The Covid-19 pandemic ripping out of control was the background to Portugal’s Presidential elections on 24th January. The winner was right-wing incumbent Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, as the far-right gained and the left was punished for tying itself to the capitalist establishment.
Portugal currently has the highest Covid-19 death-rate in the world, peaking at the end of January at 300 daily deaths in a country of only 10 million people. The chronically underfunded national healthcare system, the SNS, is collapsing, with patients dying in ambulances as they queue for hours outside hospitals too full and too understaffed to admit them. Hospitals have had to rent refrigeration trucks to store bodies because the morgues are full. As we go to press, the government of prime minister António Costa has called in support from German military doctors as they report only seven ICU beds remain unoccupied in the whole country. Patients have been airlifted to hospitals as far away as the island of Madeira and Austria.
Killed by capitalism
The disaster unfolding in Portugal is not a natural one, but in this election, there was no mass force making a credible argument about how it could have been different. If decisive action were taken by the government to contain the spread of the virus from the beginning, shutting all non-essential workplaces and guaranteeing workers full pay while the emergency lasted, the virus could have been contained and many lives saved. The death toll has been so high because Portugal’s political rulers have been willing to risk the interests and safety of working class people in hopes of limiting the damage to the profits of big business. Even in this most severe phase of the crisis, the government fought tooth and nail to keep schools open so that big companies could keep parents in the workplace. They were only shut on 22 January because public anger forced their closure.
Portugal’s tourism-dominated economy has been brutally hit by Covid-19. Many have slipped through the cracks of government support. As jobs are cut and workers’ already low incomes (less than half the EU average) fall further, the far right has won the support of a layer which is being ruined by the closing of the economy. Ironically, given their nostalgia for the Salazar dictatorship, the far right has also gained by posing as being against the restrictions on democratic rights that Costa’s government has introduced under cover of the pandemic.
Turnout dropped significantly in the presidential vote, down to under 46% in Portugal itself. Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, a former leader of the right wing Social Democratic Party (PSD), won 60% of the vote. Ana Gomes, a former MEP of Costa’s Socialist Party (PSP), collapsed to just 13%. André Ventura of new far-right party Chega came third with 12% – a dramatic increase on their 1.3% vote in the 2019 Portuguese general election. The left failed to advance, with the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) gaining the same 180,000 votes (4%), this year, as in the last presidential elections. Most dramatically, the Left Bloc (BE) lost two-thirds of its 2016 votes to plummet from third place to fifth.
In this situation, Marxists will not understand the real development of society’s processes if they employ the dogmatic approach of groups like Izquierda Revolucionaria, who are based mainly in the Spanish state. The electoral base of particular political parties is not eternally fixed amongst a particular layer in society. Classes do not mechanistically vote for specific parties, particularly in this period, which is still affected by the dramatic shift to the right by former workers’ parties after the collapse of the Stalinist states. Mass support for a revolutionary socialist transformation will emerge out of the battles that are ahead. But today the still undeveloped consciousness of broad layers of the masses, together with the lack of a fighting lead from left parties, means there is considerable confusion. This will be cleared from the minds of the masses by going through the experience of colossal class battles and observing how the different political forces in the field behave, with opportunities for Marxist forces to build powerful support by putting forward a bold socialist programme that meets the needs of the working class.
In this election, some workers who have been made desperate by the crisis have even been pulled in by the far-right Chega (although its main base is middle-class). These workers can be pulled away from the charlatan far-right – which, in reality, stand for the continuation of all of the worst elements of the current capitalist system – with a bold fighting approach from socialists. While recognising that Chega will attract far-right individuals and racists amongst its support – and Marxists must be to the fore opposing all reactionary, poisonous and divisive ideas – it is a mistake to generalise and write off as “scum” or “social dust”, as IR does, those who have yet to hear and respond to a credible appeal from a mass workers’ party with a socialist programme and have fallen for the far right posing as “anti-system”, in the words of André Ventura.
The Left Bloc has implied that there was little that they and the rest of the left could have done in the midst of the pandemic to have prevented setbacks. The reality is that avoidable mistakes have created this electoral defeat. In the preceding period, the Left Bloc failed to orientate towards the struggles of the working class. In parliament both they and the PCP (communist party), in effect, joined a popular front with the capitalist forces in the misnamed “Socialist Party” by entering “a geringonça” – “the contraption”.
