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Basque Country: Behind the rise of the EH Bildu left coalition

EH Bildu's main election rally.

By Dick Nichols

October 22, 2012 – Links international Journal of Socialist Renewal -- On October 21, in probably the most powerful performance in the history of Basque politics, the left nationalist coalition Euskal Herria Bildu (EH Bildu, Basque Country Assembly) won 25% of the vote and 21 seats in the elections for 75-seat parliament of the Basque Autonomous Community (Euskadi) in the Spanish state. The rise of the EH Bildu came at the expense of all other parties.

(The seven regions of the Basque Country lie between Spain and France. The three provinces of Euskadi — Biskaia, Gipuskoa and Araba — plus the autonomous community of Navarra form its southern zone, Hegoalde, while three regions within the French department of Pyrenées Atlantiques form its northern zone, Iparralde.)

Over the years since the end of the Franco dictatorship the Basque left nationalist vote has varied greatly, depending whether the party representing it was legal or outlawed, or whether the movement was advocating an election boycott. Its highest previous vote for the Euskadi parliament was the 17.9% (14 seats) won by Eusko Herritarrok (EH, Basque Citizens) in 1998. In the October 21 election an extra 50,000 people voted for EH Bildu.

The result shows that all the other parties were right to treat EH Bildu as their main threat. The coalition has replaced the governing Socialist Party of Euskadi (PSE, the Basque affiliate of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, PSOE) as the second-biggest force behind the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV).

The PNV won the election with 34.6% of the vote and 27 seats, down 4% and 3 seats from its result in the 2009 poll. The PSE, losing 106,000 votes, scored only 19.1% and 16 seats, down from 30.7% and 25 seats in 2009.

The Popular Party (PP), which backed the PSE to form the government after the 2009 poll but withdrew its support in May this year, also lost support, from 14.1% to 11.7% (13 seats to 10).

Neither Esker Anitza (Plural Left) nor Esker Batua-Berdeak (EBB, United Left-Greens) — respectively the present and former affiliates in Euskadi of the all-Spanish United Left (IU, Izquierda Unida) — won a seat, even though their combined vote was 4.3%.

This was partly due to their divisions, but also to the undemocratic nature of the voting system in Euskadi, where a vote can have four times the value in one region as compared to another.

The Spanish-centralist Union, Progress and Democracy (UPyD) party held onto its one seat (with 1.9% of the vote), while the green formation Equo failed to win representation.

One negative aspect of the vote was the high abstention rate, which fell only marginally (from 35.3% to 34.2%) in the most important election in Euskadi for decades.

The overall result marks a major step forward for Basque nationalism as a whole, with 48 out of 75 seats in the Euskadi parliament now held by the PNV and EH Bildu.

At the same time, the rise of the left nationalists gives a big boost to resistance to austerity in Euskadi and across the Spanish state. In Euskadi it inspired thousands of unaligned progressive people, especially the young, to become politically active. Its main rally drew 12,000 to an indoor arena in Barakaldo and, in a rarity for Basque politics, its lead candidate, university teacher Laura Mintegi, was a woman and 50% of its candidates were women.

Origins

EH Bildu represents a qualitative step forward in uniting a left force in Euskadi committed to social justice and the Basque nation’s right to decide its future. It brings together:

  • The Basque abertzale (“patriotic”) left, whose main political expression from 1978 to 2003 was Herri Batasuna (HB, Popular Unity). In 2003 HB was outlawed in Spain under the Law of Parties, on the grounds that it had a “political and operational tie” with Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA, Basque Homeland and Freedom). ETA carried out an armed struggle against the Spanish state from 1968 until October 20, 2011, when it announced a definitive end to all military activity. The abertzale left only regained legal political status in June this year, when Spain’s Constitutional Court overturned a Supreme Court decision to deny registration to its new political voice, Sortu (“to be born”, “to create”), formed in February 2011.
  • Eusko Alkartasuna (EA, Basque Solidarity), which began as a 1980s split from the PNV, defines itself as social democratic and has traditionally enjoyed greater support in Navarra. In 2007, EA began to look to form a coalition with left nationalist forces after the PNV government of Euskadi acquiesced in the rejection by the Spanish parliament of its plan to conduct a referendum on a new statute for Euskadi. This was the “Ibarretxe Plan”, named after PNV first minister (lehendakari) Juan José Ibarretxe. EA’s key condition was that Batasuna (”Unity”), the abertzale successor to Herri Batasuna, break its ties with ETA and that ETA cease all military-terrorist activity. In the 2009 Euskadi parliamentary elections EA won 3.7% (one seat).
  • Alternatiba (the Alternative), a split from EBB. In its document, Keys for a new Basque political force with an alternative and socialist identity, Alternatiba criticises the existing organisations to the left of social democracy for their parliamentarism and inability to understand the centrality of the Basque struggle for self-determination.
  • Aralar, strongest in Navarra, started life in 2000 as a dissident current within HB, criticising the subordination of its political action to ETA’s periods of truce and warfare with the Spanish state, and speaking out against its armed struggle strategy in general. In the 2009 elections for the parliament of Euskadi Aralar won 6% (four seats).

