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Sortu and Basque left nationalism’s strategic relaunch
By Dick Nichols
March 5, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Nearly 10 years after the Spanish high court outlawed its previous political organisations, Basque left nationalism has finally given birth to a new legal party—Sortu (“to create” or “to be born” in Basque). The new arrival is a powerful progressive force for Basque independence—socialist, feminist, ecologically aware and staunchly internationalist.
Its goal is an independent socialist Basque-speaking state that unites the three northern Basque regions in the French department of Pyrenees Atlantiques with the four southern Basque regions covering Navarra and Euskadi (the Basque Autonomous Community) in the Spanish state.
Its strategy is to build majority support for this goal on three battlefields―ideological, mass social struggle and in Spanish and French institutions.
Sortu’s founding congress, held on February 23, 2013, in Iruñea (Pamplona)—known as the “Jerusalem of the Basques”—marked the successful end to a difficult journey. It capped a four-year strategic debate within the left nationalist (abertzale) movement and 15 months of court battles to achieve legal status in Spain.
Initially launched in February 2011, the new party first had to prove to the Spanish legal system that it had no political dependence on the armed organisation Basque Homeland and Freedom (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, ETA).
ETA’s 50-year “armed struggle” produced more than 800 deaths and the previous abertzale left organisations—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. In June 2007, the European Court of Human Rights upheld this ruling.
Despite Sortu’s statutes renouncing any use of violence, including specifically by ETA, in March 2011 the Spanish high court also rejected that party’s application for legal status, 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 2012 on the grounds that it violated the right to association. Sortu was then included in the register of political parties.
However, the constitutional court’s hairline six-to-five decision also specified some spurious triggers for outlawing the party in the future, such as “ambiguity in the condemnation of terrorism” and advocacy of “equality of suffering” between the victims of ETA terrorism and abertzale prisoners in Spanish jails.
Sortu’s legalisation was preceded by that of the left-nationalist electoral coalitions Bildu (for the May 2011 municipal and shire elections), Amaiur (for the November 2011 Spanish national poll) and EH Bildu (for the October 2012 regional election in Euskadi).
In each of these coalitions the abertzale left participated with other left nationalist forces but without a party organisation of its own.
The road to Sortu’s founding congress began in 2007 with the growing conviction within the abertzale left that its previous “military-political” strategy was at a dead end, a viewpoint that had also been winning increasing support from a number of former ETA leaders held in Spanish jails.
A turning point was ETA’s December 2006 bombing at Madrid airport, which was carried out during a period of official truce with the Spanish government and which killed two workers. In the days following, leaders of the outlawed Batasuna, including spokesperson Arnaldo Otegi, for the first time ever called on ETA to observe a truce.
Otegi was later to say (in his 2012 book, El Tiempo de las Luces) that the Madrid airport bombing “seriously damaged ETA’s credibility within Basque society and deprived any future initiative of ETA 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, like the Batasuna leadership, who were convinced that “the cycle of armed struggle was absolutely exhausted”.
The necessary process of clarification with the left nationalist community began with Otegi’s release from jail in late 2008 and the proposal for a strategy based on peaceful mass struggle and broad alliance-building towards the goal of an independent, socialist Basque nation.
Despite conditions of increased state repression and ceaseless dirty trickery from the Spanish government and courts—including the arrest and trial of Otegi and other leaders on charges of trying to reconstitute Batasuna as a tool of ETA—from October 2009 the abertzale left carried out an exhaustive debate on the issues involved.
In this debate, involving 7000 activists, the position of unconditional and unilateral adoption of an exclusively political strategy for Basque left nationalism won overwhelming support—leading to its codification in the February 2010 document “Arise Basque Country” (Zutik Euskal Herria), and to eventual acceptance by ETA.
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 2012.
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, announced before the November 2011 Spanish national elections? How should it embody the project of Basque national liberation in this new political cycle?
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 participate and which over five months drafted, discussed and amended three documents outlining Sortu’s ideological bases, political strategy and tactics and organisational model.
Around 18,000 copies of the draft documents were downloaded from the Sortu web site and discussed by 6000 participants in four rounds of meetings in 293 towns and neighbourhoods across the southern Basque Country. The documents were also discussed in the northern Basque Country sent to all Basque political prisoners.
A notable feature of the meetings was the large presence of young people and the degree of engagement in the debate, often leading to second sessions having to be arranged. Through the process 400 amendments were received to the ideological bases document, 934 to the political line and 520 to the organisational model.