As we argued at the time, (https://www.socialistworld.net/2015/11/30/portugal-right-wing-government-brought-down/) it was not wrong for the left parties to have helped Costa to bring down the right-wing PSD government in 2015. But it was a fatal error to sign a pact which guaranteed Costa stability without winning commitments that there would be no attacks on the living standards of the working class. Costa has used his position to protect the profits of big business and oversee a further real-terms fall in wages, and yet more insecurity and cuts to services, maintaining the anti-union laws of his conservative predecessor. (See https://www.socialistworld.net/2019/08/30/fuel-tanker-drivers-strike-paralyses-portugal-where-next-for-the-left/)
As the incumbent in this election, Rebelo de Sousa became the main representative of an unprincipled bloc that had succeeded in luring in the left parties. The PSP encouraged this development. It refused to endorse the candidature of their member Ana Gomes. The PSP right wing openly supported Rebelo de Sousa, who was thus able to attract support from the base of both his own right-wing PSD, Costa’s PSP and – according to polling – those who have voted for the left in the past, especially that of the Left Bloc whose more middle-class base is less entrenched in their loyalties than the more working-class PCP. Others who were repelled by the amalgam stayed at home, leading to a record low turnout in which half a million fewer votes were cast than in the last election.
Had an independent working-class policy been pursued it would have been possible to win support in this election for a socialist programme that prioritised workers’ safety and incomes and it would have been harder for Costa’s government to continue to prioritise profit in the response to the pandemic. As it was, the far right was able to pose as the alternative to a bloc of forces dominated by the establishment. Even before the pandemic, the left was beginning to pay a price for their association with Costa, losing seats at the 2019 general election as we have reported. (See https://www.socialistworld.net/2019/10/18/portuguese-elections-new-class-battles-loom/) The PCP has also lost its industrial influence over important sections of workers, including nurses, by opposing strikes that pressure the government. Covid-19 has accelerated all processes in society. We say again: it is urgent that the left learns the lessons and demonstrates their independence from Costa’s government, demanding workers control of the response to the pandemic and fighting every attempt by the government to make workers pay for the crisis after it.
A socialist programme
It is not enough to pay lip service to a socialist programme. Parties must demonstrate that they will strain every sinew for its realisation. It is not enough, for example, for the Left Bloc, to include in its programme the nationalisation of private healthcare. What has the Left Bloc done to struggle for this demand, made so urgent by the onset of the pandemic? A majority of Portugal’s hospitals are privately owned, running services outside the public SNS. What was necessary was an energetic agitation from the beginning of the pandemic, including initiatives are taken using any platforms in parliament that have been won; for a campaign of strike action to compel the government to requisition all the assets of private health, and their incorporation into a single national health service to face the threat of the virus, with frontline workers and the wider working class controlling and managing it.
No campaign of this kind was waged and the result was that as late as 11th January Health Minister Marta Temido was still only “considering” using existing emergency powers to order private hospitals to treat Covid-19 patients, and even then was at pains to emphasise that private health would be compensated. (In contrast, Costa did not hesitate to use emergency powers to break the strikes of nurses, tanker drivers and airline workers before the pandemic hit.) Oscar Gaspar, the President of the Association of Private Hospitals, even criticised the government for delaying their request for help for so long!
It is not enough, either, for parties to say that they are in favour of more investment in public services. Portugal had to face the pandemic with just 528 ICU beds (the lowest per person in the EU) and amongst the fewest ventilators too. Equipment shortages in the SNS were routine before the pandemic hit and the number of nurses per person was far below the European average. Yet Costa has been able to rely on the left parties to get his budgets passed in parliament. And for what great prize have they sold their support?
Costa managed to edge the economy into a surplus in 2019 and pay off a tiny part of its mountain of debt. This was done by putting public services on a starvation diet of investment and inflating a bubble based on low wages in the tourism industry. This overheated property prices and led to tens of thousands of nurses and other skilled workers emigrating to countries with higher wages and lower costs.
Instead, the debts owed to parasitic capitalist institutions should be repudiated. The banks and biggest companies which dominate the Portuguese economy should be nationalised, under the democratic control and management of the working class, so that poverty and insecurity can be ended, for all.
The Left Bloc refused to back Costa’s last budget. That must become a policy, not an isolated episode. The left must state clearly that Costa is chasing an illusion. The IMF predicts that Europe will lag behind the USA and other major economies in recovering from the pandemic. And Portugal is amongst the weakest of all the European economies. The country’s debt hit a record 135% of GDP, last year. Portuguese workers, with a proud revolutionary history, will not accept further decline without fighting back. Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa’s victory does not signify the opening of a period of stability for Portugal’s capitalist rulers. New layers will enter the road of struggle in the years ahead. There is no way forward for Portugal without breaking with capitalism.
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