EH Bildu follows the creation of the coalition Bildu (“Assembly”) by the abertzale left, EA and Alternatiba for the May 2011 municipal elections. Bildu won 26% of the vote in Euskadi and 11.6% in Navarra, including the regional government of Gipuskoa and the mayoralty of Donostia (San Sebastian), its capital.

At that poll Aralar’s vote fell to 2.9% in Euskadi. In Navarra, Nafarroa Bai (NaBai—Navarra, Yes!), the broad Basque nationalist coalition in which Aralar participated with the PNV and other groupings, won 11.4% of the vote—down from the 15.6% it won in the 2007 municipal poll and well down from the 23.6% it had won in the 2007 election for the Navarra parliament.

At its fifth congress in September 2012, Aralar voted to join the other three forces for the November Spanish national elections, creating the coalition Amaiur. This alliance won 24% in Euskadi and 14.9% in Navarra (seven seats in the Spanish parliament).

Aralar’s shift to left nationalist unity meant a break with some of its own parliamentarians in the Euskadi parliament and also with NaBai itself. In the meantime EA had also left NaBai, which later refounded as Geroa Bai (Future, Yes!).

The upshot of this chain of events is that in both Euskadi and Navarra voters now have a clear choice between left and right nationalist formations.

The common points uniting the quite different forces within EH Bildu is recognition of the Basque Country’s right to self-determination and sovereignty, combined with a platform of social, environmental and gender justice, and participatory democracy.

The alliance is the highest expression to date of convergence within left forces in Euskadi, representing a culmination of a long history of attempts to achieve unity on this basis, beginning with HB, and including Eusko Herritarrok (1998-2003) and Batasuna (2001-2003).

In 2003, these and other forces, such as Acción Nacionalista Vasca (ANV, Basque Nationalist Action) and the Partido Comunista de las Tierras Vascas (EHEK, Communist Party of Euskadi), were also outlawed under the Law of Parties.

One result of the combined PP-PSOE offensive against the abertzale left embodied in this law is that 200 of the 800 Basque prisoners presently in Spanish jails have been jailed merely for having an association with one or other of these parties, all of which have been ruled to be fronts for ETA.

One of these prisoners is Arnaldo Otegi, former MP for HB and EH in the Euskadi parliament and former spokesperson for Batasuna. Otegi is presently serving a six-year term for “membership of a terrorist organisation”.

A 180-degree turn

The most important factor allowing the rise of EH Bildu was ETA’s decision to suspend and then definitively end its “military” campaign in the Spanish state. As a result, the political situation in Euskadi turned 180 degrees and the region experienced its first elections free from fear.

The overall political impact of ETA’s 45 years of military-terrorist strategy was to make rational discussion of the Basques’ right of self-determination well-nigh impossible within the rest of the Spanish state, to demonise Basque left nationalism for a majority of working people in other parts of Spain and to confine supporters of the Basque right of self-determination to the role of sideline cheer squads and fundraisers.

By contrast, ETA’s farewell to arms is already starting to weaken the Spanish centralist claim that left Basque nationalism always comes with death and destruction, especially now that this has been followed with EH Bildu’s acknowledgement of the pain and damage done by ETA’s terrorism (as well as the state terrorism of Spanish governments).

Indeed, the repressive policies of the Spanish state and its judiciary—most recently typified by banning visitors to Arnaldo Otegi after he sent a message to the main EH Bildu election rally—now run the risk for Madrid of reducing hostility towards ETA prisoners. This is especially so, given that the European Court of Justice has upheld appeals against Spanish verdicts in a number of cases involving them.

