Portugal: Rising class tensions and protests against neo-liberalism

A balance sheet after the 12 October 100,000 strong demonstration

Over the recent period Portugal has experienced a major upturn in class struggle including a magnificent 100,000 strong national demonstration on 12 October in Lisbon. The current radicalisation, strikes and demonstrations are the result of the increasingly harsh economic conditions facing the working class in Portugal. There is huge anger against the continuation and intensification of the former government’s neo-liberal austerity plan by the current government lead by the Portuguese Socialist Party (PSP).

The PSP only came to power in 2005 because, in the eyes of many, it represented a lesser evil compared with the previous openly right wing government of the Social Democratic Party and Popular Party. That government had grown very unpopular through its neo-liberal policies, cuts in services and education, tax breaks to big business and the loss of 150.000 jobs.

However, the PS government headed by Prime Minister Jose Socrates, proved to be anything but different: it completely followed in the foot steps of the former government, stepping up the austerity programme initiated by the former government, even more severely.

In 2006, the dissatisfaction with the PSP resulted in the election of the right-wing Anibal Cavaco Silva as president of Portugal. He is the first president after Eanes – the former military officer that led the counter-revolution in the 70s and 80s – that does not come from the PSP.

Now dissatisfaction with PSP takes the shape of active resistance against the government in a series of strikes and demonstrations. This opens up huge possibilities for building up a struggle that can push back the government and put forward a socialist programme as an alternative to capitalist policies. However, the leadership of the movement, which consists mainly of the trade union tops and the Portuguese Communist Party, seem to fail the test.

Working class pays for economic crisis

While the bosses and bourgeois commentators welcome the government’s austerity plan as "fundamental, essential and necessary measures for the modernisation of the country", it is the working class that pays the price.

The government’s attacks include increasing the pension age from 60 to 65 years for public servants and reducing sick-leave payments combined with tougher checks. Value Added Tax is being increased with 2% to 21% on top of the already suffocating inflation rates of about 4 to 5%. Plans to “reform” public services will lead to the loss of an estimated 74.000 jobs and prepares the ground for further privatisation. The government is also trying to introduce the so called “Bologna programme” in higher education – increasing fees to a basic €1000. In the meantime it has already closed down several hundred schools! Last but not least in this incomplete sum-up, also socials security is on the top of the list for cut-backs.

The burden of these attacks weighs even heavier because of the increasingly difficult social conditions in Portugal. The Portuguese economy is a low wage economy. The average monthly wage is only €750 and the minimum wage is €350 a month. Scandalously, bosses profit from this situation to enforce even lower wages. Even simply not paying wages at all, followed by sackings, is common practice!

The Socialist Party government says the austerity plan is necessary to deal with the economic problems facing Portugal, while it hides behind the fact that the previous government lied about Portugal’s economic situation when it joined the Euro Zone. In fact, the lies of the previous coalition led to a revision in the economic perspectives when the Socialist Party came to power in 2005: growth expectations were revised from 2.4% to 0.8%. At the same time it was announced that the state deficit is much bigger then the previous government admitted. The huge state budget deficit is now estimated at about 7% of GDP, which is way above the 2.9% claimed by the previous SDP-PP government and more then twice the 3% euro-zone limit! The Socrates government says it wants to cut the budget deficit drastically.

However, the “efforts” that are asked from the working class have not led to anything except easy profits for big-business. On top of the fact that the wages are too low to cover the cost of living, low wages have not led to economic growth. Instead, the Portuguese economy faces competition from other low wage countries in Eastern Europe and China, and is losing the battle. One of the typical examples of this is the textile industry – Portugal’s traditional stronghold that accounts for 22% of industrial companies and 32% of industrial jobs. The textile and footwear industries are now hit by a severe crisis including relocations and bankruptcies. Average pay is declining in this already very low paid sector. In some regions this means unemployment rising by 30% each year!

