the AL leadership, with a view that a solution can only be found outside the Basque Country, which although contrary to most of AL’s propaganda, does seem in part to be the case, based on population statistics alone (see discussion on this further on).
This view was seemingly endorsed by the post-election statement of Barrena, spokesperson for the Abertzale Left’s party Sortu, who characterised the vote for Podemos as “the right to decide” and held out his hand for electoral coalitions with them in the future. The irony — that precisely Podemos does not support “the right to decide” of nations within the Spanish state – was apparently lost on Barrena.
Around September there were whispers of the intention to hold a review of their trajectory within the Abertzale Left. This seemed an acceptance that their chosen path had, if not failed completely, then certainly fallen far short of their own expectations. I wondered how they would contain severe criticisms within such a review, a much more difficult process now than some years ago, when confusion combined with illusions and the soothing words of long-standing leaders.
Further confirmation of this review has since come out: called ABIAN (“Launch”), it’s a debate being organised by Sortu (“Create”), a social-democratic party of the AL. A recent article in a Gipuzkoa news media stated clearly that the review was a response to criticisms of Sortu, “for the first time within the Abertzale Left” (i.e. not only outside of it). The article went on to list a number of organisations within the AL who had published criticisms, including “Boltxe” and the revived “Eusko Ekintza” (http://m.noticiasdegipuzkoa.com/2015/09/01/politica/las-duras-criticas-internas-empujan-a-sortu-a-revisar-su-estrategia-politica-y-organizativa). This contradicts Barrena’s public statement in September that those who criticise the current path of the Abertzale Left and their policy on the prisoners could no longer be counted as within the movement.
Given the electoral showing of the AL’s coalition party EH Bildu and other issues, such a review may be a way of “managing” the dissent but must also hold much danger for the leadership’s line, despite the party positions of the Otegi/ Permach/ Barrena leadership seeming reasonably secure at the moment (Otegi is due for release very soon).
Aside from all this and going back for a moment to Podemos, it does seem unlikely that this party has a long-term future but its development will be interesting to observe.
The political prisoners – a fracture point for the movement?
Whereas the Provisional Republican movement suffered a number of small splits and some defections as a result of its embarkation on the pacification road, it is a fact that they had something pretty significant to deliver – the release of political prisoners affiliated to them. Nearly every single one walked out of jail and their release was not only a result to “sell” the GFA to the movement but some of the prisoners themselves were used as advocates of the process. Although it is true the prisoners were only released “on licence” and a that number were sent back to jail without a trial again later, including new prisoners, that only happened to “dissidents”. For the moment that could be seen as helping the continuation of the Good Friday Agreement and hampering the mobilisation of Republican opposition to Sinn Féin and their chosen path.
The Abertzale Left has had no such gain and a split in the movement seems to be forming precisely around that issue.
There are 410 Basque political prisoners officially recognised by the Abertzale Left (there are some dissidents too outside that, apparently) and they, like their counterparts in the Irish Republican movement, have always been an important element in the struggle. Political prisoners are dispersed all over the Spanish state and the Basques are by far the most numerous component of these. Some are also serving very long sentences, as are their comrades who are jailed by the French and also dispersed throughout their state.
Around a dozen are suffering with very serious illnesses and the Spanish prison administration has admitted that it does not have appropriate treatment facilities for a number of them. However, mostly there they remain and a number have died in captivity in recent years. Twelve people have also died in automobile crashes on the long journeys to visit prisoners dispersed to hundreds or even a thousand kilometres from their homes and an average of one serious traffic accident a month for visitors was recorded last year.
Dispersal is a serious issue and for many years has been one of those upon which the movement concentrated, in particular Etxerat, the prisoners’ relatives’ and friends’ group, and the short-lived Herrira, a prisoners’ political campaigning group banned by the Spanish state and their leading organisers arrested. But that demand also stood alongside the demand for amnesty, the freeing of the prisoners as part of a political settlement.
More recently, however, the Abertzale Left’s leadership has been placing the emphasis on combating the dispersal and, according to some of their critics within the movement, abandoning the demand for amnesty. Perhaps the leadership felt that dispersal was an issue they had the capacity to change (though it is difficult to see how), whereas without an armed struggle to use as a bargaining chip, a prisoners’ amnesty may have seemed out of reach.
Meanwhile, last year, Sare (“Network”) was created by the AL leadership to pick up the threads dropped by Herrira but little has been heard or seen of it. The organisation’s spokesperson is Joseba Azkarraga, who has a somewhat radically fragmented track record. During the 1960s and 1970s a member of ETA (a fact missing from his Wikipedia entry in Spanish), he left them and joined the christian democrat PNV (Basque Nationalist Party). Azkarra was elected to be member of the Alava province local government for the PNV in 1979, a role he fulfilled later for Bizkaia province 1982-1986 and in the latter year also for the province of Guipuzkoa — representing the PNV throughout.