These were then organised into blocks by the drafting panel, and submitted to a vote at the following round of meetings. A final round of meetings elected local leaderships, delegates to the founding congress and local representatives to Sortu’s national assembly, its central leadership body. The task of the 400-delegate founding congress was to vote on the three documents as amended and adopted by the local meetings.
Before that, however, the delegates heard a message from the imprisoned Arnaldo Otegi, for whom the position of party secretary general is being kept vacant for when he leaves jail. He asked them 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, adding 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?”
Otegi’s message stressed the value of Sortu as “a new instrument of struggle in the hands of the people of the abertzale left” that had achieved legal status “because we have generated sufficient conditions for the [Spanish] State to judge that here and now its preference for illegalisation would create more costs than benefits.”
The congress then heard reports on the local discussion and voting on the three documents.
The key points of the ideological basis proposed for Sortu and the issues most discussed in the local assemblies were as follows.
On independence and character of a Basque state: “Independence is the way to guarantee and bring into practice the right to decide our political, economic, cultural and social model…
“Conscious of the negative features associated with the traditional concept of the state, from Sortu we make the firm commitment to work to offer a different model, [one which] rejects all forms of oppression, be they national, class or gender [and] which uses and develops the tools of citizen participation…an empowerment that guarantees that it is the citizenry and working people who create and decide policy…a model where states are not tools of the markets but tools of the peoples…
“By the same token our desire for independence does not mean that we want a culturally homogenous and uniform nation. We defend a nation in which all the rights of all the people who live and work there are recognised…
“The Basque State to which Sortu is committed as a strategic goal will be constituted by decision of the majority of Basque society. In that state Sortu will defend the interest of the working class and the popular masses, developing nation-building and social transformation with the goal of creating a free people composed of free individuals.”
In the local assemblies one point of discussion was Sortu’s exact place in the broader Basque left-nationalist movement, represented at the electoral level by the three-and four-party coalitions like Bildu and EH Bildu.
On socialism: “Conscious of the fact that the different conceptions of what socialism means have been the main reason for the innumerable divisions on the left, and because the goal of our project is to bring together all abertzale and left people in the Basque Country, all ways of understanding the left and socialism have to find a place within it … given certain minimal principles.
“These minimum principles for Sortu would be acknowledgement of the existence of the class struggle; the need to re-share work and redistribute wealth in the name of the welfare of the whole population; the need for strong public services based on the principle of solidarity; the defence of the culture of self-organisation and community action as the basis of a social, solidarity-based and cooperative economy … public ownership of the strategic means of production and economic sectors…”
On feminism: 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, and 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 the Basque language (euskara). “The Basque Country and the Basque-speaking people are victims of the structuring of France and Spain as nation states. Centuries of oppression have dismantled our linguistic community, and to re-establish an euskara-speaking Basque Country composed of multilingual Basque citizens it is necessary to modify individual and collective habits and give priority to euskara in all private and public spheres, taking all possible steps towards the attainment of the Basque State that will be the sole guarantee of the survival of our language.”
Local discussion reaffirmed that euskara would be the only official language, guaranteed by and in turn reinforcing the Basque state, but that linguistic diversity would simultaneously be encouraged.
On ecology: Staring from the viewpoint that “the social option that capitalism offers us is a model of economic growth that only be sustained at the cost of the exploitation of other peoples, individuals and of nature, of our Mother Earth”, the draft text said that “we need instruments that allow us to develop our own [environmental] model … committing to the balanced development of the regions and territories of the Basque Country and modifying consumption habits, advancing towards self-sufficiency and territorial integration and committing to a redistributive, multifunctional, solidarity-based and sustainable territorial model.”
Europe: The final position reached was one of rejecting the present neoliberal configuration and policies of the European Union, beginning with the 1992 Maastrict Treaty, but in the name of a Europe of social justice. “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.”
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.
The amended ideological bases document, which had won 77% support in the local vote, achieved 98.5% support at the congress.
Political strategy and tactics
The draft political line document laid great and repeated emphasis on the fundamental task facing Sortu—to create social majorities on the issues where presently the abertzale left enjoys only minority support. The entire document is directed to explaining how to build the national and social struggles needed to achieve that goal, how to conceive the present “phase of democratic confrontation” and the role of the Basque working class as the central driver of the process.
