Portuguese elections: shift to the left - crisis of the establishment

Portuguese politics have become very interesting in recent weeks. The parliamentary elections of October 4th saw a shift to the left in society that reflects the discontent and radicalisation sowed by the crisis of capitalism in one of the countries that has been hardest hit by it.

The main left-wing forces – the Socialist Party (PS), the Bloco de Esquerda (BE) and the Communist Party (PCP) – together command a handsome majority, whilst the right-wing coalition Portugal à Frente (PàF, formed by the two main right-wing parties, PSD and CDS) saw its support plummet. But the post-election period has seen an attempt from the right and the whole establishment to misrepresent the results and prevent the formation of a left-supported government.

The crisis of capitalism in Portugal

With public debt soaring above 90% of GDP, the bankrupt Portuguese government of Sócrates (PS) was bailed out by the troika (the European Commission, the IMF and the ECB) in 2011, binding the country to severe austerity measures: slashed public spending, a far-reaching privatisation programme, a “reform” of labour regulations to increase flexibility, and ‘a compromise to incentivise private investors to remain in the country’. Upon taking office in 2011 however, the incumbent Prime Minister Passos Coelho, a callous and stone-faced right-winger, promised to ‘go beyond’ the demands of the troika managing to privatise and cut even more than the troika was asking for. Although the bailout programme was officially completed in 2014, austerity has continued and the country is still in the throes of the capitalist crisis, with ever-increasing public debt standing at 130% of GDP, and growth last year at an anaemic 0.9%. In fact, Passos Coelho was the first PM to oversee an overall shrinking of the country’s economy over his term in office, as GDP fell by 4.5% to levels last seen 15 years ago. At the same time, inequality is amongst the highest in OECD, with the richest 10% owning 25.9% of the country’s wealth, and the poorest 10% only 2.6%.  

The austerity measures directly hit the working conditions and standard of living of the Portuguese working class and youth. Nowadays, one in four Portuguese citizens lives in poverty. The unemployment rate stands at 12.4%, and 31.8% amongst the youth. But even these bleak numbers have been hotly contested, with economic researchers placing the real unemployment figure closer to at least 20% or even 25%. This understatement is the result of dodgy statistical cosmetics, as the official figures hide the realities of many discouraged workers who have given up looking for jobs, of part-time and occasional workers looking for full-time employment, of unemployed people in training programs or temporary government-funded job schemes, and of the many who have emigrated. Indeed, in light of the situation, it is not surprising that Portugal has experienced a mass exodus: between 2011 and 2014, almost half a million mostly (but not exclusively) young people left the country.

These attacks sparked a wave of mobilisations that had not been seen since the revolution of 1974. On September 15th 2012, the Que se lixe a troika! (Screw the troika!) movement brought 1.5 million people to the streets – a staggering 14% of the country’s population. This protest was followed by a general strike on November 14th and mass demonstrations and strikes continued to take place in the following months. The revolutionary traditions of the country, particularly of the Carnation Revolution, were picked up and the singing of the revolutionary anthem Grândola Vila Morena was ubiquitous. However, the lack of leadership and of clear perspectives and goals to bring down the government led to a stagnation of the mobilisations after 2013. However, after two years of relative calm, the deep-seated frustrations of Portuguese society are finding an expression on the electoral front.  

The elections of October 4

PàF: 38.6% (107 seats)

PS: 32.3% (86)

BE: 10.2% (19)

PCP: 8.3% (17)

PAN (environmentalist/animal rights): 1.4% (1)

Most international media reports the day after the election read as if the ruling coalition had been voted back in which would have made Portugal the first of the bailed-out countries to re-elect a government responsible for austerity. The euphoric mood in the PàF headquarters and their leaders’ speeches on election night, quick to claim victory, aimed to convey the same impression: that the people approved of the government and had chosen continuity. This couldn’t be further from the truth: all in all, over 60% of the Portuguese electorate voted for change. It is clear that the right has suffered a blow, losing 25 seats and 11.8% of the vote, which dropped below the level attained by the PSD alone in the last election. In fact, this was the second worst joint result of the two right-wing parties (running separately or in coalition) in legislative elections, both in number of votes and in share of the vote – not a victory by any stretch of the imagination! On the contrary, the three main left-wing parties have all seen their number of votes increase, to varying degrees, after a campaign marked by anti-austerity politics. The left now commands a majority of 123 seats in a parliament of 230.

