The voting down of the state budget indicates a qualitative change in the political situation in Portugal. An early election next year will happen in a political context very different from that of the previous period. After six years of collaboration between the Communist Party (PCP) and the Left Bloc (BE) with the Socialist Party (PS) government, the “geringonça” (“contraption” - the name by which the unlikely deal struck between the three parties became known) is dead.
At this moment, the two left parties, blamed for the fall of the government, are in a complicated situation. We support the decision by the PCP and the BE to reject the reactionary austerity budget put forward by the PS, which effectively sought to provoke the current political crisis. But it is also necessary to ponder the mistakes made by the left as part of the “geringonça”.
The activists in the left and the labour movement have to draw the necessary conclusions from this experience so that they can emerge stronger from this crisis. It is important that we prepare ourselves politically for the big struggles that lie ahead.
The demands of the PCP and the BE for the budget were basic progressive measures for the working class and the impoverished sectors of the country: increasing the minimum wage to €805 (still much-lower than in neighbouring countries such as Spain) and compensation for collective layoffs, as well as the strengthening of collective bargaining; repealing the attacks on pensions and raising them; and strengthening public investment in the SNS (the national health service). Although there are some positive aspects to the proposals made by the PS, these are very far from what would be necessary to revert the austerity to which the country has been subjected by the European troika. They would also be insufficient to alleviate the severe social and economic impact of the pandemic. The PCP and the BE took the correct position in rejecting PM António Costa's budget, remaining firm in their demands.
The inflexibility of the PS and its calls for “responsibility”, “sustainability” and for the left not to “compromise the recovery” reflect the government's real motivation: to please the bosses and place the full weight of this crisis on the shoulders of the working class. The capitalist recovery celebrated by the PS is based on the exploitation of the workers. In fact, there were several instances of meddling by the bosses in the budget negotiations, and following its voting down by parliament.
The bosses’ representatives not only abandoned the social consultation commission, but also held meetings with President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa behind the government’s back. António Costa’s apologies for having antagonised the bosses with timid proposals for labour reforms were only the cherry on the cake. This is the nature of bourgeois democracy: the elected representatives of the people kowtow and change their political programmes when faced with pressure from the rich and big businesses! Marcelo has also demonstrated the anti-democratic character of the presidency by coming out in defence of capitalist “stability” in this time of crisis. The EU's pressure for the budget to be “moderated” has been felt in its press briefings and in Christine Lagarde's recent meeting with the President.
Throughout the pandemic, governments have spent billions in order to save capitalism. Central banks have adopted an unprecedented level of state expenditure, predicated on printing money. Some analysts on the reformist left confused these desperate and temporary measures with a renouncement of austerity and a return to Keynesianism. But the tools used to prevent total collapse have now turned into their opposite: huge piles of debt and runaway inflation (aggravated by bottlenecks in supply chains), which have become a heavy burden on the economy.
According to the latest data, at the end of 2020, Portuguese public debt reached the astronomical 133 percent of the GDP. In order to reverse this, capitalist governments everywhere must once again resort to cuts. This austerity will not be a mere repetition of what we saw in the post-2008 period. The EU is promoting public spending in line with its recovery plans, which aim to strengthen big businesses in Europe and make them more competitive in the face of trade wars and tensions with China, Russia and the US. However, alongside these large investments, governments, especially in the poorer countries, are under pressure to keep their debts under control and implement “structural reforms”.
The inflexibility of the PS towards the left reflects both its desire to please the capitalists (in Portugal and in Europe) and the pressures caused by the crisis of the system. However, it also stems from the cynical political calculations made by António Costa, who was looking for an excuse to provoke a confrontation with the PCP and the BE. This synchrony between Costa's ambitions and the demands of the capitalists is not a mere coincidence. Despite its left-wing rhetoric, the PS is very sensitive to pressures coming from the bourgeoisie. In effect, the role of social democracy is to deceive the workers, protecting the bourgeoisie and concealing the true nature of its programme under the guise of a progressive discourse, progressive only in aesthetics. Costa wants to get rid of the PCP and the BE to carry out this task without hindrance and accountability.
Despite his positive words in 2015, Costa was never comfortable within the “geringonça”, which was seen only as a temporary solution. He distanced himself decisively from his “partners” after the 2019 election, even collaborating with the right to push through new labour “reforms”.
The disappointing results of the PCP and the BE in the local elections of last September have convinced Costa of the possibility of cutting ties with these parties and winning a majority in the hypothetical scenario of an early election. Although the PS suffered several defeats in those local elections, most notably in Lisbon, Coimbra and Funchal, it managed to maintain its overall advantage.
Costa’s calculations have also taken into account the serious problems facing the right, with its two traditional parties, the PSD and the CDS, plagued by infighting. Any potential growth of the far-right Chega or the liberal IL will further contribute to fragmentation on the right. On the other hand, this more combative stance by the PCP and the BE in recent weeks is largely a consequence of those local elections, which at last have made it clear to both parties that a close connection to the PS has undermined rather than strengthened them.
PCP and BE: a decision without preparation
We support the decision made by the PCP and the BE to vote this budget down and reject the hypocritical demagoguery of the PS, who are trying to blame these two left parties for the collapse of the government. In 2015, it was correct to facilitate the formation of Costa's government in order to remove the right from power and show to the masses that the PS would not be able to live up to workers' expectations. However, the PCP and the BE should have gone immediately back onto the side of the opposition after António Costa took office, instead of binding themselves to a long-term political stability agreement, the so-called “geringonça”.
