Portugal: Left vote grows as right coalition fails to win majority

What way forward for the Left and workers’ movement?

Elections cannot give a fully accurate barometer of the mood of the population and class consciousness. However if read carefully polls can give a hint to the ebb and flow of consciousness, the class struggle and social movements. With rare clarity, the Portuguese general elections on 4 October, showed a turn to the Left and announced a new political period in Portugal, with great dangers for the ruling class.

The victory, albeit modest, belongs to the Left

The new parliament has, as we speak (before the four MPs elected by votes outside Portugal are counted), 36 left MPs. The Left Bloc (BE), against all odds, more than doubled its number of MP’s, from 8 to 19. The CDU (Coalition of the Communist Party (PCP) and Greens) had a slight growth and elected one more MP, reaching 17.

The results reflect how the Left Bloc appeals mostly to a social strata and sections of the working class which the PCP has great difficulty attracting. As such, any competition and animosity that might exist between the rank and file of these two parties is no more than worthless sectarianism, which should be fought against by the leaderships of these parties if they really want to defend the interests of the exploited and oppressed.

The Left Bloc’s growth is linked to the “proletarianisation” and radicalization of layers of the middle classes, as well as to the precarious situation facing big parts of the working class who perceived themselves as ‘middle class’ and voted previously for the ex-social democratic PS.

The Left Bloc has also drawn some necessary lessons from the Greek experience, having adopted a clearer position towards EU – a fundamental political issue of this period – and also benefitted from a certain internal “cleansing” following splits to its left and right, which ended up creating the political disasters Livre [center-left pro-EU party formed around ex-MP Rui Tavares] and Agir [coalition of the Movimento Alternativa Socialista, populists and some high profile ex-Left Bloc figures]. This growth is also a result of the commitment and effort made by Left Bloc militants during the campaign and of the performance of its two main public figures, Catarina Martins and Mariana Mortágua.

However, this growth is volatile by its very nature. The Left Bloc has to grow as an organization, solidify and broaden its rank-and-file by recruiting youth and developing cohesion, to build outside of parliament, in the trade union struggles and on the streets. If it does not do this, its biggest electoral upsurge may not be more than the prelude to its biggest electoral downfall.

The CDU (Coalition of the Communist Party and Greens) accomplished its stated goal: to grow in votes and number of MPs. However, the brief “victorious” speech of Jerónimo de Sousa (PCP’s Secretary General) did not hide the obvious. Undeniably this was a very modest victory, with CDU far behind the support it should be winning after four years of brutal attacks on workers.

The PCP, the main political force of the CDU coalition, is the most significant worker’s party in Portugal. It can only further increase its political strength in so far as it can organize unorganized workers and also increase trade union membership. No amount of media projection, smiles or speeches can increase the PCP’s strength, whether in the parliament or on the streets, factories and neighbourhoods. Coordinated action with the CGTP (the main trade union federation), aimed at radicalizing the trade union struggle is crucial for the party to accomplish the tasks of the next period. From the defensive, we must pass to the counter-offensive!

A broad united front of the left, based on a common programme, headed by the Left Bloc and PCP, but with the involvement of the CGTP and other trade unions and social movements, is a striking necessity to defeat the right. If the leaderships’ refuse to build such an alliance, then the rank-and-file must build it, first of all in the daily struggles in workplaces, schools and on the streets!

The big loser is the Right

The pro-capitalist media declared the PSD (Partido Social Democrata)/CDS (Centro Democrático e Social) coalition (the previous government) as the big winner. The truth is that 63.2% voted against the government and this coalition has lost 11.8% of the vote since the last general elections.

The pathetic campaign of PS (Partido Socialista) under the leadership of António Costa, which tried to steal votes from the right, is half of the explanation for the PSD/CDS Pyrrhic victory, in emerging as the biggest parliamentary block. The other half is of course not only the left turn of the Portuguese electorate, but also the fact that PSD/CDS and PS shared, in essence, the same programme, presenting it with the same technocratic approach. The PS was unable to present itself as a political alternative considering it said it was prepared to work inside the straitjacket of the Troika’s diktats.