The PS managed to increase its share of the vote, albeit modestly. This is a moderate social democratic party, whose programme does not propose an end to austerity but rather austerity-lite policies. Their left-wing credentials have been further tarnished by their close ties with the establishment and by corruption scandals, for which their former leader Sócrates is being investigated. Hindered by having invited the troika and signed the memorandum together with the right, the PS could only mount a weak and bland opposition over the last four years, failing to provide a clearly discernible alternative to austerity.

A year ago, party members elected a new leader, António Costa, in the hope of remedying the situation, but he soon turned out to be a disappointment too: one day welcoming SYRIZA’s ascent to power as a ‘sign of change’, the next grovelling at the feet of foreign investors telling them that the country was in much better shape. While was trying hard to avoid taking any clear independent positions, Costa seemed to be expecting an easy walk to power based on the unpopularity of the government alone. Still, the 32.3% of votes for the PS reflect the determination of the Portuguese people to get rid of the right. Indeed, in an attempt to avoid a bleed of votes to their left, the PS hammered home the idea of “useful vote”, that is, that they were the only party capable of unseating the right-wing government. For similar reasons, they played up the anti-austerity rhetoric throughout the campaign, attempting to present a wide gulf between them and the right. Costa very clearly stated that under no condition would they enter a government with the PSD and the CDS, and even – to the surprise of many – that they would vote against any budget of a right-wing government. All this was not enough, however, to avert the growth of the radical left parties, who have always followed a consistent anti-austerity line.

pcp-demoThe PCP also had a positive result, seeing an increase in the number and share of votes and gaining an extra seat. This came after a vibrant campaign that culminated in a historical Avante! festival. It was, however, difficult for them to move beyond their traditional base of support. The party might have been weighed down by their emphasis on leaving the euro, the EU and NATO and their “patriotic” programme, rather than on positive revolutionary, socialist policies.

Undoubtedly the star of the day was the BE, who exceeded all expectations by obtaining their best ever electoral result, going from 8 to 19 seats. The result is all the more surprising as the party had all but been declared dead following a long period of internal instability, after doing poorly in the 2011 elections (and the 2014 European elections) and undergoing several splits. However, under the new leadership of Catarina Martins, and feeling the mood of radicalisation and of popular opposition to austerity, they were able to overcome their difficulties and launch a powerful campaign in which their predicted share of the vote went up daily in every new poll (the actual result surpassed even the most favourable ones). Martins outshone her opponents, particularly the leaders of the right, in TV debates and raised her public profile. Similarly, Mariana Mortágua, the number one candidate for the Lisbon district, had come to the fore in recent months for her vigorous and direct questioning in the parliamentary inquiry on the collapse of Banco Espírito Santo and their group of associated businesses, which ‘managed to express the frustration people feel towards a small elite that used to run the country’s financial system for decades’.

On the streets, their campaign and activists were very well received. Their success is particularly noteworthy in light of the recent developments in Greece, since they were combating the fear mongering of the PS and the right and their association in the media to SYRIZA and its capitulation. In this regard, the BE managed to a take a better approach than the Spanish Podemos who reacted to the events by saying they could not have done any better: without disowning SYRIZA, the BE nonetheless was critical of the new memorandum and defended the need for working out a plan B – even if there is no indication that this would be more than a return to the escudo on a capitalist basis.