In 1987 he was part of a split from the PNV that led to the formation of Eusko Alkartasuna (EA), for which party he was elected a member of local government for Bizkaia in 1989. He was a member of EA’s National Executive 1987-1993 and 1999-March 2009, in between which periods he had withdrawn to concentrate on his business in the banking sector. From September 2001 to May 2009, he had the responsibility of Councillor for Justice, Employment and Social Security for the Basque Government. He has been quoted as saying that the more prosecutions of Abertzale Left activists the better – this from a man with a law degree in a State where prosecutions of Basques are more often than not ensured by “confessions” extracted by torture and where the standard of “evidence” required to convict is derisory.
Grumbling, particularly among younger activists about the emphasis on the institutions and the “abandonment of the street”, has been growing over the years. “Our movement’s spokespersons no longer speak of ‘freedom’ and ‘socialism’ but use more ambiguous words like ‘right to decide’ and social justice’ ” is a growing complaint.
Recently an organisation called Amnistia Ta Askatasuna (“Amnesty and Freedom”) was launched to campaign not only against dispersal but for amnesty for the prisoners too. The movement also goes by the name of Amnistiaren Aldeko Mugimendua (“Amnesty Movement”). In August of this year ATA/AAM held a small but significant demonstration in Bilbao associated with the annual alternative festival there which is strongly patronised by youth. At the end of November they held another in the same city, this time attended by an estimated 9,000.
In a Basque alternative radio station interview in August, some of ATA/AAM’s spokespersons complained of attempts to malign and isolate them but said they were overcoming these tactics and gaining support. The AL’s bilingual daily newspaper, GARA, did not publicise their demonstration in advance and their estimate of the attendance afterwards was about half of the real figure. The report also neglected to mention the messages of support from a number of political prisoners to the rally.
In December, the six alleged ETA prisoners awaiting trial in Paris on charges involving kidnapping, car and weapons theft and, for two of them, murder of a police officer, made a press statement denouncing the ATA/AAM group and claiming that they were using the prisoners as a Trojan horse in order to attack the whole recent direction of the Abertzale Left. They also accused them of trying to get Basque prisoners to leave the prisoners’ collective, the EEPK. No evidence was produced of this and the ATA/AAM were not asked to comment. GARA published the Paris statement under a headline containing the allegations without even putting them in quotation marks. It is rumoured that GARA lost many subscribers after that reporting.
It seems likely that this controversy will sharpen over the coming months with people, including prisoners, being obliged to take sides and it may be that it will be characterised by a similar bitterness to that which exists in the Republican movement in Ireland. But unlike the case of Ireland, the numbers of Basque prisoners in the jails remains very high. In addition, the Spanish state continues to jail people who are clearly political activists which adds to the political prisoner population. Without a change in that situation, the likelihood of very serious contention within the movement is high and on a much larger scale than has been the case in Ireland.
The recent dismal electoral showing of EH Bildu can only increase unhappiness within the movement and lead to judgements critical of the AL leadership and, inevitably, to one degree or another, of the path they openly set out upon a little over five years ago.
Background – the origins and trajectory of the Abertzale Left
Born during the Franco dictatorship, the Abertzale Left (Basque: Ezker Abertzalea; Spanish: Izquierda Abertzale) is a broad alliance of patriotic and Left elements with many aspects situated on the social, cultural-linguistic, trade union, media and of course political fronts. The movement was subject to heavy repression from the outset and after nearly a decade a section responded by taking up arms. The Basque Nationalists had done that against Franco in the Civil War – however, the Abertzale Left was doing so in a country occupied by the victors of that war.
Not many outside the Basque Country realise that ETA (“Basque Country and Freedom”) is more than “the armed wing of the Basque patriotic movement” — it is the origin of the Abertzale Left, operating solely politically and culturally (albeit clandestinely) for nine years, its activists spied upon, arrested, tortured, jailed. Eventually ETA took up the gun.
It was one of the main ideologues and organisers of ETA, José Miguel Beñaran Ordeñana (alias “Argala”, 1949 – murdered by GAL 21st December 1978) who pushed for the legal and semi-legal aspects of the work to form themselves into separate organisations from ETA while the parent organisation kept a relationship with them.
Although the old Basque Nationalist Party was legalised under the new form of the state after the death of Franco, repression of the Abertzale Left continued. Nevertheless the movement continued to grow, in particular its many non-military aspects, although they too were and are subjected to heavy repression.
