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Spanish state: Basque leader Otegi freed as Podemos-PSOE war intensifies
By Dick Nichols
March 9, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — On March 1, all media outlets in the Spanish state were dominated by the images of two men: one was leaving prison near the northern city of Logroño 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, who that day completed a six-and-a-quarter year sentence for attempting to rebuild the illegal organisation Batasuna, banned by Spanish courts in 2003 for its supposed links with the military-terrorist force Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA). Otegi, former leader of Batasuna (“Unity”) and its banned predecessor Herri Batasuna (“Popular Unity”) and an MP in the Basque regional parliament between 1995 and 2005, has been secretary-general of the Basque socialist pro-independence party Sortu (“Create”) since its founding in 2013.
Otegi had a good day on March 1, as he walked free from Logroño prison 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, Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) general secretary Pedro Sánchez, had a less than brilliant March 1. His one-and-a-half hour speech calling for MPs from the radical force Podemos to support the PSOE’s “agreement for a reforming and progressive government” with the centre-right party Citizens went down like a lead balloon with those it was meant to convince.
Particularly irritating to the MPs from Podemos and from the coalitions in which it takes part in (In Tide in Galicia and Together We Can in Catalonia), was Sánchez’s insistence that an alternative coalition of left parties simply did not have the numbers to form government: its total of 161 seats was less than the 163 seats of the ruling People's Party (PP) and Citizens.
This 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).
Sánchez's calculation forgot about the 26 seats occupied by the five Basque, Catalan and Canary Island nationalist forces: couldn’t the all-Spanish left negotiate for their support and/or abstention? No, Sánchez told the parliament that he was committed to “the defense 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 isn't 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 — and the PSOE within it — effectively 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 Sánchez’s attempt to get himself elected prime minister. Having affirmed his “institutional loyalty”, the PSOE aspirant went on to promise 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 couldn’t make any further concessions for two reasons: because of the veto within the PSOE from its regional leaders (“barons”) and from former prime ministers such as Felipe González; and because his partner Citizens is opposed to 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 primary language of school instruction.)
The Otegi factor
While Sánchez 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. He 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 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 it has made of ETA's “armed struggle”. He said: “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 release, on Basque public television ETB on March 4, Otegi spelled out that “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.”
At a 15,000-strong March 5 rally that overflowed the Anoeta velodrome in Donostia (San Sebastian), the left-nationalist leader 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 (the “Spanish new left”) he 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.”
Otegi said: “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 asserted that 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”, 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.
The competition between these two left perspectives on national liberation, already most advanced in Catalonia, is now likely to intensify in the run-up to regional elections due in the Spanish Basque Country (Euskadi) in October: here the abertzale left will be looking to recover as many as of the 100,000 votes it lost to Podemos in the December Spanish general poll as it can.
Asked for his respond to Otegi's comments, Podemos general secretary Pablo Iglesias commented on Channel Six: “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 in which Sortu participates, in the October election in Euskadi.
National question looms, battle lines harden
However, on January 18 the Spanish National High Court reaffirmed its ban on prisoner 8719600510 holding any public office until March 2021, a decision Otegi's counsel have already appealed to the Spanish Supreme Court. Even though they are confident the appeal will be upheld (because any judgement disqualifying a person from occupying public office cannot be general but must specify the offices they are banned from holding), the National High Court decision is yet further confirmation of the organic bias of much of the Spanish judicial and constitutional system.
It once again reinforces the perception — long held in Catalonia, Galicia and Euskadi but now starting to spread in the rest of Spain — that democratic rights and the Spanish legal system are often on opposite sides of the fence. Recent decisions of the Spanish Constitutional Court that seek to freeze, pending the hearing of charges by the Spanish state prosecutor, the Catalan government’s setting up of the agencies of a sovereign Catalan republic have further highlighted that gap.