In contrast with the left, the right-wing coalition PàF ran a campaign with the least possible amount of spontaneous contact with the public after a few incidents of being heckled and shouted at by several groups during the pre-electoral period. A clipping in the bourgeois newspaper Expresso described the campaign as, ‘Passos (PSD) and Portas (CDS-PP) in safe spaces, having long and pleasant conversations with the bosses, hurried and superficial ones with the workers’. This was part of a rather effective campaign strategy, which may have partly mitigated the extent of their defeat. The campaign material avoided displaying the faces of the leaders, who have very low approval rates and are widely regarded as ‘arrogant’ and ‘liars’. Their speeches made scant mention of their own proposals, as their rhetoric was almost exclusively based on instilling fear and on an oversimplified narrative of how “they saved the country” from the mess the previous PS government had left. Their low profile and avoidance of polemic was also aimed at not provoking the workers and youth with a view to increasing abstention, which would harm the left.

Indeed, the level of abstention was very high, standing at almost 45%. The low-key campaign of the right; the moderation and greyness of the PS, which was seen as the only viable option to bring down the right; the division of the radical left between the PCP and the BE; and the general exhaustion produced by the crisis, emigration and years of protests where little has changed, contributed to the low turnout. Despite this, however, the victory of the left expresses the first steps of the political reawakening of the Portuguese masses and their shift to the left.   

The negotiations for a coalition

The results produced a stalemate that pushed all parties to the negotiating table. The clear kingmaker was the PS, holding the key either to a right-wing government with PàF or a left-wing government with the BE and the PCP. The weeks that have followed the elections have put the PS in a very difficult situation. On the one hand stood the millions of people that voted for them hoping to unseat the hated right pushing for an agreement with the BE and the PCP; on the other, the history of class collaboration of the PS and the pressure of the whole Portuguese and European establishment, which dreads the idea of a coalition of the socialists with the radical left, and has been lobbying instead for the PS to support PàF.

Even before the exit polls were out, TV political pundits, including those from the PS camp, were already approvingly suggesting the possibility of a “central block” government. On election night, PS leader António Costa gave an ambiguous speech, trying to keep doors open to both sides but declaring that the onus of forming a government was with the right. He was seen to start wavering on his campaign commitment of ousting the government.  When questioned by journalists about whether he would keep his promise of voting against any PàF budget, he replied that that decision was still a long way off.

Internal divisions started to become openly visible even before this speech, with some on a right-leaning faction of the party, loyal to the previous leader, calling for Costa to step down. Elements of the party have vocally backed the idea of supporting a right-wing government in parliament (through abstention on major votes) without entering a coalition, and strongly opposed a pact with the left. Socialist MEP Francisco Assis spoke of ‘left-wing fantasies’ within the party, describing any attempt at an agreement between the Socialists and the hard left as ‘absolutely unthinkable’ and ‘absurd’. The leader of the UGT, the second largest national trade union centre, linked to the PS, also claimed he would be more comfortable with a coalition with the right – only to suffer a backlash from a large section of UGT members. The Financial Times reported:

An understanding between the PS and the radical left would mean political “suicide” for both Mr Costa and his party, said Luís Marques Mendes, a former leader of the Social Democrats [PSD], the dominant party in the prime minister’s centre-right coalition.

However, Costa is being haunted by the spectre of the Greek PASOK, which has been reduced to insignificance after joining a coalition with right-wing parties. In reality, the PS faces the prospects of “political suicide” regardless of what it does. If it supports the right, it will completely do away with what little is left of its progressive credentials and will be punished by the majority of voters who were looking for an alternative. At the same time, if it strikes an agreement with the radical left, it will be put under pressure to continue with austerity and the attacks on the working class, which would pit it against its government partners and show the party as betraying its promises. Either way, the stage is set for a major political crisis. As left-wing commentator David Ferreira put it, ‘Portugal is a powder keg and the fuse is the Socialist Party’.