“Sortu”, it states, “is conscious that independence and the building of socialism in the Basque Country … will require a long process of construction and adaptation to objective and subjective conditions.”
While noting the “unilateral and unconditional character of the abertzale left’s commitment to the disactivation of the strategies of armed confrontation” with France and Spain, the text stresses the ongoing and systemic violence being suffered by the Basque Country in all spheres and vindicates “civil and political disobedience as a weapon of struggle and as an alternative to set against the power of the States”.
In its analysis of the political situation in Spain the draft document is critical of the all-Spanish United Left (IU, Izquierda Unida), stressing that “it has not made a reflection … focused on the profound transformation that the Spanish state would need” and noting that “without tackling the model of state from a democratic standpoint—related, as well, to the question of self-determination—a real change is impossible”.
The document stressed the crisis of the Spanish state in relation to Catalan and Basque national aspirations, noting that in Euskadi the formation of new political alliances “has advanced with greater speed and force than could be foreseen, extending strategic agreements and closing the wounds of the past”.
Emphasis was laid on the need to change the social balance of forces as a precondition for further electoral gains. “Although on occasions it has appeared as the main theme, the dispute for electoral hegemony cannot be our axis of work nor our immediate main goal, now that we are creating [in Sortu] the motor and decisive force for shifting the political process.
“What has to be created is the way forward. To achieve that we want to expand the accumulation of forces as much as possible. In that sense the PNV [Basque Nationalist Party, the main right-wing nationalist force and presently ruling in Euskadi] will remain an electoral rival, but at the same time it—along with the other political forces—will have to be made an offer to travel the route of democracy.”
The document envisages the possibility of an independent Basque state being achieved as a result of the struggle for the exercise of the right to national self-determination, but without it yet being socialist in character—even while Sortu itself pursues its twin objective of national liberation and social transformation.
This whole combined process of struggle for national and social gains was given the name of “left construction” (Ezkerretik Eraikiz). One immediate task was to strengthen the campaign on Basque political prisoners in Spanish jails, including “new initiatives and proposals to increase the impact of the popular movement, increase the contradictions for the state, strengthen international engagement and help the initiatives of the prisoners’ collective itself”.
Local debate on Sortu’s political line 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 in the here and now the economic and social stepping stones to a future Basque state, pointing to Bildu’s work in administering 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).
The other main area of discussion was how Sortu should develop its policy and build its campaign around the prisoners in Spanish jails, as well as the hundreds of Basque activists in exile, in particular the phases the struggle for amnesty would have to go through..
The amended political line document, which had won 91% support in the local vote, won 98% support at the congress.
The organisational model document produced the most debate in Sortu’s local meetings, 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 and organising centre of committed activists engaged in all arenas of struggle.
The original text said: “The internal life of the new political force that we want to set in motion has three main characteristics: permanent internal participatory democracy, priority for euskara and equality of participation.”
The draft committed to making Sortu’s national assembly (made up of one representative per local organisation) the core decision-making body and to opening up lines of internal communication. Internal discussion would be conducted exclusively in euskara, except in the most Castilian-speaking regions, while the goal of gender parity would be set for all levels of the organisation, with a specific plan to work out ways of achieving the objective.
Sortu’s organisation model draft faced a number of complicated decisions. How to guarantee maximum participation while preserving and developing as large as possible an activist core to drive forward Ezkerretik Eraikiz? The draft proposed that Sortu’s fundamental unit, the local assembly, be open, while simultaneously advocating “a new model of activism”.
“The activist we need for Sortu has to be a sociopolitical instigator, always driving forward community work ... At the same time, he or she has to adapt to the various kinds and levels of level of activism that may result from Sortu opening its doors and giving an opportunity to participate to the greatest possible number of people.”
How to organise the party’s relations with the other forces in the various left nationalist coalitions in which it participates? The draft proposed that “with respect to institutional work, Sortu will develop it by means of the institutional alliance” but in coordination with Sortu’s own “institutional struggle body”.
How to help maintain the autonomy of the social movements while having a useful and coherent intervention? The draft text said that “Sortu will stimulate the social movements but not create any social movement entity of its own nor seek to take over any existing ones”. At the same time all levels of Sortu will have a “mass struggle body” to help guide the party’s interventions.
The mass struggle task will cover both Ezkerretik Eraikiz and Sortu’s own internal network for keeping members informed and active—known as Sarea (network).