The indignation of many with the standard operating procedure of Spanish institutions towards Basque left nationalism was recently well expressed by Luis Aizpeolea, Spain's leading journalist specialising in the Basque conflict. Interviewed in the February 28 edition of the Catalan daily Ara, he said: “ETA wants to lay down its arms, which aren't many … but the Spanish government doesn't want to know anything about it. It must be the only government in the world which, having a terrorist organisation that wants to fold, doesn't act. I am deeply outraged with the PP and the political indecency of its interior minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz. And I, who am not a nationalist, but a journalist who has spent most of his life on a [PSOE-aligned] paper like El País, have to say that the imprisonment of Otegi for all these years seems to me a total scandal.”
Of course, the debate on Sánchez's investiture couldn't pass over Otegi's release, ETA's “armed struggle” and its victims, and the 1983-1987 anti-ETA dirty war of the Spanish state through its underground hit squads, the Anti-terrorist Liberation Groups (GAL). On March 1, the Basque leader's release led to a tweet war between Pablo Iglesias and Citizens' leader Albert Rivera, with Iglesias saying “Otegi's release is good news for democrats -- no-one should be in prison for their ideas”. Rivera replied: “Otegi was condemned by the law for belonging to an armed gang. Someone imprisoned for his ideas is [Venezuela opposition leader] Leopoldo López”. Iglesias's tweet was aimed at further stirring the public debate about the democratic rights of Spain's nationalities and went with demanding of the PSOE that it break with its past as a violator of these rights. In his maiden congress address Iglesias said to Sánchez: “Your party was also the party of crimes of state. Distrust, Mr Sánchez, the advice of those whose past is stained with quick lime.” This was a provocative reference to Felipe González, prime minister during the GAL years, and the PSOE’s chief crusader against an alliance with Podemos. (The GAL buried a number of their victims in quick lime so their bodies would decompose more quickly.)
The other development which made the national question loom large during Sánchez's investiture session was the doubling of deputies supporting the right to self-determination of the nations making up the Spanish state — up to 96 from 47 in the previous parliament. This leap in visibility was greatest in the case of Catalonia, and was dramatised by the March 4 speech of new ERC MP Gabriel Rufián. He told the congress: “I'm here and I'm doing this to defend the right of any people to decide at the ballot box what it wants to be, because I am the son and grandson of Andalusians who came to Catalonia 55 years ago from Jaén and from Granada. I am what they call a charnego [offensive slang for a southern Spanish immigrant to Catalonia] and I am an independence supporter. That's your defeat, that's our victory.”
Rufián made a point of explaining the role of Citizens in the Catalan parliament: “Mr Sanchez, we could keep talking about your allies, about Citizens: we know them perfectly in Catalonia. Believing that Albert Rivera is Winston Churchill and not Donald Trump gets cured in Catalonia, I can assure you. It gets cured by seeing how they race out of the Catalan parliament so as not to condemn Francoism. It gets cured in Catalonia by seeing how they defend neoliberal policies. Believing that Citizens is progressive, reformist or middle-of-the-road definitely gets cured in Catalonia, I can assure you.”
Rufián’s maiden speech provoked an hysterical reaction from the Madrid media “cavern”. Here are some examples, cited in the March 7 Ara: “He dresses like someone going to a gypsy funeral and talks as if he were inside a jug”. “The dumbest charnego of all those who have joined the independence process to alleviate their own ridiculous inferiority complex”. “For me, Rufián’s grandparents sought a future in Catalonia because they were too stupid to find one in Jaén”. “His expression reminded me vaguely of that look between languid and stoned of the fanatical murderers of ISIS before immolating themselves or slitting the throat of one of their hostages”.
Such is the tone of the Spanish-patriotic media when confronted with a forthright vindication of the right of one of “its” nations to self-determination.
It is now clear that very soon after the December 20 Spanish elections, the Sánchez leadership decided that its best chance of government or of survival in an early election lay in making an alliance with Citizens, and then putting pressure on Podemos and other left forces to support that alliance via abstention. If Podemos and the other forces refused to be seduced by this “progressive and reformist” proposal and early elections became inevitable, these formations, and Podemos in particular, could be painted as “objective allies of the PP” and blamed for sabotaging the PSOE's effort to “get rid of Rajoy”.