The PDS (Partido Social Democrata – the main coalition party) won 86 MPs, ahead of the PS by only one MP. Both parties are well short of an overall majority.

This is an historical defeat for the right. Both capitalist parties emerged from the polls in such a way that they are forced to talk about “negotiation” and “understandings”.

A ‘grand coalition’ government?

These events can only be understood taking into account the international economic and political situation. The crisis of capitalism, global and systemic, will deepen in the next months. The ruling class, looking to protect their profits, will continue, therefore, to attack workers in every way possible through its political representatives – PS, PSD and CDS. One of their goals is to approve a radical reform of the Constitution of the Portuguese Republic which still stands, in paper, at least, for some of the important conquests of the 1974 Portuguese Revolution.

These new attacks and attempts to reform the constitution are in the context where the Left parties are strengthened and when the working class is slowly but surely showing a radicalization which may suddenly accelerate.

Obviously, the most alert sections of the ruling class understand this. Brussels will demand a strong government. But Passos and Portas, PSD and CDS leaders, respectively, who will try to rule with 36.8% of the votes in a parliament with a reinforced left, will find achieving this impossible.

The PSD and CDS will try to carry out draconian measures in next year’s state budget, cutting social spending by more than 700 million euros to “meet agreements” with the Troika. This will create an unbearable situation for the PS.

In such a context, the ridiculous politics of “violent abstention” in Parliament – in effect, allowing the right’s policies to pass – cannot be maintained by the PS for more than a few weeks, or else they risk alienating their rank-and-file and entering into a process of fragmentation, or ‘Pasokisation’, as it is now termed. Without PS backing, no proposal will be approved in the parliament.

The Portuguese capitalists and their European counterparts will demand some form of agreement between the PS and PSD via Cavaco Silva, the country’s President. And even though it is not the only choice, the likeliest scenario is a push for a “grand coalition” government, to create more stability and to allow for the rewriting of the Constitution.

If such a government comes into being, all the capitalist parties will see a fall in support, opening new opportunities for the Left. If the PCP and Left Bloc unite their efforts, the two-party system in Portugal is doomed.

Both parties should denounce the PS’s right-wing policy, and state they will only support a government under the minimal condition of ending the austerity policies. The PS cannot accept this as it alienates the bosses who finance it.

The PS is in danger of being crushed between the left and right. In order to survive, it will try to form a grand coalition government which allows it to apply austerity demanded by its backers while simultaneously justify its role as the ‘lesser evil’.

Unity against the austerity, pro-capitalist parties

The conclusion for the Left and working class is clear: all efforts should be aimed at the pro-cuts and pro-capitalist parties. Amongst these parties is the PS. The downfall of the PS, which is at an historical impasse, can pave the way for the Left, as the Greek experience has shown.

The PCP and Left Bloc, in order to expose the PS, must be intransigent on their conditions on forming or supporting a new government. No austerity can be tolerated; no attack on the working class can be acceptable! Demand what the PS leaders will not give: a Left government.

But this policy cannot be carried out only through the 36 seats won by the Left in the parliament and with the limited media time the mass media unwillingly have to give to Left parties. Attacking the two-party system is only possible by building a ‘left front’ capable of concentrating and coordinating the numerous workers’ struggles around clear demands and breaking with capitalism. Such a united front could fight for a real alternative left government, unleashing a new wave of mass protests to further radicalise workers, students and precarious workers; organizing the working class in democratic bodies which will act as tools for control and management of the workplace, schools and neighbourhoods. The Greek experience, as others in the past, shows that if this is not done, we will be defeated.

If the leaderships of the PCP and Left Bloc allow themselves be seduced by the possibility of forming a government and make any kind of programmatic concessions in trying to approach the PS, they risk participating in an austerity coalition. If they accept it, they will have betrayed the workers and saved the two party system, as well as preparing their own ruin.

Socialismo Revolucionário (CWI Portugal) is firmly committed to the struggle against austerity and for socialism and will work with any forces struggling for the same ends.

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