The PCP and the BE are also in a difficult situation and will have to manoeuvre carefully in the coming weeks and months. Both the PCP and the BE have correctly stated all along that their priority is to remove the right from power, publicly setting out some minimum demands concerning the end of austerity policies. The BE for instance has stated:

To the constant cries about the need for a “pact for stability”, the Bloco responds with the clarity of its mandate: in the discussions for a government programme, as well as in the vote on each budget, the Bloco is always a guarantee against any attacks on wages, on current and future pensions, and on jobs. We defend the stability of people’s lives and the recovery of the standards of labour and of the public services that have been attacked in recent years. It will not be because of the Bloco that there will not be a majority to carry out those aims.

The negotiations between the three left-wing parties seem to be progressing well and have already reached an advanced stage, with all the parties having stated that an agreement is possible to form a left-supported government. As far as one can tell, the format of such a government is unlikely to be that of a coalition, that is, with the PCP and the BE becoming government partners of the PS. Instead, the left parties would support the PS from outside, in parliament. From what is publicly known, it seems that the left parties demanded an abandonment of austerity policies, a pledge from the PS to revert the cuts in wages, pensions and public services. On the other hand, the PS is not prepared to give up the commitment to Europe and its diktats. This will inevitably lead to a contradiction, as Europe will require more austerity in order for the deficit targets to be met in compliance with Eurozone rules.

Therefore, if the left parties enter a government (or a parliamentary agreement) with the PS, they should do so with the idea that the social democrats will try to betray them at every turn and that in all likelihood it will not be able to last long. Recent events in Europe are rich with examples: on the one hand there is the experience of Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, which collapsed after entering a centre-left government where they were pushed to trample their programme; on the other hand, the Greek KKE has been stagnating in the polls after it has recalcitrantly opposed any form of collaboration with other left-wing forces, regardless of the mood of the Greek masses.

The BE and the PCP have to use their platform to demontsrate in practice before the eyes of the Portuguese working class the incapacity of social democracy to deliver change and the need for a radical left-wing programme – and be ready to walk out when this becomes clear. Many of those who voted for the PS did so with little enthusiasm as the “lesser evil”, buying into their “useful vote” rhetoric, and probably identified closer with the BE or the PCP. The task of the radical left is to prove to them and to others that the only useful road to do away with the counter-reforms of the right and to solve the country’s fundamental problems is not through the austerity-lite PS, but through a socialist programme that only the BE and the PCP can offer. The bourgeois Spanish newspaper El País put it quite succinctly:

In this scenario [of a left-wing coalition] the hot potato would pass on to the left-wing organisations. If they broke with the PS too soon, the electorate would punish them in future elections, but this could happen as well if they were to break too late. Because the majority of the Portuguese people, and most politicians, believe that, whoever leads the government, it will not be able to last four years.

The rank-and-file must play a central role in deciding the strategy of the PCP and the BE, and it should scrutinise closely what their party leaderships do, demanding explanations and transparency. In this type of situations the worst careerist upstarts tend to come to the fore, subordinating the party line to their personal interests. It is the responsibility of the militants, particularly the most determined revolutionary elements, to make their voices heard.

The hysteria of the ruling class

The PS was unsurprisingly wavering from one option to the other, reflecting the pressures coming from the ruling class and from the working class. As a backdrop to the negotiations, the ruling class launched a vicious campaign against the prospect of a left-wing government, echoing similar outbursts of hysteria seen in Spain, Britain or Greece. In recent months, the European ruling class has been letting its democratic mask slip, revealing that bourgeois democracy is all well and good but only as long as people vote the “right” way – when they don’t, the entire apparatus of the bourgeois state and the European Union, the media empires and the big corporations are mobilised against the democratic decisions of the people.

With Costa showing increasing signs of tending towards an agreement with the left, the Portuguese establishment started accusing the PS of preparing to stage a “coup”, since in their programme they did not talk of the possibility of entering a coalition with other left-wing forces. Of course, Costa’s campaign pledge to vote against a PàF budget, discussed over and over before the election, was immediately forgotten by almost everyone.