To this end, Sánchez, nominated by King Felipe to try to form government, held off negotiating around Podemos's proposal for a left “government of change” involving the PSOE, Podemos, the United Left and Commitment until he had almost wrapped up a deal with Citizens. After just one session negotiating with the organisations to its left, the PSOE announced its agreement with the “Podemos of the right”.
To maximise the pressure on Podemos and the political price it would pay if it failed to support its pact with Citizens, the PSOE leadership has carried out two campaigns of mystification: one to the effect that there is no broad left majority in the parliament but only a “majority for change” against the PP; the second, that the proposals it has agreed with Citizens also include most of the progressive proposals advanced by Podemos, In Tide, Together We Can, the United Left-Popular Unity and Commitment.
The following excerpts from Sánchez's speeches to parliament show the PSOE approach.
From his initial address: “I offer a government that implements everything where we have majority agreement. I offer a government that brings before this parliament everything where we have disagreement so that we can discuss it and then carry out what the majority decides. I don't offer an all-party front, but a progressive and reformist government allied to all those who want change…”
In answer to Podemos’s refusal to support the PSOE-Citizens’ agreement: “There are 200 measures where Citizens and the Socialist Party have come to agreement. Concerning these measures, you [Pablo Iglesias] put out a media note with eight reasons to vote against it. I say the following, Mr. Iglesias—let’s put in place the other 182 or 150 measures where your party, Citizens and the Socialist Party agree.…
“There are only two options, Mr. Iglesias — either change or continuity … and change means: a law on climate change, the recovery of collective bargaining, the closure of nuclear power plants, a tax on large fortunes, a 10% GST on culture [presently 21%], the freezing of LOMCE [the PP’s neoliberal educational “reform”], adoption of a minimum living income, working out a new Second Chance Act [of debt relief for families and the self-employed], and curbing evictions in our country…
“You who claim to be worthy heirs of the 15M [the indignados movement] should set out decently and honestly to your voters and to those collectives why you can’t vote with Mr. Rajoy to paralyse all these measures, on which we could start work next week.
“I’ll say one thing, Mr. Iglesias: maybe all these measures don’t for you mean storming heaven, but I would propose that we at least pull Spain out of hell, or some of hells, into which Mr. Rajoy has stuck her…
“Mr Iglesias, think about one thing — if you vote no alongside Mr. Rajoy you will have converted yourself into the very thing you came here to change.”
Despite this pressure, Podemos, In Tide, Together We Can, the United Left-Popular Unity, Commitment and all the nationalist forces with the exception of the Canary Coalition voted against Sánchez’s investiture on March 2, and again on March 4. The reaction of the PSOE since has been to open an all-guns offensive against the radical formation and its allies. This includes:
“I initially thought because of ideological affinity that I was going to have an easier time in negotiations with Podemos than with Citizens. The surprise I've had is that I found in Rivera a person who has put general interests before those of his party. And in the case of Iglesias the only thing I've seen is electoral tactics.”
Sánchez's El País interview — which spared him practically all testing questions — was accompanied by a Metroscopia opinion poll of 730 interviewees which revealed that 50% of Podemos voters in the sample thought the failure of the Sánchez candidacy was “bad news”. With such methods the Prisa media empire and its flagship publication are doing all they can to help the PSOE.
Will Podemos be able to withstand this offensive? The answer will depend a lot on the organisation's ability to strengthen the loyalty of the many voters who supported it for the first time on December 20. It will require convincing them of the possibility of implementing a better program than the PSOE-Citizens' “progressive and reformist” document — in many aspects a very pale caricature of the proposals Podemos and the alliances in which it participates, and United Left-Popular Unity, have put forward. If significant numbers of ex-PSOE voters come to believe that the PSOE-Citizens pact represents the best that can be won at the present time, support for Podemos will suffer.