Needed: a plan for action to defeat the Socrates government

The 12 October demonstration showed the enormous anger that has built up against the government and the willingness to struggle. However, to profit most effectively from this success, the trade union leadership should have put forward a general plan for action, to build towards a general strike. Instead it let several weeks pass by without offering the workers any initiative.

In the meantime the teachers’ union called for a strike which was supported by 80 to 90% of the workers. Also the public services are continuing their struggle: as we write they are preparing a two day general strike for 9 and 10 November.

The danger in this situation is that the movement breaks up, allowing the government to divide the working class and push through its austerity plan sector by sector. It is clear that the trade union leadership is not prepared to fight the battle to the end but is rather searching for means by which they can control the pressure from the working class. Now, under huge pressure from the rank and file it has announced a general day of action with demonstrations in all 18 regional capitals of Portugal on 25 November. However, in this way the trade union leadership hopes to avoid that a strong unified struggle, escaping the trade union bureaucracy’s control, will develop.

The Left Bloc and the Portuguese Communist Party

Also the two main left parties – the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and the Left Bloc – are both failing to give a lead and take the struggle forward.

The Left Bloc lacks an orientation towards and a base in the working class. It seems to be more concerned with its alliances with the so-called “social movements” than with the day-to-day struggles of the working class.

The PCP is clearly the dominant political factor in the working class and the protests. The trade union federation CGTP which called the 12 October demonstration is seen as the “communist” trade union federation, compared with the UGT which is linked to the PS and PSD and supports the government.

However the PCP resembles the old Social Democracy of before the First World War in so far as they combine a revolutionary image and rhetoric in party building while, in practice, they are lagging behind the masses along with the trade union bureaucracy. Rather then offering a revolutionary leadership the PCP is trying to integrate the working class under its wide umbrella of organisations to lead the masses to vote for the PCP. Clearly, they are more concerned with seats in parliament then pushing back the government.

Wanted: an alternative to capitalist policies!

The Portuguese working class feels cheated by capitalist politicians: on the one hand they were lured into the Euro Zone by the former government on the basis of false promises and lies, on the other hand the Socialist Party government has come to mean “more of the same”. This sentiment was translated into one of the most widely heard and most passionately sung slogans of the 12 October demonstration: “Socrates, liar, liar, liar, liar, … liar !!”.

Prime Minister Jose Socrates’ arrogant statement after 12 October, saying that he "doesn’t mind big mouths" but acts "by a mandate received through elections" as well as some bourgeois commentators claims that Socrates continues to enjoy broad support, completely neglect the profound discontent amongst the workers and poor layers of society. Also the middle class, that suffers from the loss of purchasing power and is more and more drawn into the working class, is turning away from the government.

However the PCP and the Left Bloc fail to answer this situation by putting forward clear socialist demands. The PCP has responded to the widespread mood for a break with neo-liberalism with the demand for “different politics” and “the protection of the national economy”. In this way they deliberately leave the door wide open for capitalist policies, not in the least to fit the position of several PCP mayors in Portuguese cities!

In fact, both the Left Bloc and the PCP fail to base their policies on the class struggle and cover up the fact that on the basis of capitalism there is no real solution for the discontent of the people.

Fight for socialism

The only alternative to the misery and poverty of capitalism is to fight for a socialist programme. A genuine socialist party would raise demands to respond to the immediate needs of the working class and youth such as a national minimum wage of at least €500, the redraw of the government’s cut-back plan and decent work contracts and affordable housing. A socialist party should also – put forward the immediate nationalisation of the key sectors of the economy and big business, against the constant menacing and sackings of the workers by the capitalists.

Alternativa Socialista, the CWI in Portugal, fights for such a programme. We explain and raise the need for genuine socialism – which is based on a democratically planned economy and managed by the workers – as an alternative to capitalism. Alternativa Socialista also puts forward the necessity of an action programme to build for a general strike as a first step to defeat the Socrates government. Such an action programme needs be widely discussed in the working class and most involve as many people as possible. To do this we call for the creation of democratically functioning committees in all workplaces to discuss, build and organise the struggle – bringing together trade unionists and the best and most active militants of different political backgrounds.

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