Biased news reporting was an integral part of this offensive. The resignation of a relatively little-known MP from the PS’s National Secretariat in disagreement with Costa’s strategy received front page coverage and continued attention from commentators, while declarations in the opposite direction by important historical figures of the party went almost unreported. A downwards fluctuation on the Lisbon stock exchange was blown out of proportion, with all manner of “experts” linking it to a meeting between the PS and the BE, conveniently ignoring the fact that the same trend was repeated across Europe, while stressing the importance of appeasing the “nervousness of the markets” with the possibility of a left government. Even RTP, the state-owned public service broadcaster, aired a debate about the on-going negotiations with a panel exclusively composed of right-wingers (including the moderator).

Most commentators and opinion-makers in the mainstream media descended on the left, accusing the three parties of acting in an undemocratic fashion and branding Costa a ‘usurper’. This full-blown frenzy reached almost comical heights: Francisco Assis, a Socialist MEP, warned that the ‘far-left parties defend solutions that have as an inevitable consequence the “albanisation” of Portugal’; references to North Korea and Kim Jung-un also abounded in opinion pieces. The hypocrisy of such claims should be clear to everyone. As analyst David Ferreira put it:

With on-going government formation talks between the Socialist Party, Left Bloc and the Communist Party, the Portuguese right and media have been trying to create a red scare, characterizing the influence of the communist party as a threat to democracy, this in a country where the right established a five decade dictatorship in which communists were tortured, imprisoned and put in slow death camps. The communists played a key role in combating that dictatorship and were committed to a multi-party system after the revolution that topped the fascist regime. One of the most repugnant cases of right-wing historical revisionism.

Manuela Ferreira Leite, former president of the conservative PSD, stated that ‘a great part of the country is in a state of panic’ before the possibility of a PS-BE-PCP alliance. What part of the country is that? Certainly not the clear majority that voted left, nor the millions of exploited workers, the unemployed or the youth that have been forced to emigrate, or all those that have been at the sharp end of the crisis while the rich continue to line their pockets and to benefit from privatisations and deregulation. No, as the barrage of all-out media abuse goes to demonstrate, the part of the country that is truly in a ‘state of panic’ at the prospect of a left government is the ruling class and the parties that represent it.

The President enters the scene

According to the Portuguese Constitution, ‘the Prime Minister is nominated by the President of the Republic, after hearing the parties with parliamentary representation and taking into account the electoral results’. Two days after the election, President Aníbal Cavavo Silva (PSD) declared that he had instructed Passos Coelho to take the necessary steps to ‘evaluate the possibilities of forming a governmental solution ensuring political stability and governability’, hinting that his preferred solution would be an agreement between the right and the PS.

However, after two weeks of negotiations, the President was confronted with a rather different scenario in the audiences of the parties. While the PSD and CDS reclaimed the right to form a government, they could offer no stability. On the other hand, Costa assured the President that he had the ‘conditions to form a stable government with majority support in parliament’. The nature of such a left-wing government is still unclear, but both the BE and the PCP confirmed that Costa would have their support to be PM. Moreover, all the three parties pointed out that appointing Passos Coelho would amount to a waste of time.

Nevertheless, the President proceeded to appoint the PàF leader to form a new government. Thus far, this is a perfectly normal procedure since PàF was the party or coalition with the highest number of votes. The expectation was that the left cast a vote of no confidence to bring down the government, and the ball would then pass to Costa to formalise an alliance with the BE and the PCP – unless the PS U-turned or some of its MPs decided to break the whip, an action likely to get them expelled from the party and to cause a split. Although a little protracted, this course of events would make the situation absolutely clear.