To coordinate all this Sortu local councils (executives) will have six portfolios—covering overall coordination, finances, communication, institutional struggle, ideological struggle and mass struggle.
At the capital city level these six functions will be complemented by portfolios to cover internal organisation and coordination of neighbourhoods.
Still more functions are added further up at the shire, provincial and national levels. The national council contains 21 members.
In the original draft the tension between these potentially competing imperatives led to a proposal for a three-tier membership system, ranging from the “social base member” expected to participate little in the party’s internal life and not to pay dues, then a the dues-paying but low-activity membership category and an activist category. After discussion, this proposal 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 be combined in the most effective way. The draft document’s seeming prioritisation of the ideological struggle was amended to favour the mass social struggle.
On the issue of internal currents, excluded in the original text, the position finally adopted was to recognise their right to formation, but without any automatic right to representation on leadership bodies. A proposal to create a position of coordinator of feminist work at all levels of the organisation was rejected as “artificial”.
The amended organisational model document, which won 53% support in the local vote, was adopted with 95.5% support at the congress.
The two other proposals arising from the founding process—covering Sortu’s structures and its national council—were adopted by similar margins, while the specific congress resolutions on national and international politics were adopted near unanimously. In the midst of all this work, the congress heard greetings from the ETA prisoners collective (EPPK), which was met with stormy applause.
The congress had been preceded by a public meeting with speakers engaged in conflict resolution and struggle in Colombia, Kurdistan, Palestine and the Western Sahara. It was followed by a powerful rally in Pamphlona’s main sports stadium, full despite the freezing weather.
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.”
Sortu’s founding comes at a critical moment in politics in the Spanish state. Relations between Catalonia and the central People’s Party government of Mariano Rajoy are at breaking point, with Madrid deciding to appeal the Catalan parliament’s declaration of Catalonia’s right to decide its political future to the constitutional court.
At the same time, in Navarra, an austerity-inflicting minority government of the conservative Union of the People of Navarra (UPN) is only kept alive by the connivance of its former partner and now “opposition”, the Socialist Part of Navarra (PSN, the Navarra branch of the social-democratic Spanish Socialist Workers Party).
Tensions within the PSN keep rising because the longer its refuses to join Bildu and the other opposition parties in Navarra in throwing out the UPN, the greater will be the price it pays for keeping the UPN in government, and the bigger the likely support for Bildu and forces like Geroa Bai (Future Yes).
In the scenario of accelerating decay of the two-party system in the Spanish state, Sortu has a very important role to play. Any impact will be felt well beyond Spanish borders.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal’s European correspondent. He attended the Sortu founding congress as a representative of the Australian Socialist Alliance. shorter version of this article was published on the Green Left Weekly website.]
Resolution of the foundation congress of Sortu
SORTU is born. The new political instrument responds to the conclusion covered in the "Zutik Euskal Herria" document of the necessity of the Abertzale Left to provide itself with a political formation to dynamize the development of the new political strategy that is covered in the document. With the Democratic Process as a framework and independence and socialism as a goal, this measure pretends to be a medium for achieving political and social transformation. An organizational instrument that in the course of its activity must strengthen and expand itself.
The liberation process has brought us here. SORTU has just been born and it does so with a proposal for a renovated struggle and a new organizational model with which to confront the new political cycle. The new organization that emerges with such intentions has present the historical journey of struggle carried out from popular unity to reach national liberation and social transformation. Those of us who have organized in SORTU come from old and new struggles of the working class and of social and popular movements, and we unite and organize with the end of reaching the strategic objectives that we long for.
Our duty was to respond to the evolution of the situation in the Basque Country and the desire of the Basque citizenry, and also to the new political opportunities that have come about through the work and struggle realized during all this time. Today we are here thanks to the advances made by the liberation process. But the beginning of this new stage is also due to that we have been rigorous with ourselves at the time of making all kinds of reflections. There haven't lacked problems or contradictions in this long journey, neither will they going forward, but we have complete confidence in the path begun thanks to debate and militant work.
Full freedom as a goal
The time has come for freedom. The Spanish and French states don't want to make a democratic offer for the Basque Country, for its citizens. They continue to be stubborn in their historical denial, in their strategy of violence and imposition, in that, only in that. The current institutional structure is exhausted, and also their pseudo-solutions and limited offers. The popular will must be the point on which to build the future, exercising daily the right to Self-Determination.