Despite the adaptability of the movement and its significantly wide base (between 12%-20% on past electoral showings, despite banning and disqualifications of electoral platforms), it was difficult to see the validity of its strategy of combining armed struggle and popular political movement within the Basque Country, with regard to its long-term objectives of national independence and socialism.
The ruling classes of both the Spanish and French states have a long imperial history along with a strong traditional insistence on the unity of their “home” states, on which they have never shown a willingness to compromise. That is reflected not only within their main right-wing parties but also within the main social-democratic parties and the remains of the old Moscow-orientated Communist parties. In the Spanish state the situation is even more problematic, since the Basque Country and Catalunya are two of the most economically successful within the state, outperforming nearly every other region by a significant margin. Why would the Spanish ruling class wish to give those regions up?
The total Basque population is only around 3.5 million, some of which is within the borders of the French state. The Spanish state has a population of around 45 million outside the Basque Country and even with the subtraction of that of Catalunya (7.5 + million) and the Balearic Islands (just over one million), that still leaves a population of 36.5 million from which to draw soldiers and police.
According to Wikipedia, “the Spanish armed forces are a professional force with a strength in 2012 of 123,300 active personnel and 16,400 reserve personnel. The country also has the 80,000 strong Guardia Civil which falls under the control of the Ministry of Defence in times of a national emergency. The Spanish defence budget is 5.71 billion euros (7.2 Billion USD) a 1% increase for 2015.” The Wikipedia paragraph ends with the ominous sentence that “The increase comes due to security concerns in the country.”
Those figures of course do not include the other police forces, such as the National (Cuerpo de Policía Nacional or “los Grises”)), with a strength of nearly 88,000. This armed force, along with the Guardia Civíl (“los Verdes”), has been traditionally repressive of the Abertzale Left, a task now mostly left to their respective forces in the Basque Country, the Ertzaintza and Policía Forál, forces which, like their counterparts in Catalunya, the Mossos d’Escuadra, have been viciously engaged in repression of the patriotic movements. Then of course there are the municipal police forces inside the Basque Country and elsewhere which can be mobilised as backups to military operations.
Add to that the fact that Nafarroa (the fourth southern Basque province) contains significant Spanish unionist and right-wing elements (it has voted a PP majority for decades) and that much of the Basque Nationalist Party’s following is hostile to the Abertzale Left and it is difficult to see how the AL ever expected to win a straight contest of strength with either state.
Perhaps, like the Irish Republican Movement, with which it has traditionally had fraternal relations, the Abertzale Left thought to make itself such a nuisance to the power occupying it that the latter would get fed up and leave them to it. In both cases but even more obviously so in the case of the Basques, that would have been a serious misreading of the situation and an underestimation of the importance to the power in question of remaining in possession.
It seems clear that the only scenario in which the Basque Country could set up a truly independent state would be one in which the Spanish state at the very least (and probably the French one too) would be unable to send repressive forces in to deal with such an attempt. And what would be the nature of such a scenario? Why, nothing less than that the ruling class of the Spanish state (probably of the French state also) were facing a revolutionary situation across the rest of its territory. Not only would such a situation tie down much of its armed forces but it would have the potential for soldiers refusing to fire on workers, mutinies and defections to revolutionary forces.
Working from such an analysis, activists of the Abertzale Left, as well as organising their movement within the Basque Country, would have been busily building relationships with the revolutionary movements and organisations across the Spanish state. But apart from the electoral alliance for the European Parliamentary elections of 2009 (the creation of the Iniciativa Internacionalista platform, which was the victim of massive electoral fraud by the State), the Abertzale Left has never seriously set about such a project. On the other hand, the formerly-Moscow orientated communist party and left-social democrats across the state, as noted earlier, have also kept at a distance from the Abertzale Left and from their aims. The left coalition of mostly Trotskists, Communists and radical social democrats of Izquierda Unida has done likewise.
There are however small formations of revolutionary communists, anarchists and left-independentists, along with anti-centralist movements with revolutionary potential, as well as a number of anti-unionist and independent trade unions throughout the state. To be sure, the immediate prospects are not glowing – but what other option is there? And how else can one be placed to take advantage of a revolutionary upsurge across the state should one occur?
A significant deviation from the original route
During the 1980s, during an ETA truce, there were peace talks held between ETA and the Spanish Government which came to nothing. Similar overtures during the early 1990s had similar results.
It appears that at some point in the late 1990s, perhaps attracted by the development and apparent gains of the Irish pacification process, the leadership of the Abertzale Left began to look for a different way out of their difficulty. Arnaldo Otegi is widely seen as the architect of this trajectory.
