Portugal: Breakthrough expected for radical left in general elections

But what next?

Before the current ‘Socialist Party’ Prime Minister, Jose Socrates, came to power in Portugal in 2005, he described himself as a “ferocious animal”, who would turn the poorest country of Western Europe into one of the continent’s most modernised nations. Ferocious he was, no doubt, but only against the conditions and living standards of Portugal’s workers and youth.

The so-called ‘Socialist’ Party has been exposed as a consistent defender of neo-liberalism and while in power and has managed to alienate important sections of its traditional electorate. This was the main reason its historical defeat in the recent European elections, three months ago, getting only 26.6% of votes cast and losing about 500,000 of voters compared to 2004 (when it got 44%).

Prime Minister Socrates and the "Iron Lady", Manuela Ferreira Leite

Government’s legacy: more poverty, more unemployment, more money for the profiteers

Socrates had promised to create 150,000 new jobs. Instead, his government introduced greater flexibility into the labour laws, facilitating more lay-offs in the public and private sectors, while at the same time, sacking tens of thousands of public servants and making the access to unemployment benefits more difficult. This resulted in an increase in official unemployment, from 7.9% to 9.1%, during his government’s tenure, the highest increase for more than 20 years. More than half a million people are now unemployed, among whom an estimated 200,000 have no access to state benefits whatsoever.

The international economic crisis has severely worsened the situation. Portugal’s economy has contracted 3.7%, compared with the same period last year, and every day more factories are closing down, exacerbating the social devastation in a country where wages and social benefits are already among the lowest in Europe.

These so-called ‘modernisation reforms’ have meant huge attacks against public services, education, healthcare etc. with the excuse that public spending was at an ‘unsustainable’ level, and that the country’s huge budgetary deficit had to be bridged. However, the financial crisis has seen the government intervene to the tune of more than €20 billion to save the banking sector from collapse, including the so-called ‘nationalisation’ of BPN, Portugal’s main private bank. This stimulus package has contributed to a new sharp increase in the budget deficit, reducing the last years’ ‘efforts’ and ‘sacrifices’ of the working class to nothing, but filling the pockets of the rich and the bankers in the process.

Political instability – increasing votes for the left

With legislative elections taking place on 27 September, the campaigns being waged by Portugal’s two main traditional parties, the PS and the traditionally right-wing PSD (Partido Social Democrata), shows the weakness of the Portuguese ruling class in dealing with the crisis. This weakness is reflected in the ongoing ideological debate between the PS and PSD. The PS, terrified of losing electoral support from the working class, has rediscovered Keynesianism. They have moved towards huge, but temporary, public investment in infrastructural projects, like the new high speed TGV train, from Lisbon to Madrid, and adopted a new electoral programme including some ‘social’ policies, such as increased aid for the disabled and for the poorest families. However, this new ‘social image’ and increased emphasis on the role of the state in the economy does not compensate for the hard-hitting cuts which have been made in the public sector, such as the closing down of most pre-schools and small hospitals in more rural areas.

On the other hand, the main opposition party, the PSD, opts for hard Thatcherite rhetoric (its main leader, Manuela Ferreira Leite, has been described by the media as the “Iron Lady” of Portuguese politics), concentrating on more cuts, and stressing the need to wage a “Titanic battle” against public spending. The PSD entered this campaign as the biggest political force in the polls, which would have been able to break the absolute majority of the PS. But recent scandals surrounding the PSD President of Portugal, and the unpopular proposals being made by Manuela Ferreira Leite, mean that the PS will probably remain as Portugal’s biggest capitalist party after the elections.

At the same time, the general decline in support for the main parties will open up a new period of political instability, as it is likely that neither party will be able to win an absolute majority in the national Parliament. The PS and the PSD have both excluded forming a ‘German-style’ grand coalition, but this could change as the electoral results become clear.

What prospects for the Left?

The last years and months have consistently demonstrated the preparedness of the working class to fight, with many demonstrations and strikes occurring, but most of them very spontaneous and lacking organisation, as the present union leadership is doing basically nothing to give a lead and a formulate a plan for action. These struggles clearly show the anger of the majority of the population, facing the present situation in the country. This anger is also reflected in the electoral success of the left parties, the ‘Partido Comunista Português’ (Portuguese Communist Party) and particularly the ‘Bloco de Esquerda’ (Left Block), in the latest opinion polls.

Significantly, according to recent polls, the Left Bloc is forecast to almost double its votes in this weekend’s elections. Recently, one opinion poll even gave the Left Bloc 16%! The European elections saw the Left Bloc making an important electoral breakthrough by more than doubling its previous vote (to 10,73%), and going from one to three MEPs. Together with the Communist Party, the votes for parties to the left of the PS totalled 21.35%. These good results for the two parties claiming to fight for an alternative to capitalism could be repeated this weekend.

This is undoubtedly an illustration of the potential for a new mass workers’ party in the country, and of the huge and spreading social discontent against the current capitalist PS government. But an important challenge will be to provide a political tool to organise this anger and to transform it into a force capable of challenging capitalism.

In case of a narrow victory for the PS – which is quite likely- the possibility of a request being made to the Left Block and the PCP to open negotiations to form a so-called ‘left coalition’ cannot be totally excluded. The PS, as well as the PCP and the Left Block, have, thus far, formally excluded the possibility of such a scenario, but the PS has adopted this position mainly as a tactical manoeuvre in the run up to the elections.

The next government, whatever its colour, will be forced to implement new attacks against the workers to make them pay for the crisis and the burden of the national debt. The Left parties must refuse to participate in a government implementing policies of this kind. Such a scenario would represent a huge blow for the working class and would be a serious setback in the process of rebuilding an independent political voice for the working class and the poor.

The CWI argues that the Left Bloc and the Communist Party should maintain an independent position and refuse to enter a government implementing cuts and attacks against rights and living standards. The role of the Left bloc and the PCP should be to bring into the public debate new arguments, including for nationalisation, particularly that of the energy sector and financial institutions. But more than ever, the Portuguese working class needs a fighting party to organise and unify the different struggles taking place. We cannot agree with the recent statement of the Left Bloc leadership, that “The main arena of struggle is Parliament”. On the contrary, the Left Bloc and the PCP should use their support among workers and young people, and their trade-union influence as well as their parliamentary positions to support and develop working class struggles and to argue for the socialist transformation of society at the centre of political debate. This approach can help to equip struggles with a clear political programme to fight back against the offensive of the bosses and the misery of the capitalist crisis.

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September 2009