Portugal: Government in disintegration

No to a government of “national unity”! For mass action to deal final blow to rotten coalition and impose a workers’ alternative!

In the last two weeks, Portugal has been plunged into possibly the deepest and most desperate episode of political crisis since the onset of the recession and intervention of the Troika over 2 years ago. For the last week, the country has been virtually without a government, with the ruling class only now seeming able to patch together a “solution”. But this “solution”, as with all the others before, will be both temporary and botched up, rather than one capable of establishing a stable and functioning government. It is impossible that any government tasked by the rich to do the bidding of the Troika and capitalist elite in waging an un-ending offensive on workers and the poor, can enjoy any significant period of stability, given the social misery and explosions which this course implies. It is up to the working class and the youth, mobilised and organised around the fight for an alternative, to deal this government the final blow and prevent any new “solution” based on austerity and impoverishment.

On 27 June, a powerful general strike took place, paralysing the economy for the 5th time in less than 3 years. It was the 4th general strike called against the 2-year old coalition government, composed of the PSD (party of the traditional right wing) and CDS (smaller right-wing Christian Democrat party). The strike came as the culmination of a renewed wave of militant struggle. The weeks and months leading up to it saw a strike movement, stretching from Dockers and postal workers, to teachers and health staff. 2 March saw one of the biggest mass mobilisations since the 1974 Portuguese revolution, with tens of thousands again taking to the streets on 25 May.

It was also the first of these general strikes to have been explicitly anti-government: at least from the point of view of the CGTP (the majority trade union federation), the strike was linked to the demand for the fall of the government and new elections. These struggles and mobilisations are increasingly characterised by a crushing consensus that the target of the working class’ counter-offensive, must go beyond any single attack on a given sector or industry. Portuguese workers and youth in struggle have their sights firmly set on doing away with the austerity regime as a whole, personified in the government, in its subordination to the Troika. This reflects a growing realisation that the battle against austerity and social decay is a political one; in the final analysis a question of government.

Thus, the anti-government character of the general strike, especially the CGTP’s stated goal of the bringing down of the government, is of quite some importance. A massive general strike, openly called to do away with a capitalist government is something unforeseen in the European context since the onset of the crisis, and represents the arrival in Europe of an element of the revolutionary fervour which has characterised the ‘Arab Spring’. However, much work remains to be done in order for the abstract stand of the CGTP in favour of the toppling of the government and Troika, to be reflected in a movement and concrete strategy capable of doing so.

General strike leaves government teetering on the brink

The role of such a general strike in provoking and accelerating the government’s crisis is obvious. Less than 48 hours later, Victor Gaspar, the hated Minister of Finance, seen as having directly implemented the government’s worst austerity packages, handed in his long-anticipated resignation, stating that he simply saw “no conditions” for the implementation of the measures demanded of the government. Clearly, some of these absent “conditions” are economic ones – evidenced by the continuing strangulation of the economy under the impact of austerity – but this does not tell the full story by any means. The conditions which make the stable rule of the likes of Gaspar and Passos Coelho impossible are the fundamental conditions that characterise capitalist society: ultimately you can’t please the ruling class without vexing the working class majority, upon which you technically depend to get elected to parliament/government. For this simple reason, governments which become almost universally hated and slowly approach electoral annihilation are increasingly wracked by divisions, desertions and splits. This feature, common to Portugal, Spain, Greece, Ireland and all countries at the epicentre of the crisis and resistance, fundamentally reflects the fear of those above before the inevitable rebellion from below. What better to hammer home this fear and accelerate this process than a general strike, of over 80% of the workforce? Such was the context of Gaspar’s resignation.

Then the floodgates opened. Paolo Portas, Foreign Minister and leader of the CDS presented his own resignation, following a lengthy cynical attempt to present himself as opposing “from within” the scale of the government’s attacks on pensioners and the unemployed. This appeared to blow the coalition apart, and the 2 other CDS ministers in cabinet announced their intention to resign along with Portas. International banks were emitting communiqués to investors predicting the fall of the government within 48 hours! However, in the absence of a final blow from the workers’ movement, it has been allowed to re-stabilise itself, with Portas and the CDS re-entering government in exchange for more weight in the cabinet (Portas himself will be promoted to Vice-PM).

For a sustained, escalating movement to fight to the finish!

Before this panorama, a determined trade union leadership could have mobilised to successfully bring down the government by little more than lifting a finger. However, the absence of a fighting lead given by the leaders, such as the calling of an immediate general strike, occupations and mass demonstrations, the situation has begun to develop along a similar pattern to that which many activists in Portugal have become used to. Repeated and earth-shattering displays of anger and power by workers and youth – the 5 general strikes and unprecedented mass mobilisations on 12 March and 12 September 2012, etc – have almost invariably caused the government to wobble. But without continuity and escalation, the final push never comes and things are gradually allowed to re-stabilise. The following up of the 27 June general strike with a 48 hour strike, accompanied by mass mobilisations (as Socialismo Revolucionario – CWI in Portugal – suggested) would have represented the next step in a fight to the finish against this government, and in all likelihood would have led to its downfall. The CGTP leadership proposed and mobilised only for a small concentration (which would undoubtedly have been much bigger were it not for the strong heatwave) outside the Presidential Palace on Saturday, when the government had already all but patched together a new agreement. The fight for an alternative, combative strategy must now be stepped up throughout the workers and social movements.

