Portugal’s government falls – Left must adopt a new course

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, former head of minority Socialist Party government (Photo: Waldyrious/Wikimedia Commons)

Portugal is facing a snap general election, two years early, after the ruling minority Socialist Party (PSP) government, headed by António Costa, failed to get its budget passed through parliament.

Right-wing President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa dissolved parliament on Wednesday (3rd November) and called an election for 30th January 2022. With just 60 days before the new elections are held, and damaged after six years of propping up Costa, the left must urgently move onto a war footing. A new direction must be declared immediately, breaking with the mistaken policies of the past and offering a bold socialist programme and the abolition of the capitalist system.

Despite twice failing to gain a majority in parliament, this is the first time in six years that Costa’s budget has been voted down. Unlike previous years, left parties, the Left Bloc (BE) and the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), were pushed by growing working-class anger and electoral losses into refusing to support or abstain on the vote.

Separate strikes on the railways, in hospitals, schools, the civil service and more are rippling through Portugal, meaning that BE and PCP representatives in parliament could not get away with repeating their previous votes for Costa’s budgets. They were pinned by their support – in reality, never more than verbal in the past – for demands like the lifting of anti-trade-union laws left on the books by Costa, free childcare, and the use of EU bailout money to fund improvements to public services and increases to pay and pensions.

Outside Portugal, the PSP government is widely represented as a left government that ended austerity and is contrasted with the neoliberal leaders of, for example, France and Germany. But, in reality, only a tiny handful of the previous attacks by the right-wing Coelho government have been reversed, and new ones added. The living standards of working-class people in Portugal have continued to decline while Costa has ruled. More than 2.6 million of the approximately 10 million inhabitants live in poverty.

Wages are at less than half the European average and have fallen every year that Costa has been in power. What relief has been provided to workers – some reversals of cuts to pensions, for example – was bought by starving public services of investment as Costa cut spending in obedience to EU demands. This meant, amongst other things, that Portugal faced the pandemic with the lowest ratio of ICU beds per person in Europe. Throughout the pandemic, the Portuguese government has prioritised profits over the safety, incomes and broader interests of Portuguese workers. (See https://www.socialistworld.net/2021/02/09/portugal-right-wing-incumbent-wins-presidential-elections-as-far-right-makes-gains/)

Before the rising tide of militancy, paltry concessions offered by the PSP government would have been enough to buy the support of the left in parliament, but with the raised temperature, Costa’s offer to increase the minimum wage from 665 to 705 euros before the election (and promises of more afterwards) cut no ice.

Left leaders are also being pushed by internal crises which have broken out in both parties as a result of losses in elections. In the 2019 General Election, the PCP lost almost a third of its MPs and in council elections held earlier this year the Left Bloc was reduced to just five councillors in the whole country and 2.8% of the vote. The PCP had their worst result in history, although their more solidly working-class base has held together better than that of the BE. (See https://www.socialistworld.net/2019/10/18/portuguese-elections-new-class-battles-loom/)

The PSP lost control of Lisbon council in the same elections, demonstrating the volatility of the situation. Polls currently predict the PSP will emerge as the biggest party, although still in a minority, but it would be extremely foolish to rule out, in this confused situation and with no credible lead being offered on the left, that right wing forces can’t advance. The PSD is distracted by a leadership election that will finish weeks before the snap election itself but they could make gains, particularly if they imitate Isabel Díaz Ayuso over the border in Spain. Ayuso won the elections to Madrid’s parliament this year on the basis of right wing populism which – thanks to Podemos joining the government – wasn’t exposed by a credible anti-establishment left challenge. (See https://www.socialistworld.net/2021/05/07/right-wing-partido-popular-wins-madrid-elections-a-warning-to-the-working-class/)

Portugal’s left parties have little time to learn the lessons of this defeat and must urgently re-examine their strategy and approach and immediately announce that they are taking a new road. As the CWI explained previously (https://www.socialistworld.net/2015/11/30/portugal-right-wing-government-brought-down/) it was not wrong in the situation which confronted them after the 2015 election, for the Left Bloc and the PCP to use their votes in parliament to allow the PSP to block the return of the hated right wing. PSD leader Coelho was confronted by five general strikes before his eventual defeat in 2015 and there was a burning desire to be rid of him. With the PSP in a minority, if the left had failed to use its votes to permit Costa to take power then the PSP would have been spared the test of government. In opposition, and blaming the left for it, illusions in the PSP would have been strengthened, not weakened.

But, as we explained at the time, it was a fatal error to sign up to “a geringonça”- the “bizarre contraption” as the press called it, of a pact which guaranteed Costa stability over the whole parliamentary term without winning commitments that there would be no attacks on the living standards of the working class.

As soon as Costa was in position, the left should have immediately gone on the offensive, including with street protests and trade union action, to demand bold socialist policies which could solve the problems facing working-class people. This would have begun the process of clearing the immense political confusion which exists and demonstrated whose side the different political forces in Portugal are on. Either concessions would be forced from the PSP or workers’ illusions in it would be dispelled and, at a time favourable to the left, new elections could be forced.

Instead, while Costa used anti-trade-union laws to break the strikes of nurses, tanker drivers and airline workers, the left continued to prop him up. On paper, both parties were in favour of reversing austerity and for socialist change but none of these policies was laid before parliament as a real challenge to the PSP. Effectively, in the minds of the masses, the left parties stood not for socialism but for the policies of the capitalist government.

United front 

That is why it is necessary that a declaration be made now of the intention of taking a “new course”, the heart of which should be a bold promise of socialist transformation to finally halt Portugal’s economic descent. The Left Bloc and the Communist Party should discuss collaborating in the election campaign ahead and form a united front to fight it and to prepare for the fight that will be necessary whichever of Portugal’s capitalist parties forms the next government. Workers’ anger is boiling over in the workplace and onto the streets. A call should also be made for the rash of strikes which have broken out to be gathered together into generalised action involving the CGTP and the new unions, starting with a one-day general strike, so that a demonstration of workers’ power forms the background to the elections.

With covid-19 cases rising again and healthcare in the spotlight, a call for private healthcare to be nationalised should be made, along with the biggest organisations which dominate the economy, to be run under workers’ control and management and coordinated according to a plan drawn up democratically. This would have to include the banks and the finance system so as to defend Portugal against threats that have already been made by the EU to repeat the economic terrorism they unleashed against the left Syriza government in Greece. (See https://www.socialistworld.net/2017/07/04/greece-the-rise-and-fall-of-syriza/)

The left has nothing to lose: on their present heading, polls predict they will sink even further. It is not clear whether the Left Bloc will even survive. Currently, far-right party Chega, whose candidate came very close to coming second in the presidential elections this year, is able to pose as anti-austerity without being challenged credibly by the left, but we are in a period of sharp twists and turns in the situation where a long-overdue radical correction could make a profound impact on the result.

Capitalism’s failure to find a way forward is stark in Portugal and a credible socialist appeal backed by organisations that wins the confidence of workers to deliver it could rapidly build support. There is no Keynesianism on the agenda. Costa has announced he plans to continue the hopeless and destructive attempts to cut Portugal’s deficit and clear its mountain of debt – now a colossal 133% of GDP according to the latest figures. He is bashing the head of Portugal’s working class against the brick wall of the rigged capitalist system. Even optimistic projections predict GDP will be below pre-pandemic levels for decades. Struggle in that context is inevitable and building a political vehicle to direct workers’ anger is essential.

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November 2021