This alliance has enabled the PS to dress itself up in a leftist guise and for Costa to take advantage of the concessions offered by the government (always as a result of the pressure exerted by the PCP and the BE), whereas the responsibility for the countless failures has been shared between the three partners. Furthermore, the “geringonça” has blurred the line between the PS and the two left parties in the eyes of the masses, who, perceiving the seemingly harmonious relationship between the three parties, have gradually leaned more towards the strongest link, the PS.
The PCP and, above all, the BE sold illusions about the new government back in 2015. The BE went so far as to put itself forward for a coalition with António Costa. There had been no serious threats by the PCP or the BE to break up the “geringonça”. On the contrary, at times it was the PS who used this threat to safeguard its pro-capitalist policies, such as during the teachers’ struggle back in 2019. Due to the attitude of reconciliation and unity by the left, the “geringonça” has not compromised the PS. On the contrary, it has ended up strengthening them. Ironically, the rejection of a renewed formal political agreement came from the PS itself after the 2019 election, in a prelude to the current crisis. Unfortunately, we must draw the necessary conclusion that the fundamental reason for the predicament in which the PCP and the BE currently find themselves is their weak and inconsistent position towards Costa’s PS.
The voting down of the budget by parliament was an inevitable consequence of the class contradictions that exist among the parties that made up the “geringonça”. However, in our view, the PCP and the BE have not adequately prepared themselves for the end of the “geringonça”. A change of this magnitude required prior political preparation, warning the workers of the deepening economic crisis and, above all, providing a coherent explanation for this breakup.
In recent months, the PCP and the BE have toughened up their criticism (the BE even voted against the 2020 budget), but this simple parliamentary manoeuvering is not enough. The proposals for the budget put forward by the PCP and the BE which triggered the breakup should have been complemented by bold agitation in the streets, making these demands core issues in the political life of the country, actively taken up by the masses. Parliamentary speeches and a few posters in the streets were not enough: the left should have mobilised its activists and members, and taken advantage of the strong connection between the PCP and the unions, involving in the struggle the groups most under attack by this budget (pensioners, healthcare professionals, precarious workers, amongst others).
The weak mobilisation around these issues made room for the demagoguery of the PS, who framed the dispute over the budget as insignificant details that concealed a cynical bid by the PCP and the BE to overthrow the government.
Because of the lack of preparation for the breakup of the “geringonça”, the PCP and the BE now find themselves in a difficult situation. The masses have received the news of the government's downfall with bewilderment. Predictably, broad sectors of the workers have bought into the demagoguery of the PS, who have placed all the blame on the left. Costa hopes to emerge stronger from the next election, taking advantage of the difficulties that the PCP and the BE are going through and the disarray on the right. However, this is a risky move that opens the door to a possible return of the right to power, even if fragmented, and perhaps even the participation of the far-right Chega in the government.
The members and activists of the PCP and the BE must not be demoralised by these circumstantial difficulties. The duty of the working class and the youth is to organise their struggle around an electoral campaign that draws all the necessary conclusions from recent events. We must start by putting pressure on the PS not to wait for the election to increase the minimum wage, pensions, and the investment in the SNS.
A revolutionary programme
In addition to current circumstances, it is important for class fighters to understand the general processes and trends behind these events. The crisis of capitalism is also the crisis of reformism and the downfall of the government reflects this fact, albeit in a distorted way.
The unprecedented development of the productive forces in recent decades has created strong contradictions with private property, the anarchy of the market, and the profit motive - i.e. against the social relations established by the capitalist mode of production. The world market, sustained by the exploitation of the working class and based on competition between imperialist powers, has become too small for the existing productive capacity. The traditional tools of the bourgeoisie to artificially expand the market, debt and printing money, are double-edged swords that in the medium term only exacerbate recessions. Crises of overproduction have become more and more frequent and ever deeper, while periods of growth have become shorter, weaker and more unstable. At the same time, the struggle between the great powers, namely the US and China, for the domination of the world market has intensified.
In this context, there is little opportunity for reformist policies, because there are fewer crumbs that the capitalists are willing to share. This is not to say that it is impossible for the workers to gain new rights and better living conditions, but we are certain that any victory will require a more intense struggle, and will face greater resistance by the bourgeoisie, who will try to sabotage and at a later stage repeal any concessions they are forced to make.
In addition to the political ambitions of the different parties, the growing tensions between the left and the PS and the collapse of the “gerigonça” demonstrate the inability of reformist governments like that of António Costa to satisfy the basic demands of the working class. The lesson that the members of the PCP and the BE, as well as all class-conscious and politically active workers, must take away from this is that, under capitalism the fundamental problems of the masses cannot be solved.
There are enough resources to guarantee quality housing, healthcare, education, public services, and decent living conditions for all workers. The problem is that these resources are in the hands of an exploiting minority and are subjected to the anarchism and inefficiencies of the market. It is necessary to arm the left with a socialist programme that offers a revolutionary way out of this crisis of Portuguese and world capitalism. A tireless mobilisation around this programme by the PCP and the BE, together with the experience of living under bourgeois governments, will accelerate the process by which the masses draw revolutionary conclusions.
In the early election, there could be a temporary growth of moderate and conservative tendencies. However, such a momentary setback must not demoralise workers and class fighters in the face of the general processes that are unfolding. Regardless of the outcome of the election, the government that will result from this, whether a PS or a right-wing one, will not enjoy economic or social stability.
The “geringonça”, which existed during a period of economic recovery in 2015-19 followed by the crisis triggered by the pandemic, has led to a pause in the process of radicalisation and struggle that began in 2011. Covered by the left, there was the impression that the PS government had achieved some sense of social peace. Its downfall shows that this was always an illusion. The end of the “geringonça” calls for a necessary political debate on the nature of reformism, which the PCP and the BE can take advantage of if they follow a correct line. Dialectically, the class struggle will develop on a higher level. The age of stability in Portugal is over.