Portugal: Voters turn to the left

Elections reflect increasing class polarisation

“This is a clear and extraordinary victory”, was the first official comment from Partido Socialista (PS) Prime Minister, José Socrates, after the results of the Portuguese national elections were announced last Sunday evening. However, the official triumphalism of Socrates hides what is actually more a defeat than a victory for the misnamed ‘Socialist’ Party. Despite the fact that the PS remains the first party in the assembly, the so-called “extraordinary” electoral result of the PS is actually the worst for this party in a general election since 1991, and followed a serious defeat for the party four months ago in the European elections. Moreover, the PS, whose share of the vote dropped from 45% in 2005, to 36.6% this year, has lost 25 seats and its previously held overall majority in Parliament.

Establishment parties defeated

The PS’ policies during the last four years have been further privatisations, the dismantling of workers’ rights, increasing the age of retirement, erosion of social security, and savage attacks against public sector workers, such as the teachers who reacted with strikes and demonstrations of historic proportions. Prime Minister Socrates, a consistent partisan of “budgetary orthodoxy”, refused to make money available for the basic needs of working people, to combat increasing poverty and the constantly rising cost of living, that the majority of people in the country experience. He was however, much less concerned about the state finances and on the sacrosanct budget deficit when it came to the question of rescuing rich bankers and speculator. The global economic recession has revealed, in an acute way, how the government was ready to grant big business billions in taxpayers’ money, while keeping millions of people in poverty, scarcity, unemployment and low-paid jobs.

Many people voted for the PS four years ago, with huge expectations that the neo-liberal policies of the previous right-wing government would be reversed. But the PS has proven incapable of doing anything but applying the same pro-capitalist policies. As a direct result of its betrayal, the PS is the only political force having lost seats in comparison with the last national elections four years ago (96 versus 121). In terms of votes, this represents a loss of about half a million, quite a huge blow in a country where the number of voters is just over 9 million.

It is true, the PS has been able to recover, to a certain extent, from the disastrous vote obtained in the European elections in June of this year. In the last few weeks, PS support improved notably because the ‘Socialists’ moved their rhetoric significantly to the left and called for a ‘useful’ vote. Given the unpopularity and the scandals surrounding its main challenger, the right-wing opposition party, the PSD (Partido Social Democrata), this was not a bad calculation. With a campaign concentrating on slashing public spending, the PSD represented in this campaign the section in the ruling class which has not yet understood the scale of the anger present among the population.

With its 29.1%, the PSD gained less than 0.3% compared to the 2005 elections (which represented at that time a severe defeat for the right wing coalition previously in power). It failed to capitalise on the falling support for the PS. Despite the anti-working class agenda applied consistently by the Socrates government throughout its term, the Portuguese working class has not forgotten what the previous Barroso and Santana governments meant for their living and working conditions. Added to this, the Thatcherite rhetoric of the PSD and the “cuts, cuts, and cuts again” message from Manuela Ferreira Leite has been clearly repulsive for many working class voters. To a certain extent, the PS has been able to play on these fears, coming in with the old argument of the ‘lesser-evil’ against the right.

The abstention rate (40%) in these elections was the biggest since the 1974 Revolution. This is symptomatic of the huge dissatisfaction felt by wide layers of people, not only with the policies applied by the last PS government, but also about the vicious neo-liberal policy defended in the electoral campaign by the PSD.

Essentially, what such a big abstention rate reflects is the huge lack of confidence on the part of working people in the two main ruling parties which have been alternately running the country for the past 35 years.

Increasing polarisation

But these elections are also without doubt a turning point as far as the left is concerned. Together, the parties to the left of the PS, the Left Bloc and the CDU –a coalition made up of the PCP (Portuguese Communist Party) and of the PEV (Portuguese Ecologist Party) – totalled about 18%. This good result for the left, echoing that of the European elections, is an encouraging illustration of the fact that a growing layer of workers, young people and unemployed in Portugal are open to socialist ideas and are definitely looking for an anti-capitalist response to the looming crisis facing the country.

The Left Bloc (BE) is the party which gained the most in these elections, increasing its share of the vote to 9.9%, compared to 6.4% in 2005. The detailed figures show that 557,109 people decided to vote for the BE (nearly 200,000 more than four years ago!). The BE has now become the fourth political force in the country, standing at third in most of the biggest cities. This result saw the Left Bloc make a breakthrough in parliament, doubling its number of national deputies from 8 to 16.

The CDU won 7.9% (+ 0.4%), 445,000 votes (+ 15,000) and 15 seats, one more than before. The results for the PCP were particularly strong in some of the most industrialised areas, reflecting its still strong base in traditional workers’ areas. However, a certain stagnation is evident in the electoral results of the party through the years. In the present period of capitalist crisis and of wide disappointment towards the PS, a much better result could have been expected. In the 1999 elections, the party got 487,000 votes. This figure shows that the party was not really able, in the course of the last ten years, to really enlarge its base of support. Despite its old roots among the working class, the sectarian approach of the Communist party’s leadership has represented a barrier to realising a real breakthrough amongst the new generations of young people and workers entering into action.

On the other hand, the reactionary Popular Party (PP) also boosted its standing. With its 10.5%, and climbing to 21 seats (up from 12 in 2005), the PP has become the third political party in the country. Significantly, the PP tried to avoid speaking about its economic programme, concentrating mainly on issues like immigration -with a very racist tone against Gypsies in particular- and on strongly conservative social positions such as campaigning against abortion rights. The gains made by the PP, contrasting the ones made by the radical left, are a clear reflection of the increasing class polarisation occurring in the country.

