Portugal: Voters grasp at IMF-EU ‘miracle cure’

June 11, 2011

The June 5 national elections in Portugal produced a sharp lurch to the right.

The two main conservative parties, the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Democratic and Social Centre-People's Party (CDS-PP) won 50.4% of votes and 57.1% of seats in the single-chamber parliament. (The results for the four seats determined by overseas Portuguese voters will be announced on June 15.)

Compared to the 2009 poll, the PSD vote rose from 29.1% to 38.6%, and CDS-PP from 10.5% to 11.7%.

The incumbent Socialist Party (PS) vote fell from 36.6% to 28% (its lowest in 24 years). Support for the Left Bloc (BE) almost halved (from 9.8% to 5.2%, 16 seats to 8).

The Democratic Unity Coalition (CDU) — the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) plus Greens (PEV) — increased its representation from 15 to 16 seats on a small rise in support to 7.9%.

The Portuguese right held government between 2002 and 2005, but this is the first time since 1991 that it has won an absolute parliamentary majority.

The PSD became the leading party in 17 out of 20 electoral districts (up from six in 2009). The PS was reduced to the leading party in three districts in the “red south” (Setubal, Evora and Beja).

Taken together, the vote for the PS, CDU and BE was 41.2%, the lowest for left-of-centre forces since 1985. Since 2009, there has been an 8.5% swing against the PS and 4.6% against the BE.

The far left (CDU plus BE) vote fell from 17.7% to 13.1%, just below its level at the 2005 parliamentary poll.

Yet the biggest “winner” wasn’t any of the parties, but abstention. At 41.1%, it was the level highest ever.

With blank and informal votes added, 45.1% of Portuguese electors showed they didn’t care if or how they voted.

The election was overwhelmingly about one issue — whether or not to support the $78 billion “rescue package” negotiated in early May between the PS government of prime minister Jose Socrates and the “troika” of international agencies (International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Union (EU) and European Central Bank (ECB)).

The choice was between the conservative parties, which said the package was unavoidable, but that the “incompetent” PS couldn’t be trusted to administer it; the PS, which claimed it alone could cushion people from the painful side effects of the package; and the CDU and BE, who rejected it outright, pointing to the social misery it would bring.

The vote was also about the BE’s role in leading opposition to the austerity policies of the PS government, including moving the no-confidence motion that eventually led to elections being held two years early.

Had the BE’s tactics “let in the right”, as PS supporters claim?

The result shows that most Portuguese people hope the troika’s package will be a life raft in the face of impending disaster, don’t believe there’s a better alternative or just hope they won’t be affected.

The mainstream media helped with a campaign of blackmail and near-silence about the content of the “memorandum of understanding” between Socrates and the troika.

In an unprecedented campaign, both “respectable” commentators and the shock jocks screamed that a vote for the left would jeopardise the first installment of the troika’s $78 billion, and sink the economy even deeper in the mire.

This near-unanimous chorus howled that the BE’s alternative of debt restructuring and increased public investment would bring disaster. BE candidates were described as “swindlers”, “political irrelevants”, “champagne socialists” and “unworthy of the trust of a suffering people”.

Much of the abuse was directed against BE leader, economist Francisco Louca, who has been long feared by the right for his lucid exposures of neoliberal economic analysis and recipes.

In the television debate between the BE leader and Socrates, the PM had no answer to Louca’s analysis of the PS’s austerity budgets and no way of engaging with the BE’s alternative proposals.

He could only play the fear and loathing card — restructuring Portugal’s debt would be “absolutely catastrophic”, increasing social misery and making Portugal a pariah state.

Unfortunately for Socrates, this card was a much more potent weapon when played by the conservatives and media against himself.

Who had brought Portugal to the brink of economic chaos? If the troika package was necessary, then just as necessary was a new government to bring confidence back to the markets.

PSD leader Pedro Passos Coelho said a PSD government would have to take the tough decisions — including privatising government enterprises such as TAP Air Portugal.

The PSD campaigned as the serious party for serious times — its program for a lean state would restore Portugal to financial health while concentrating on looking after those most affected by the crisis.

In this atmosphere, for the parties opposed to the troika package to increase their support, they had to convince PS voters to move left and abstaining voters to come off the fence.

This proved impossible.

BE political commission member Fernando Rosas said: “The seriousness and catastrophic extent of the crisis drove the swinging popular vote towards the apparent ‘security’ and ‘protection’ of the right and its masters in the troika.

“The huge unpopularity of Socrates and the PS government did the rest.”

When the election campaign began, the PS and PDS were neck-and-neck in the polls and the combined far left vote was 15%-16%.

But with every week that passed, the mood swung increasingly rightwards. The message sinking in was that rejection of the troika package would involve a huge fight with Portugal’s (and Europe’s) economic and political elites.

Did the people really want that fight? How would it be led?

The BE called for a “left government”, but where was this to come from?

Some former PS voters who had swung to the BE in 2009 (when its seat numbers doubled), voted for their old party as a lesser evil against the strengthening right.

By contrast, the CDU, which had only increased its vote by 0.4% in 2009, was able to maintain its more stable voting base, structured in the PCP-run unions and other social organisations.

The PCP even attracted some votes away from the BE. One young Portuguese worker interviewed by the Spanish progressive daily Publico said: “The communists are better organised than the Bloco and that’s what we'll need with what’s coming down.”

On June 8, the BE political commission voted to convene a meeting of the party’s national board to discuss the election result and perspectives in the gloomy new political situation.

It rejected the call for a special national convention made by the minority FER group, Portuguese followers of the International Workers’ League, as well as journalist and BE founder Daniel Oliveira.

The BE national board, called for June 18, will open a phase of serious discussion in the party.

Issues raised by the election setback are many. Did the fall in the BE vote predate the present election, as Oliveira believes, having its roots in an inconsistent strategic approach to the PS, first supporting a PS candidate in the 2010 presidential election (Manuel Alegre) and then flipping over to relentless hostility to the Socrates’ government?

Or was any negative impact from these choices overwhelmed by the tide of voters reaching for “security”?

Other issues demanding attention are the weakness of the BE at municipal level, its relatively meagre implantation in the unions and the ongoing challenge of relations with the PCP (now to be confronted from a position of relative weakness).

With the right now at the helm of government, the Portuguese people are about to start paying the troika’s dreadful bill.

The revival of the BE will depend largely on how much it can help lead and strengthen their resistance to the great pain it will involve.

Portugal has, for the first time since the 1974 “revolution of the carnations” that brought down the fascist dictatorship, a right-wing president, a right wing-government and a parliament with a right-wing majority.

It also has an extreme-right neo-liberal program courtesy of the IMF, EU and ECB.

The first initiative of BE deputies will be to move for a parliamentary inquiry into the country’s debt. Will the depleted PS, now in opposition, support that call?


I would say that part of the reason for the BE electoral disaster was the fact that faced with an epoch making crisis of Portuguese capitalism, their alternative was not up to the situation. The BE earlier on had voted in favour of the Greek bail out last year, on the basis that it was the only realistic option, then they supported the PS candidate in the presidential elections, and finally voted in the EU parliament for the Libya no-fly zone. Their alternative to the Portuguese bail out was an audit of the debt and debt rescheduling, rather than non-payment. Clearly not enough. I'd say it would be wrong to describe these results as a shift to the right. Portugal has just seen the largest general strike since the revolution, and a 200,000 strong demonstration by the youth against austerity (which inspired the Spanish indignados). What is at stake is a sharpening of the class struggle along the lines of Greece.

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