Portugal: No end to crisis in sight

On the way to a second bailout

Below we publish an edited versión of the speech given by Goncalo Romeiro on 5 December 2013 on the situation in Portugal at the recent meeting of the CWI’s International Executive Committee.


Since last year, Portugal has sunk deeper into the economic crisis. Unemployment has once again reached record levels (official level 17,4%, real level 27%), that’s 1.6 million people without jobs, out of which nearly two thirds don’t have any source of income. Public services are in ruins: there are situations where to get a doctor in local health centres you have to stay in a queue outside from 4am, and even then it’s not guaranteed. The cuts in public education are so severe that the directors of universities have cut relations with the government, while at the same time the subsidies paid to private education and health care have gone up.

The public sector is being reduced and transformed into a factory of precariousness. 68% of new jobs are precarious, while public servants with better conditions are sacked or forced into early retirement.

The agenda of the government has gone forward on many key issues. Just recently, the age of retirement went up to 66 years old. In fact, now Portugal doesn’t have an official age of retirement, it can go up every year. The privatization of key sectors is already in the final stages; next in line are the Postal Services and Water Companies. While all of this is going on, the deficit and public debt are still out of control, the debt reaches now levels above 127% of GDP, and although exportations have increased a little – which has been the main political and economical banner of the government – this is not enough to show a way out. Its growth is already slowing down, despite the incentives and subsidies from the state to that sector.

Towards a second bailout

The government, in the final stage of the first Troika programme, wants to give a strong image of itself, claiming that unemployment has slightly decreased in the last months – of course it doesn’t take into account that a huge part of the work force as either emigrated or gone into long term unemployment, and therefore out of the statistics. They say that we don’t need a second bailout, not even what they call a “just in case” Memorandum. But the troika, even publicly, seems to think otherwise and recently said that the risk of a second bailout is still quite high. The fact is that the claims from the government that the worst is behind us, based on a weak growth in the beginning of the year, and the slowdown of the drop in investment and consumption, are completely false.

Exports are also slowing down, as Portugal’s main trade partners also face more austerity, like Spain, and the ‘BRICS’ economies enter crisis and slowdown, especially China and Brazil, but also Angola. Important to mention is also that, despite this “optimistic” – lunatic, rather – rhetoric of the ruling class, they say clearly that austerity has come to stay, and that at least for the next 20 years that’s what the working class is going to get from them.

The class struggle

Obviously all of this has not proceeded smoothly and has faced huge resistance from working people. Since the historic Iberian general strike of 14 November 2012, we’ve seen massive more massive struggles, including a further general strike on 27 June 2013.

In March, 1.5 million people marched through the streets of the country, under the slogan “Screw the Troika”. Unlike on 15 September 2012, when 1 million came out, this demonstration was not only about a specific unpopular measure, it was a expression of general anger against austerity. These two massive demonstrations, and the general strikes of 14 November and 27 June were huge opportunities for the left, where the government could have been easily defeated with a plan of sustained and decisive action. Unfortunately no such plan of action was organized, and we experienced periods of demobilisation after each and every one of these events. For this reason, on top of the media blackout imposed on the movement after March, “Screw the Troika” largely lost its mass mobilization capacity after March.

Beginning in May, we saw a wave of strike actions in many sectors that culminated in a new general strike on 27 June. Since then, thousands of others fights have taken place, although they have not linked together by a united plan of action. The troika and the government have never been so unpopular: an opinion poll from the end of May showed that more than 80% of the population oppose the memorandum and want it either renegotiated or ripped up altogether.

This autumn, it seemed at first that we were going to see a new escalation in the struggle, when the CGTP called for a march over the 25 April Bridge, an “illegal action” according to an unconstitutional law. This militant stand had a clear impact in radicalizing the workers’ movement, as well as attracting those young layers of activists who look on the unions with suspicion. In the end, after initially promising to do the contrary, the leadership of the CGTP shamelessly retreated when the government refused to authorize the protest. This retreat demoralized the mood somewhat and fuelled unfortunate anti-union/political party moods, but also made many inside the Portuguese Communist Party itself (including important leaders in the trade unions) angry with this decision.

Since then, we have still not seen any big mobilizations on a national scale. So the government remains in power, and the mass Left parties (Left Bloc and PCP) and Trade Unions, despite claiming that their priority is to bring it down, do not put forward an escalating programme of struggle that could really do this, and refuse to organize serious action and open the way for a worker’s political alternative.

Crisis in security/repressive apparatus of the State

As discussed at the last IEC meeting, the repressive apparatus of the state in Portugal is quite unstable. We have seen sectors of the military and police demonstrate their anger at the policies of the government, and we saw both joining popular demonstrations, like the one of 2 March. There have been statements by military associations (like the sergeants’ association) where police and military officers say they are on the side of the people, not that of the government.

Just 2 weeks ago, we saw another sign. The biggest demonstration of police officers ever marched on the parliament, challenged their colleagues on duty and climbed up the parliament’s steps (something forbidden by law) and “knocked” on its doors. The message was clear: “if we wanted, we could have stormed the parliament”.

Although the situation is not exactly the same as at the time of the 1974 Portuguese Revolution in which army officers played a fundamental initial role, this remains a key open sore and source of instability for the Portuguese ruling class.

Crisis in the government and the response of the Left

Following the general strike in June, the government faced its biggest crisis so far. Its Finance Minister was forced to resign due to the social pressure he was exposed to. Two days later the leader of the smaller coalition party (CDS) also announced his resignation (along with two other CDS Ministers).

What saved the government essentially the lack of a fighting response from the Left and union leaders. No mass action was called for: not a new general strike, nor even a national demonstration. When the CGTP finally called for a demonstration the opportunity was already lost, it was too late. The President, who acted much faster to save the government, then intervened and literally dragged the CDS ministers back into the executive and saved it, making just minor changes.

Once again, it was made clear that the current leadership of the movement is not up to the tasks of the day.

There has been a new attempt to fill the political vacuum on the left with a Portuguese MEP, Rui Tavares, elected on the lists of the Left Bloc, but who defected to the Greens, launching a new party “in the centre of the left”, but this initiative will have a has had little impact.

The last local elections, in October showed once again how the Left fails to fill the political vacuum created by the crisis in the traditional capitalist parties. The Left Bloc lost more than 50.000 votes, losing the only municipality it had led, while the PCP grew and recovered important positions in the south and around Lisbon, but in total only won 10.000 more votes than before. Abstention rose again to record levels and the Socialist Party won the elections, seen as the lesser evil.

This new electoral defeat deepened the internal crisis of the LB, with more and more militants questioning and speaking out against the policy of the leadership. This must be crystallised and further developed into an organised opposition to fight for a fighting revolutionary socialist approach, and a clear shift to the left, against the leadership’s ambiguous opposition to the Troika and the debt. The militant class fighters of the PCP rank and file must fight for a similar approach, as a key part of the struggle for a united front of the Left, social and workers’ movements for a workers’ government to break with the Troika with socialist policies.

There has been a new attempt to fill this vacuum with a Portuguese MEP, Rui Tavares, elected on the lists of the Left Bloc, but who defected to the Greens, launching a new party “in the centre of the left”, but this initiative will have a has had little impact.

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