Even while reaffirming her support for an independent Basque Country, Laura Mintegi made the EH Bildu 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 Mintegi, yelling that all this was just hypocrisy, while the PP’s Antonio Basagoiti floundered around trying to score points over Mintegi’s past as a candidate for EH.

On October 21, the extreme Spanish-centralist parties (UPyD and PP) lost 17,000 votes, hopefully an early sign that the demonisation of the Basque’s right to self-determination is becoming counterproductive. It will, however, take a lot more political pressure to persuade Madrid (and Paris) to enter into serious negotiations for a final resolution of the conflict.

Each in their own way, the PP, PSE and PNV continue to demand a mea culpa from the abertzale left for its supposed acquiescence in ETA’s terroristm as a still handy way of distracting attention from their own social and economic policies. They are either directly implementing European Union austerity plans (PP) or weakly criticising them (PNV and PSE).

However, by stressing its pro-people measures against the crisis, EH Bildu succeeded in exposing all three parties, especially the demagogy of PSE chief minister Patxi Lopez.

Policies

The EH Bildu 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, restoration of the pension age at 65 and job-creating public and community investment, including a public investment charter for Kutxabank (Euskadi’s main bank).

This revived and expanded public and community sector would be funded by a progressive income tax, a wealth tax, increased 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 of savings proposed is a cut in MP’s wages and perks, already implemented in Gipuskoa while other parties howled.

The new fiscal framework proposed by the coalition would also be targeted at defending Euskadi’s beautiful environment, most immediately by eliminating all anti-ecological subsidies. This would be combined with the immediate closure of the Garoña nuclear power station, a ban on gas 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 regional abertzale administration supplies its school meals program with organic produce sourced from local cooperatives that employ and train young unemployed.

Going on feedback during the campaign the most controversial area of EH Bildu policy was that of “linguistic normalisation”, its proposals for making the Basque language (euskera) “the customary and preferred language of the Basque citizenry in all daily settings”.

The anti-nationalist media portrayed this as involving a war on Castilian (Spanish), spoken by a large majority in Euskadi. Their fear campaign 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 Mintegi 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.

The EH Bildu program also aims to defend and extend democratic rights and culture. This applies in its opposition to populist “jobs for Basques” pressures and specific anti-immigrant measures implemented by the national PP government of Mariano Rajoy (such as restricted access to health care).

In the words of its election platform: “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 taking responsibility and participation. Now is the time to recover the meaning of democracy, what’s been called ‘government by the people’.”

Beyond reaffirming the right to decide Euskadi’s own future, the platform doesn’t outline a specific line of march to an act of self-determination and the final goal of sovereignty.

Commenting on the latest Euskobarometro survey, which shows 24% of those interviewed supporting independence and 24% increased autonomy within the Spanish state, Mintegi told the October 16, 2012, 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 perspective of a 2015 referendum on “a new national political status” for the region within the European Union.

Conclusion

What of other left campaigns and positions? Izquierda Unida (United Left) affiliate Esker Anitza ran a campaign against austerity and for the rights of workers and the poor, while avoiding engagement with the Basque right to decide in general or EH Bildu in particular.

EBB lead candidate Raquel Modubar claimed that “voting for the PSOE is voting for the PP and PNV” while “voting Bildu is to commit to independence.”

The 15M movement called for people to leave the ballot paper blank or spoilt as a protest against undemocratic elections and the political class, while the Anticapitalist Left said it “will not call for a vote for any political force”.

With the October 21 election result a new period opens in Basque and Spanish politics, succinctly summarised in comments by Iulen de Madariaga, a founder of ETA who had most influence in its adoption of the armed struggle but who later also led the struggle for its abandonment.

When asked by the Catalan daily Ara if the results of October 21 would finally convince some ETA supporters that “you advance more with politics than with violence”, he said: “I think so, and I would add that this proof is most important ‘in house’, for our people who weren’t convinced about leaving the violent response aside.”

And to the question, “Are the Basques and Catalans taking advantage of the great weakness of Spain and Europe?”, he replied: “We could take a lot more! The Spanish mini-empire is leaking and we have to seize on this weakness, which they try to disguise with aggressive talk to make it less visible. Their menacing verbiage is a symptom of feebleness — while they indulge in threats against Basques and Catalans they are sinking.”

[Dick Nichols is the European correspondent for Green Left Weekly and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, based in Barcelona. A shorter version of this article appeared in Green Left Weekly before the October 21 election in Euskadi.]

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