However, it is also crucial to take the debate beyond the mere demand to bring down the government. The “Socialist Party” which currently leads in the polls is the party which signed the Troika’s “memorandum” in the first place, and is openly pledged to continuing to respect its commitments. In the last few days, its leader Seguro has emphasised the “responsible” (responsible towards capitalism, of course) character of the PS, which demands to lead the government in order to “better negotiate” a new – now universally accepted as inevitable- second bailout with the Troika. It is the duty of the left and leaders of the movements to make a crystal clear warning to the working class that a new PS government can offer no real hope of bettering the situation.

No to “national unity” government!

There is also much talk of a “palace solution”, based on an intervention by the President – Cavaco da Silva (from the PSD) – to set up a government of “national unity”. This morning (Thursday 11 July), Da Silva made a planned address on the political crisis, in which he was widely expected to merely rubber-stamp the “solution” of a cabinet re-shuffle proposed by the government parties. However, instead he gave an address which shocked the nation, and which must have shocked his own party’s leaders more than anyone! Implicitly rejecting the solution proposed by Coelho and Portas, he called for the formation of a grand coalition of the PSD, CDS and PS: of all the parties “committed to the Memorandum”. This has initially been ruled out by the leadership of the PS, not because of opposition to governing with the right, but because of a desire to enter into such a government on a strengthened basis as the biggest party following new elections. However, the PS leaders cannot be trusted any further than they can be thrown, and the formation in the short term of such a coalition cannot be ruled out. It seems that, under the pressure of events, and the fear of new elections and the instability they would bring, this – or some other “technocratic” option – has become the preferred option of Portuguese capitalism and the Troika, which has long emphasised the need to implicate the PS in government. Things will become clearer in the coming days, when negotiations take place between the President and the parties, with a key role reserved for some as yet unknown “figure of recognised prestige”.

Such an outcome, rather than representing an improvement, would represent a conscious preparation by the crisis-ridden ruling class get together and fortify its defences for a massive attack on the working class, and virtual elimination of the welfare state. Indeed, in Da Silva’s declaration, the tasks of such a government in maintaining the austerity agenda were underlined.

Some lessons must be learned from the treacherous role played by Da Silva in the past few days. Principally, the conclusion must be drawn that in the struggle to bring down the coalition, those who placed all hopes in a Presidential intervention to call elections were sadly mistaken. While an intervention by the President of the Republic to sack the government and call new elections would not be unwelcome, our class can only truly rely on its own power and organisation in the struggle to bring down the coalition. False friends can prove even more dangerous than honest enemies. The solution to the political and social crisis plaguing Portuguese society lies not in the Presidential palace, but in the workplaces, universities, schools and working class communities.

Potential of the left and the fight for a workers’ governmnent

Nothing less than the fall of the government, and the calling of new elections to allow for the opening up of a new political stage in the country’s history, can be accepted. Such elections would certainly see a consolidation of the rise in support for the Left parties and thus potentially put the workers and social movements in a stronger political position. Mass assemblies in workplaces, educational institutions and neighbourhoods and democratically elected and revocable committees of a united movement – involving activists from all the unions and left parties (and those yet to be organised) – could build and coordinate a mass campaign to ensure that elections take place, and to debate and decide on a strategy and programme for a struggle for an alternative government.

The key to the situation lies in the potential of the mass parties of the Left, the Left Bloc and Communist Party, who consistently enjoy over 20% in the polls. An united front of these parties, in unity with the unions and social movements could pose the question of fighting to do away with capitalist governments altogether and raise the horizon of a workers’ government capable of turning the situation around in the interests of the majority. For this to happen, the left must embrace revolutionary socialist policies as the only way to break from the death spiral of economic depression and deepening misery, which the rule of the Troika represents.

This implies a determined and organised struggle, across the Left and the movements, including within the ranks of the main parties, in favour of genuine unity in action and of a political programme which goes well beyond that which unfortunately dominates the mass Left parties at the present time. The policies defended by the Left Bloc and PCP leaders, for a “re-negotiation” of the national debt and interest rates, and for more “solidarity” from the European Central Bank simply do not correspond to either the profound and structural nature of the capitalist crisis, or to the blood-sucking bourgeois character of institutions like the ECB. Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI in Portugal) struggles to popularise socialist policies, beginning from a rejection of all austerity and the repudiation of the debt, linked to the need to break the power of the markets and bring the banks and key sectors of the economy into public, democratic ownership. On this basis, a socialist plan to “rescue” the Portuguese economy and society, instead of the profits of big business, could be implemented. The struggle for a workers’ government to put in place such a plan, in union with the struggling working classes of Europe, in particular of the South, will put the question of a alternative Socialist federation in Europe on the order of the day.

Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.