presidentPresident Cavaco SilvaHowever, the President did not stop there. Cavaco Silva spent most of his speech lecturing the PS for having chosen to enter talks with the left instead of striking a deal with parties that ‘support the project of the EU and the Eurozone’. He went on to raise objections to the inclusion of the BE and the PCP in any government solution due to their opposition to the Fiscal Compact, the Eurozone, NATO, etc., effectively excluding the million people who voted for these parties from the democratic process. He made no effort to conceal in whose interests he acts, as the following excerpt shows:

This is the worst moment to radically alter the foundations of our democratic regime. […] After we carried out an onerous programme of financial assistance, entailing heavy sacrifices, it is my duty, within my constitutional powers, to do everything to prevent false signals being sent to financial institutions, investors and markets, jeopardizing the trust on and external credibility of the country that we’ve been winning with great effort.

This is another example that reveals the hypocrisy and limitations of bourgeois democracy: like elsewhere in Europe, institutional rôles supposed to act as neutral arbiters find themselves extremely involved in politics and mobilising against the left, in this case echoing – in an institutionalised form – the red scare promoted in the media.

Cavaco Silva’s speech ended with an appeal to the individual conscience of MPs. This can only be interpreted as an open call for a rebellion among the more rightist ranks of the PS to support the PàF in government. However, it seems to have backfired, instead pushing all in the party to rally (for now) behind its leader. On the same night, the party approved a resolution committing them to table their own vote of no confidence in the right-wing government and to pursue the negotiations with the parties to their left. On the first day of the new parliament, and in the wake of the President’s speech, the left majority was subject to its first test of strength.  Unusually, and as a consequence of the political crisis, both the PS and the PSD proposed their own candidate to stand as President of the Assembly (Speaker). This election is by secret ballot, thus facilitating a rebellion. It was reported that a group of Socialist MPs had been toying with the idea of abstaining on this vote but the President’s speech made them change their mind. The Socialist candidate was elected by 120 to 108 votes (2 blank votes), thus containing the rebellion to a maximum of three (likely two) Socialist MPs.

The President’s intervention opens the possibility of a deep political crisis. In all likelihood, Passos Coelho will fail to gain parliamentary support for his government. If Cavaco Silva insists on rejecting any solution including the BE and the PCP, the country may face months of political conflict with the prospect of a caretaker government with no real power and a left-wing majority in parliament able to carry out the reversion of austerity cuts. This is also likely to provoke the people into action and the President would face a backlash. The Constitution forbids the President from calling new elections during his last semester in office. So, if the indecision is prolonged, the presidential elections next January may gain a new immediate relevance.

What now?

This round of political instability in Portugal ultimately reveals a process of class polarisation that has been brewing since the beginning of the crisis which began to crystallise in the mass mobilisations of 2012–2013. The growth of the PCP and especially of the BE reflects that an important layer of Portuguese society is drawing revolutionary conclusions from the events of the past years in Portugal and Europe. The Financial Times described the situation rather well, albeit from a bourgeois class perspective:

Fragmented parliaments, minority governments, coalitions among parties that were once bitter rivals and elaborate deals aimed at keeping anti-establishment movements out of high office — welcome to the changing landscape of European democracy.

So much volatility pervades the political scene that it is hardly surprising that Europe’s leaders struggle to cope with their various economic policy and security challenges.

As events today in Sweden and Portugal illustrate, fractured legislatures often generate uncertainty about how to form a government after a confused election result. They also raise questions about how a coalition or minority government can remain stable enough to complete a full term in office.

If it comes to power, the Portuguese left will be in for a bumpy ride. The PS will act as the conveyor belt of the bourgeoisie in a left-supported government and will try to block any moves to end austerity and to carry out meaningful reforms. When this happens, the BE and the PCP have to show that the PS is part of the problem and not of the solution, and will have to be ready to break the alliance whenever this becomes necessary. The instability of the next period could see a swift acceleration of the process of radicalisation of the Portuguese masses. But for this, the leadership of the BE and the PCP needs to be up to the task, explaining that the only way out for the country are socialist policies and a radical break with the troika and with the ruling class.

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