However, it will also depend on developments in the political struggle, most importantly in the sharpening conflict between the Catalan pro-independence government and the Spanish government of acting prime minister Rajoy. This front will produce serious conflicts, as the Catalan government moves ahead to implement its program of participatory development of a draft Catalan constitution and of “disconnection” from Spain, and as a number of Catalan local councils refuse to reply to requests for information from Spanish courts. As the struggle hots up, PSOE-Citizens-PP resistance to the demand for Catalonia to be allowed to have a referendum will appear increasingly irrational and anti-democratic, and the position of pro-referendum forces more sensible and necessary.
One by-product must be that the position of the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), the PSOE's Catalan affiliate which has lost over a million voters since 2008, will become increasingly impossible, especially as the PSC always supported Catalonia having a referendum up until its capitulation to PSOE dictates two years ago. Little wonder, as they try to maintain product differentiation, that the PSC leadership has quickly rejected the offer of Citizens for a Catalan reproduction of the parties' Spanish pact.
In this context, Podemos has to balance two potentially contradictory pressures: it must be, and appear to be, the force of revolt and transformation against the corrupt old politics of the “caste”, but it must also convince as many as possible that it has a feasible proposal for a left government, and be able to generate massive pressure on the PSOE to join it in creating such a government or face big desertions from its own voting base.
In his maiden speech to the parliamentary session that led to the voting down of the PSOE-Citizens' pact, Iglesias was at pains to dramatise the contrast between the established parties and the new arrival Podemos, presenting it as the irruption of the spirit of 15M into the halls of power. Iglesias sought to use his address as political education for those watching, scoring the PSOE's record in government, but without handing the social democrats arguments that could be used to justify their pact with Citizens and their refusal to negotiate seriously to their left.
According to anecdotal evidence, Iglesias's bravura performance got a mixed reception in Podemos and broader left-of-PSOE milieux. For many it was a thrilling novelty to hear one home truth after another told in the Spanish congress; for others Iglesias's tone against the PSOE was just too harsh, handing the Sánchez leadership the chance to paint the Podemos leader as an irrational hater of their party. The most contentious point came when Iglesias replied to Sánchez's argument that a left coalition for government was arithmetically impossible: “Of course there could be a progressive government that wins the necessary parliamentary support. That's not the problem. "The problem is that they've vetoed you from governing with us. Several members of the old guard of your party said so. Mr Felipe González said it — yes he with the past stained with quick lime! Be careful of him, Mr Sánchez! [uproar from the PSOE benches with cries of “Out! Out!]. Out? Are you shouting 'out' because I'm telling you the truth?”
Those following the debate were later treated to the fascinating sight of Citizens' leader Albert Rivera contrasting the stance of “those who want to break up Spain” with the line of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE), in the transition from the Franco dictatorship: “What a difference between that Communist Party and those statesmen … and what we've heard here, Mr. Iglesias! What a difference! "Would that you were like the Communist Party of the transition! Because coming back from exile and reaching agreement with those who think differently, that really was epic! And not the bonsai epic that you bring into this chamber. A real epic! Those men and women brought freedom, equality, amnesty and self-government and they shook hands under the same flag, under the same Constitution, and the Communist Part renounced a lot, but they showed they had a sense of state.”
Little wonder that United Left-Popular Unity leader and PCE member Alberto Garzón said: “Don't use our history to justify your deals.”
Besides citing Iglesias's “hatred and spleen towards the PSOE” to justify their alliance with Citizens, the Sánchez leadership also invoked “the referendum to break up the territorial integrity of Spain, the division of responsibilities that they have proposed [with Iglesias as deputy prime minister], and that exorbitant increase in public spending of €96 billion” (from Sánchez's March 6 El País interview).