Part of this new approach involved seeking alliances with the PNV and with social-democratic parties within the Basque Country. The PNV is the party of the Basque nationalist bourgeoisie, no longer prepared to fight the Spanish ruling class as it was in 1936. It has its capitalist interests and has a record of jobbery and corruption including its involvement in the TAV, the High-Speed Rail project. It even asked the Spanish state to make militant opposition to this project a terrorist offence. The PNV manages its police allocation, the Ertzaintza, a vicious force active against the Abertzale Left and against striking workers and responsible for the serious injury and death of several. The PNV also manages the Basque TV station EITB and therefore controls both the arms of repression and of propaganda. Although the AL criticises the PNV from time to time this is mostly for the lack of support for a broad front against the Spanish state – AL spokespersons rarely attack it for its capitalist exploitation or jobbery.
Otegi was apparently active with ETA in the French state for around ten years and served three years in a Spanish jail for an ETA kidnapping in 1987, after which he involved himself in political activism. Ten years later the jailing for seven years of senior members of Herri Batasuna left a vacuum in the leadership of the organisation which Otegi filled along with Joseba Permach (sentenced to three years jail in August 2014 – but halved on appeal — in the “social centres trial” which confiscated the assets of the centres) and Pernando Barrena.
Otegi led a number of initiatives for the Abertzale Left to embark on a different path, which combined ETA ceasefires, talks with other parties, and militant rhetoric. The latter landed him with a 15-month sentence of which he eventually served one year. Subsequently he has been arrested a number of times, convicted twice and exonerated twice. In 2011 he was charged with trying to rebuild Batasuna, the AL party banned by the Spanish state and was sentenced to ten years; this was reduced on appeal to 6.5 years so that he is due out soon. In 2013 he was elected General Secretary of the AL social-democratic political party Sortu.
Despite the relatively short prison sentence (compared to many other Basque prisoners) and the fact that he appears to be in good health, a campaign was started for Otegi’s release and a petition circulated around and outside the movement. This broke a long-standing rule in the movement that there would be no campaigning for individual Basque political prisoners, from which an exception was previously made only in the cases of seriously-ill prisoners. Nevertheless the campaign petition and Facebook page has been circulated through the movement without any official condemnation — or even distancing from — by the AL leadership. However the campaign has attracted some muted criticism across the movement.
The AL leadership proposed a “peace process” but the problem was that, unlike the case with the British, the Spanish ruling class had no interest in developing anything like that. Their aim was to crush the movement with an iron glove, not to “choke it with butter” as their British counterparts had done.
So the Abertzale Left took the road of unilateral ceasefire. This seemed to many of their friends a doomed tactic since it left the Basques with nothing to bargain. In September 2010, ETA announced a ceasefire, saying it wished to use “peaceful, democratic means” to realise the aspirations of the Basque people. The Spanish state’s reaction was not encouraging but nevertheless on 20th October the following year, the organisation announced a “cessation of armed activity”. This followed the conclusion of the “International Peace Conference” held in Donostia/San Sebastián.
The composition of the conference was clear indication of the AL leadership’s projected route and in particular the type of allies it sought internationally: former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former Taoiseach of Ireland Bertie Ahern, former Prime Minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Interior Minister of France Pierre Joxe, President of Sinn Féin Gerry Adams and British diplomat Jonathan Powell, who had served as the first Downing Street Chief of Staff. To summarise, a collection of servants and executives of imperialism, colonialism, capitalism and even executives of repression and one exposed in a financial corruption scandal.
The declaration at the conclusion of the conference was also supported by former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, former US President Jimmy Carter and the former US Senator and former US Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George J. Mitchell. In other words, former leaders of US and British Imperialism and one of their agents.
Despite the abandonment of armed struggle by the Abertzale Left leadership, the meeting did not include Spanish or French government representatives and the ruling classes of both states remained unreceptive to the overtures of the AL leadership. Not only that, but the Spanish state continues to arrest the movement’s activists, to torture and to jail them. No amount of criticism by committees for the prevention of torture working for the UN or for the EU, nor condemnation by Amnesty International and many human rights associations within the Spanish state, have had any visible impact on the operations of the Spanish state in recent years. And “confessions” obtained by torture continue to be used as admissible ‘evidence’ for the Prosecution even when withdrawn by the victim and the torturers denounced in court.
The ETA ceasefire continues to date and a number of other statements have been made by ETA including one in which they announced the destruction of a number of weapons, verified by a decommissioning expert. A number of “international conferences” have been held with further calls on the Spanish state to cooperate, also without significant result.