Portugal: Legislative elections of 2011

What future for the left in Portugal?

The recent legislative elections in Portugal, against the background of a deepening economic meltdown and growing working class and youth militancy, saw the worst defeat for the ruling Socialist Party (PS) in more than two decades, and the right-wing Social Democrat Party (PSD) and Popular Party (PP) securing together a majority to govern, with 39% and 12% of the votes respectively.

However, the level of abstentions has hit a new record (41.1%), the biggest in Portugal’s recent history. Besides being the expression of huge anger against the establishment parties, the harshest proponents of a programme of social war against the workers and the poor, it is also a testimony that important layers of people have not found on the left a programme or a party that could serve as a vehicle to display their opposition to the massive austerity measures imposed by these parties.

The severe drop of electoral support for the Left Bloc (BE), with half of its votes lost (they went from 10.7% in 2009 to 5.2% this year), and 8 out of their 16 MPs losing their seats in Parliament, raises important questions about the policies and the future of this party, and places it in a serious crisis. Its leaders are blaming what they call a “swing to the right” as the cause of these results. However what really happened was the reaction of their electoral support to the move to the right of the BE itself. This was dramatically symbolized by their support for the candidacy of Manuel Alegre (the PS candidate in the presidential elections in January), the vote of their MPs for the bail-out of Greece last year, or the caution of their MEPs towards the imperialist intervention in Libya.

Their lack of will to build a serious common workers and youth front with the PCP to fight against the avalanche of attacks coming from the capitalist class and the financial markets, combined with an insistent turn towards the PS, in a situation of growing hatred towards the latter party among the population (BE’s main leader went as far as saying that “there is no left in Portugal without the Socialist Party”), also weakened BE considerably.

As Rosa Luxembourg pointed out: “Opportunism, incidentally, is a political game which can be lost in two ways: not only basic principles but also practical success may be forfeited.” Without radical change of its policies, the BE could face meltdown in the near future. While the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) has a stable base of electors and a huge influence among the trade unions, it is far less the case in relation to the BE, whose grassroots membership is smaller and its social influence in the working class much more limited. Hence the party is more susceptible to its electoral support, with very volatile results, especially in situations like this where the intervention of the ‘Troika’ (EU, ECB and IMF) and its consequences are becoming the subject of rising concern for the majority of people, and which demand bold responses from the left.

As long as the BE is ruled by its present right-wing leadership (the majority), the youth, who always looked upon BE as attractive to their aims, will progressively lose confidence in the party and will try to find alternative ways of self-organization like the movement “Geração à Rasca” (the occupation of plazas and popular assemblies) that are, in fact, much more appealing than what the left parties have currently to offer.

As for the PCP, the result represents virtual stagnation. The leadership stated that it is “stronger than ever in continuing the struggle”. This is an emphatic overestimation of its own strength. In reality, the PCP has hardly been able to convince anybody beyond its traditional, long-standing base of support. In the context of the biggest crisis facing the country in living memory, and of exceptional explosions of mobilization from workers and young people in the past months, the fact that the party actually saw its votes slightly reduced from two years ago cannot be considered a victory.

If the party has still 16 MPs in the parliament, and a much stronger base of support than the BE, the Communist Party is not at the present time using this position to offer a real, sustainable plan of militant action aimed at defeating the Troika’s programme, rejecting the payment of the debt, and nationalising the commanding sectors of the economy under workers’ control and management to run the country on a socialist basis.

The ‘communist’ goal should be translated into a clear programme of fighting demands that can grasp the desire of the majority for action and for a society based on the needs of all and not the diktats of the markets and banks. As long as the PCP continues to consider ‘communism’ as a distant, rhetorical abstraction not linked to the concrete debate on what to do now, as long as the PCP prefers to use patriotic rhetoric rather than arguing for a programme of international working class solidarity, as long as it continues to ‘avoid’ any criticisms of international regimes such as North Korea or China, just because they are not aligned with the US and EU policies, then the PCP faces the risk of decline like other communist parties in Europe. The PCP must therefore take advantage of the exceptional situation it still holds in Portugal to offer a concrete left alternative, a programme that openly defends the necessity for a democratic socialist/communist society, clearly pointing out that the Socialist Party does not represent ‘socialism’ at all, as many in Portugal still tend to believe while nothing else really socialist is offered.

As the holders of power and capital have a well-formed idea of the classes in society, it is imperative that the PCP re-appropriates the notion of the class struggle and campaigns offensively for such a struggle throughout the working class, the youth and the poor. Finally, the PCP, in order to argue efficiently against the relations of domination in society, should also argue for real democratic structures in the framework of the struggle itself, based on mass democratic assemblies and committees in the workplaces and the communities, that can allow people to discuss together a strategy to defeat the plans of the Troika and their political representatives, and ultimately, to replace the current fake ‘democracy’ – which is nothing else than the dictatorship of a handful of bankers, private companies and rich politicians – by a real democracy of workers and young people.

The new right-wing government is charging its batteries for one of the biggest programme of capitalist attacks ever realised in the country’s history. New spending cuts, massive privatisation, including of healthcare, social security, water utilities and postal services, new reforms of the labour code and the reduction of compensation payments for dismissed workers are all on the agenda. This will not pass by without massive resistance from workers and youth. In this context, the building of strong parties of the left is more important than ever.

Last year’s general strike was supported by millions and brougth the entire country to a standstill

Unfortunately, while the right-wing parties maintained a strong emphasis on the ‘inevitability’ of submission to the Troika’s programme, the leaderships of the PCP and of the Left Bloc have not been able to raise a viable alternative to such a scenario. The television debates between the main candidates have shown that the current leaders of the left parties do not have the capacity to bring the discussions and speeches to a higher level. Despite their positions, Jerómino de Sousa (PCP) and Francisco Louçã (BE) did not raise genuine socialist or communist proposals to big public audiences.

The result of these elections can be seen as a defeat for the left, but if the lessons are learnt from this experience, it could start the process of offering a basis for a new impetus in the future struggle of all sectors of the left in Portugal.

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