These three arguments are all paper-thin: the referendum on the grounds of democratic principle and the proposal on division of responsibilities because Podemos and the alliances in which it participates plus the United Left-Popular Unity actually won more votes than the PSOE on December 20 (6.1 million to 5.5 million). As for the “exhorbitant” €96 billion increase in public spending, this is actually a very moderate and feasible increase over four years, but one which would allow restoration of education and health funding, a guaranteed minimum income and increase in pensions, and a kick-start to a transition to energy sustainability.
Moreover, Podemos already has examples from the local and regional level of what its formula of a “government of change” might look like. There's the Valencian regional government (PSOE plus Commitment, supported from without by Podemos), and the councils of change, especially in Barcelona, where mayoress Ada Colau's minority administration is gaining in popularity.
The vulnerability of the PSOE's arguments explains why the PSOE consistently refuses to have Sánchez debate Iglesias one to one: the Podemos leader is Spain's sharpest media performer, impervious to provocation and skilled at exposing the gobbledegook and demagogy of his adversaries and at making Podemos's proposals sound like ones any decent, sensible human being would support.
Podemos's biggest weakness in the face of the daily organised media hysteria campaign is its own still rudimentary level of organisation and the faction fights in a number of its regional organisations. This puts it at a disadvantage compared to a PSOE which, although much weaker than formerly, maintains an organised structure that enables it to get its messages out to its social base. Thus, while the Sánchez leadership is no match for Iglesias's team in TV interviews, the latter is not yet generally able to organise at the barrio neighbourhood level the discussions needed to convince doubters of the validity of its positions and is overly dependent on the mass and social media.
As the no-holds-barred war for hegemony on the left intensifies, taking the Podemos-Together We Can-In Tide proposals for a left government down from the heights of parliament and into the daily discussions of people will be critical if a popular majority for an alternative is to be consolidated. For that to happen Podemos has to meet the challenge of turning a larger part of its 400,000 membership into activists capable of organising others.
Political alignments in the Spanish state have hardened since the events of the first week of March, with the various options for governmental alliance — all long shots right from the December 20 election — now facing even greater obstacles as all parties reinforce their defence perimeters.
On the left, the trench warfare between the PSOE and Podemos and its allies will grind on. The PSOE will probe for differences between Podemos and the United Left-Popular Unity, as well as between Podemos and Commitment. Whether Podemos can manage to prise away any of the PSOE — especially those few who support a referendum for Catalonia — remains to be seen.
On the right, the PP refuses to countenance any formula for government except a PP-PSOE grand alliance with Rajoy as prime minister. Citizens supports such an alliance — and says that its deal with the PSOE can be its starting point — but calls for Rajoy to stand aside because of his association with the endless sewers of PP corruption. There is no sign at all that the PP, which mocks Citizens' embrace of the PSOE's policies, will be taking up the suggestions for its “renewal” from its rival on the right. It is waiting for all negotiations to fail and for early elections (due on June 26 in case of continuing deadlock), in which it would stand as Spain's only hope of salvation against chaos.
The greatest motion over the past period has been from the Catalan pro-independence parties, in particular DiL. From a position of simply opposing the investiture of Sánchez, the conservative DiL has moved to one of effectively supporting a left government for the Spanish state. Its spokesperson, Francesc Homs, said: “We are going to defend what we are doing in Catalonia, which is neither more nor less than the constitution of Catalonia as an independent state. We are not going to get faint in this effort, this conviction, this commitment, but we are prepared, in return for a referendum in Catalonia, to give Spain a government.”
With this decision, which will also be supported by ERC (and, in all probability, the PNV), the PSOE has been put on notice that its possibility of governing in Spain depends on its accepting the Catalan right to decide. It will not, but the price of its continuing embrace of Spanish centralism will rise as the political situation continues to polarise.
At the same time, the return of Otegi to political action with his demand that a “second front” against Madrid be opened from the Basque Country in turn puts the PNV on notice that its accommodation with the PP government (as well as its local alliances with the PSOE) will, if persisted in, have a rising political price.
The pillars of stability shake more and more in the Spanish state.
Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's European correspondent, based in Barcelona.