Our commitment with the popular will is firm and it will bring us to the end of the project of a Basque State, respecting and making that will respected. Complete freedom, that is our only goal, and we are conscious that national liberation must be united with social transformation given that both are part of the same objective: achieving a free country formed by free men and women.
Therefore, ours is a socialist project. To confront the capitalist system, this system that destroys the environment on all corners of the world, that condemns millions of people to the most absolute misery, and that through the Neoliberalism of the past years has brought these situations to extremes even more critical, we must create radical alternatives, adapted to the characteristics and identity of every people. This is also the challenge that the Basque Country must confront.
Our main task is to build the Basque Country day by day, from a political, social, economic and cultural point of view. The work areas are, among others, social justice for all men and women, and equality between them: respect for mother earth and territorial cohesion, and the recuperation of the national language.
To those of us who form a part of SORTU this project and the commitment to bring this journey to an end unites us, having as a framework of reference the bases approved after the reading and the constitutive process brought forth from the "Zutik Euskal Herria resolution (Stand up Basque Country), leaving, at every moment, a wide margin to put new debates and ideas on the table.
Now is the time to leave the past behind and to prepare the future. We must build the path that will make room for a true democratic transition. Precisely for that, SORTU maintains a firm commitment to the political exercise of responding to the consequences as well as the origin of the conflict.
But, to untie the knot of the political conflict, the Basque Country needs, in the first place, dialogue and agreements, For that, we must put in march a national dialogue among political forces and agents from different spheres and institutions, with the objective of forming decision-making subjects to put in march the materialization of the right to decide for all Basque citizens.
On the other hand, we have as a goal the overcoming of each and every one of the consequences of the conflict, and for that we are not afraid of looking back. SORTU doesn't see reality with only one eye. Others want to maintain their responsibility in the shadows, directly or indirectly, that have had the dirty war, torture or in the injustices that the prisoners have suffered. The Abertzale Left will take charge of the responsibilities that concern them, and will do all that they have to do in favour of coexistence and a just and lasting peace, because we owe it to our people.
To all those who with partisanship and demanding accounts from others want to capture in futile dynamics the historical opportunity that we have in our hands, we want to express to them that we are going to go forward. And for that we must build a scenario of minimums without violence, deactivating the measures of exception and all types of aggressions. SORTU wants to make a special emphasis in the respect for all the rights of the Basque political prisoners as a step that cannot be postponed in the path towards their total liberation.
Organization and Struggle
SORTU was born to act and to urge to act. SORTU was also born to create. The best political and social conditions can also be lost if there is no organization and popular struggle. We want to make the revolution. The revolution of SORTU is democratic and national, because we want to change the root of the political and social model in the Basque Country. For the democratic national revolution to advance, popular mobilization is necessary, democratic confrontation, civil disobedience and ideological struggle in all spheres. The Basque Country will advance thanks to its militants and committed sectors that will act in different areas and spheres of work and struggle. But the democratic national revolution must begin from our own organization. In the heart of SORTU we will strengthen the organization and participation. SORTU is the home for all the members of the abertzale left to debate, decide and develop the militant practice, and it will need everyone to accomplish as they should with the responsibility of political dynamization that corresponds to the general strategy of the liberation process.
But it won't undertake this political task by looking inside itself. It will give priority to communication and collaboration with the renewed youth movement, with the workers' movement and, in general, with the popular movement.
In the same way, with the idea of forming a Popular National Block in favour of independence with sectors and agents of diverse types, it is a maximum priority of SORTU to widen and strengthen the alliances and agreements adopted by the abertzale political forces, sovereigntists and leftists in the past years, without leaving aside tactical agreements that can be tried around the right to decide.
In any case, SORTU will base political alliances, an essential ingredient of their actuation, in communication, confidence and mutual respect. The key to success of the strategy is in the accumulation of forces and in collaboration with other agents, since we have to create an adequate correlation of forces so that political and social change can materialize, and for our political project to be viable.
Therefore, SORTU is an instrument for advancing in a decided way in the liberation process, but it is not a simple tool. It also must be a reflection of the liberating project that it represents. Democracy in its internal functioning and transparency facing the outside. Apart from examining the world around us with a critical vision, self-criticism must also be a fundamental feature. We will always speak and address ourselves with revolutionary sincerity to the citizens, so that the working population and popular sectors will join the commitment that SORTU has with the Basque Country and freedom.