Portugal: New government, the fight continues

The European elections of 10 June gave the heaviest defeat suffered by any government since the establishment of bourgeois parliamentary democracy, 30 years ago.

The right-wing government, led by the liberal PSD (Democratic Social Party) of José Manuel Barroso – and which includes the conservative PP, led by Paulo Portas – went into the elections as a coalition known as Força Portugal! (Go Portugal!), like Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Força Portugal lost two thirds of the votes that PSD and PP won in the legislative elections of 2002, where they each stood separately.

The winner of these elections, the social-democratic PS, reached it best electoral result ever. But the great winner was without doubt the Left Bloc that, in spite of the enormous abstention rate, was the only party to increase in percentage terms and in votes cast, and won its first seat in the European Parliament.

Unfortunately, the left parties did not take immediate action by demanding new general elections. Only the Left Bloc made a shy reference to the issue of new elections. But the original draft resolution to the Left Bloc National Table (national council) on 26 June did not refer to it. Only a few members, including a member of CIT, were prepared to raise the issue in an amendment. There was, however, an impending, dramatic change in the situation.

On the night of the huge electoral defeat, Barroso, the then prime minister, affirmed that "the government understood the sign given by the Portuguese”. With the effects of the neo-liberal polities carried out by the government – an authentic ‘reactionary revolution’ – concentrated on social provision, privatisation and attacks on labour and union rights, opposition to the government and Barroso became increasingly generalised. The pressure exerted meant that even sectors of the dominant class were looking to make deep changes in the government.

For Barroso, meanwhile, there appeared a golden opportunity to escape his disastrous government and its political responsibilities. He was offered, and accepted, the post of president of the European Union.

Widespread feeling: Elections now!

To accept that appointment he had to resign as prime minister. According to Portuguese constitutional law, the president, Jorge Sampaio (PS), then had to decide what to do: either dissolve the parliament and call general elections, or invite the party which won more votes in the 2002 elections (PSD) to nominate a new first minister.

The PSD called an emergency National Council, which named Pedro Santana Lopes as the party’s president and as a nomination for prime minister. Lopes is a well-known populist politician who was president of Lisbon council and is very controversial even inside of his own party.

On 26 June, PS, PCP and the Left Bloc called for interim elections. On 27th, about 2,500 people, according to the press, summoned by mobile phone messages, protested against the possibility that an election would not be called in front of the presidential palace of Belém.

On 29 June, a resolution of the joint shop stewards’ assembly of the Lisbon council workers’ union, moved by a CIT member, besides demanding elections, appealed to the left parties for a commitment to revoke the anti-social, anti-working class and anti-union measures of the government.

Unfortunately, most of the trade union movement did not understand the need to mobilise mass workers’ protests, in the street, to back up the demand for elections. CGTP- the more important and influential of the Portuguese trade union confederations – promoted only two symbolic actions without any real effort to mobilise for them. Actually, the unions and left parties expected that the president would call elections.

Even inside of the PSD there was opposition to the appointment of Lopes. Three government ministers – Manuela Ferreira Leite (finance), Marques Mendes (parliamentary affairs), and Teresa Patrício Gouveia (foreign affairs) – were against Lopes and demanded a party conference to elect a new party president. Leite even declared that the appointment of Santana by the national council was a sort of coup d’état inside the PSD!

Other personalities, such as former MEP, Pacheco Pereira, and a PSD vice president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, came out sharply against Lopes.

For them, the danger of a Lopes government, pushing to accomplish in two years the ‘reactionary revolution’ while incorporating populist measures, would be potentially more dangerous for the system than premature elections.

President accomplishes his role

Meanwhile, the president of the republic gave contradictory signs about his decision. He met representatives of capital, the political parties, former presidents and prime ministers, but no one from the trade union movements. Sampaio allowed a week to pass, giving space to right-wing leaders to claim that new elections would be a left-wing ‘coup d’état’!

The ruling class, pro-business political analysts and right-wing parties went to the media in an attempt to press Sampaio to ensure ‘stability’ and to give space to the ‘economic upturn’.

Left parties argued, correctly, that the appointment of Lopes was a kind of dynastic succession, and that the only democratic way to resolve the situation is by giving the people the right to choose a new parliament.

Finally, Sampaio invited the PSD to form a government, urging that there be no changes to government policy in key areas, such as finance, social affairs and the economy – those areas where the government, serving the interests of the ruling class, has viciously attacked the working class and large layers of the middle class. He justified his decision with talk of the need for ‘stability’, to assure budget control and maintain the economic ‘upturn’.

Today, however, the appointed prime minister can be anything but a guarantee of any type of stability. And the factors of deep social instability in Portugal are the direct products of precisely those politics that Sampaio considers essential, and not to be altered.

It is evident that the apparently symbolic function of president is, in fact, an important example of class domination. Sampaio’s decision was made in the interests of the capitalist class, and not on behalf of the ‘superior interests’ of Portugal and the Portuguese, as he claimed.

PS turns further to the right

Surprise and indignation affected the country. The general secretary of the PS, Ferro Rodrigues, resigned in protest, saying that he considered the presidential decision a personal political defeat as he had tried to impose a ‘moderate’ line within PS during the crisis. Ana Gomes, a PS national leader and former Portuguese ambassador in Indonesia during the process of independence of East Timor, on friendly relations with Sampaio, said, in a very emotional statement to the press, that she “feels betrayed by Sampaio”.

Initially, it was thought that European Commissioner, António Vitorino, would put himself forward. With Vitorino’s refusal, the whole PS apparatus assembled around Blairite candidate, José Sócrates. His position is that the PS should challenge for the ‘centre’ – that is, that the PS needs to turn (still) more to the right.