Big business fears working class radicalisation

“Portugal is a difficult country to govern. This election has made it more difficult”, was the comment of Miguel Sousa Tavares, a Portuguese novelist and political commentator. Indeed, the general erosion of support for the two mainstream traditional parties is going to open a new period of political instability. The two most reliable political weapons in the hands of the capitalist class are seriously weakened in a period when all the capitalist voices are urging strong economic measures and reforms to deal with the continuing economic crisis -now made worse by world recession- and the indebtedness of the country, one of the European Union’s worst. The public debt and budgetary deficit are projected to reach respectively 74.5% and 5.9% of gross domestic product this year, while the economy is expected to contract by more than 3%. The reduced majority of the PS on the one hand, and the boiling social discontent on the other, alarms the capitalist class, worried about the “lack of authority” that a minority Socialist government could have to deliver these anti-working class reforms.

Recently, the Confederation of Portuguese Industry warned José Socrates against any attempt to conclude an alliance with the ‘radical left’ parties. The Portuguese business leaders are afraid that, “Any government involvement of parties to the left of the Socialists could be fatal to growth, investment and employment” (Financial Times, 09/28/09). The move to the left in Portuguese society, expressed without ambiguity in the electoral results, provokes some anxiety amongst big business. Behind this statement, what the capitalists fear the most is that this move to the left could be translated into a new wave of radicalisation in the workers’ struggles. And they have good reason to develop such fears. A militant mood is palpable in a lot of workplaces, and the recent years have been characterised by very significant mobilisations of workers and youth, perhaps not seen since the revolutionary period of the 1970s. Even the electoral campaign was interrupted by numerous strikes by healthcare, transport and administration workers.

However, contrary to the above bosses’ statement, a formal alliance between the PS and the radical left would not be in any way to the advantage of workers’ struggles, precisely because of “Mr Socrates’ reluctance to damage his business-friendly credentials”, as the same article of the Financial Times pointed out. Indeed, genuine socialists are also opposed to the left parties entering into a capitalist government…but not really for the same reasons! The PS has sufficiently demonstrated in the last period it is only prepared to apply the bosses’ agenda. The new Keneysian measures proposed by the PS (a new airport for Lisbon, a high-speed train line between Lisbon and Madrid) are only temporary measures to cushion the worst effects of the crisis to control the rocketing unemployment and to buy a sort of social peace. As long as the domination of capitalism and big business is not challenged, any government following the elections will have to resort to tax hikes and public spending cuts to reduce the debt and bring the budget deficit into line. In other words, attacking the poor to preserve the interests of the rich. Only working class resistance can reverse such a policy.

If this fact is recognised by the Left Bloc and Communist Party leaderships, all the concrete conclusions linked to this perspective must be drawn too. In one of his first speeches after the elections, Francisco Louca, the leader of the Left Bloc, was calling for “more dialogue” from the PS leadership. Socialist policies will not come about though increasing dialogue with a party which is only ‘socialist’ in name. Instead of looking to its right, the Left Bloc’s leadership should look more to its left and have more dialogue with the only force capable of changing society and realising a socialist programme – the working class. The task of developing a strong and class-based political party with clear socialist demands cannot be put aside in any way or compromised for parliamentary purposes, or be replaced by a kind of lobbying strategy towards a party which is no longer on the workers’ side.

Real socialist policies urgently needed

The left parties cannot give any support to a government carrying out anti-working class policies. They must fight for the development of the day-to-day struggles of workers and youth, and link them to the realisation of a real and consistent socialist programme: first of all, for a reversal of all the anti-working class legislation applied during previous legislatures; the re-nationalisation of all sectors which have been privatised; the taking over of the entire banking, insurance, and energy sectors into public ownership and democratic control and management by elected representatives of workers, as well as the nationalisation in the same way of all factories threatening sackings or closures; the provision of a minimum wage of €600 for all workers and unemployed, with adaptation based on the evolution of the real cost of living; the progressive shortening of the working week in order to provide jobs for all.

Such measures must be linked to a general plan of production providing the necessary means to finance priority and socially useful sectors, like health, education, social security and public transport, sectors which have been consistently under attack and looted by the private sector during the last period. For sure, such policies will not come from the PS; recently, a leader figure of the PS warned it would be a "mistake" to think that Portugal would be better equipped to face the economic downturn if banks and insurance companies were taken over by the state. "The country does not need radical or extremist measures. It would be an economic mistake that would greatly penalise Portugal and the Portuguese people," he said. Only a workers’ government, based on democratically elected workers bodies on a local, regional and national basis, could carry out such policies.

This is not a mere prospect to dream of; it is an aim that the left parties have to prepare from now. The election results have shown that the Left Bloc and the Communist Party have strong support among workers and young people. But these results in themselves will not be sufficient to stop the inevitable new austerity plans to be expected from the new PS government. The good results of the Left Bloc are an important victory for all left activists, workers, trade unionists and young people fighting against capitalism and its consequences. But this victory must be linked with the immediate preparation of a clear and militant program to organise a fightback against this government, in the unions and in the workplaces. A joint appeal from the Left Bloc and the PCP moving in this direction could have a very favourable and profound impact in the present situation.

The period of crisis facing capitalism, and its effects on the lives of the workers and their families, will renew the fighting spirit and the tradition of struggle of the Portuguese working class, and lead to increased support for a genuine socialist alternative.

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