A proof of that was José Lamego’s decision not to fight for the party leadership. Lamego held the shameful position of colonial commissioner in the service of the US imperialism’s occupation of Iraq. He stood down in the fight to become general secretary of the PS in favour of Sócrates. To date, only João Soares (son of Mário, PS leader during the revolution 1974-75) – president of the Lisbon council before Lopes – who is in a government alliance with the PC, intends to dispute the leadership in spite of a minimal possibility of success.

PCP & Left Bloc

The PCP lost about 70,000 votes from the legislative elections of 2002, and is in an internal crisis. There is a growing divergence between the leadership, bureaucratic tops of the union movement and councillors with executive functions in local authorities, on one side, and the thousands of rank-and-file activists, shop stewards, local union leaders, and representatives of social organisations that continue to confront the attacks of the right-wing, on the other.

The party’s methods of organisation, strongly influenced by Stalinism, including its sectarian approach and its attempts to control the widening initiatives, are factors creating difficulties in spreading the action.

The Left Bloc, whose executive leadership had given parliamentary support to ‘social-democrats’ in government, now defends resistance to the government.

However, and up to now, the Left Bloc has been concentrating on parliamentary work and press coverage, and in defined and structured national campaigns from the top. The Left Bloc’s executive leadership tends to stress negotiations at the top, with little attention to the organised work of the base. This is a serious problem in a left organisation, in particular, one faced with the government’s populism.

More evident than ever before is the lack of a clearly socialist political organisation that could raise a political alternative to the American-style bipolarisation of politics that is being consolidated in Portugal.

The new populism

In spite of the expressed support of the capitalist class, Lopes had difficulty in constituting his government, which took office on 18 July. Several leading names as probable ministers refused the invitation. The new government has seen the right-wing PP reinforce its positions in office. Both the new prime minister and the PP leader have a propensity for populism, and it is predicable that this government, being politically ‘weak’, will try to shield itself behind ‘law and order’ rhetoric.

For the capitalists there are ‘signs of economic upturn’. But the governor of the Bank of Portugal, Vitor Constâncio (PS), was caught out when he said that “the signs are weak and wages have to continue to have moderate increases" – code that real wages should fall behind the rate of inflation. For the bosses’ confederations, this government will have to further reduce the ‘weight of the state’ – code for more budget and social cuts and attacks on workers, youth, and trade union rights, etc.

In fact, even more than previously, this government is filled with representatives of the big business groups with direct financial goals in the governmental areas. For instance, the health minister, who came from the previous government, was a high manager of the Grupo Mello, with great financial interests in the health-care private sector, in the construction and administration of hospitals, and in extending the infamous ‘public-private partnerships’. Another case is that of the new environment minister, previously the administrator of Aguas de Portugal EP (Water of Portugal), soon to be privatised!

The previous minister of work and social security, who brought in the hated ‘work code’, is now the minister of finance and public administration. A still more ferocious attack against public-service workers is predicted. The finance minister is now also the minister of labour relations. From this picture one can only imagine what future government policies will be like.

An unstable government

A popular political commentator affirmed that this government is a “patchwork quilt”, with "ministers who don’t know anything about the subjects of the ministries", and ministers in position because they are long date-friends and collaborators of Lopes (TVI, 18 July). It has even been said by insiders, such as Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, PSD president until recently (including under Barroso’s leadership).

A sign of the government’s political crisis is the fact that Pereira, nominated for ambassador of Portugal in UNESCO, gave up the position, expressly in protest against the new PSD leadership.

The PP has emerged reinforced in the government and this could create frictions, for example, in the autonomous region of Madeira, where the PSD governs with an iron fist gripping a kind of populism of the worst species. That fist belongs to Alberto João Jardim, a politician who, as PSD ruler in the region, has passed from ANP (the former state-fascist party), to a brief support of the ‘independent right-wing terrorist-style’ FLAMA. On the very day of the government’s investiture, Portas – minister of state for defence and sea affairs – in a speech made in Funchal to PP-Madeira members, said that there is a new political period in Madeira. This deeply aggravated Jardim, especially because the two parties will become separate again for the regional elections in October.

It is probable that, in spite of the appearance of unity, the latent rivalry between Lopes and Portas, between PSD and PP and, above all, inside of the PDS, governmental instability will intensify.

Resistance, struggle, solidarity and socialism

As far as the working class is concerned, the question is how to build resistance and force down this dangerous government.

Faced with the current situation, the workers and young people in Portugal have no other alternative than to fight back. It is urgent that the unions mobilise the workers for such a fight, demanding early elections and an end to the attacks on the working class. Only the unification of the fight back and an energetic and combative leadership in the unions can avoid the divisive consequences of populism, and to cut across the claim that it would be an alternative to have a Blairite PS in power – which would also pursue the neo-liberal agenda, just with some spots of ‘social concern’.

At least, a programme of resistance to the right-wing government consists of building a mass movement, based on workplaces, schools and communities, in the unions and workers’ organisations, demanding the reintroduction of the democratic legitimacy through elections, the repeal of the work code, the end of privatisations and salary cuts, an increase in the national minimum wage to a decent level, and other significant measures to prevent the stampede of neo-liberalism over the people’s rights, as a first step in achieving a truly working-class alternative.

Alternativa Socialista, militants of the CIT group in Portugal, will continue to struggle for these ideals, putting forward that the Left Bloc should re-assume its socialist character clearly, with the same conviction as when it was first assembled five years ago. We continue to advocate, inside and out of the Left Bloc, the need for an independent party for workers and youth – with a clearly socialist programme – that is wide and democratic, and creates the conditions for the revolutionary suppression of capitalism and the setting up of a true workers’ democracy – socialism.

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July 2004