Portugal: Left Bloc faces Socialist Party in government and rising far right

Delegates at this year's national convention of Portugal's radical Left Bloc (BE).

It was inevitable that the 12th National Convention of Portugal’s radical Left Bloc (BE), the third largest parliamentary force, would be unlike its predecessors — the COVID-19 pandemic guaranteed that.

A low delegate-to-membership ratio — criticised by some — made the convention half its normal size and international guests from parties in sympathy with the BE, such as Australia’s Socialist Alliance, were absent.

One thing that didn’t change was the blow-by-blow coverage by the Portuguese mainstream media, always rubbing their hands in anticipation of any disputes the bloquistas might be having.

Aside from the pandemic and its social toll, two main events shaped the convention: the storm created by the BE’s vote in December against the 2021 budget of the ruling Socialist Party (PS) and the rise of the far-right Chega! (Enough!) — a split from the mainstream right Social-Democratic Party (PSD).

The BE voted against the budget because it left the run-down National Health Service (SNS) grossly underfunded, while bailing out bankrupt private bank Novo Banco. It was criticised for this by the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), its rival for the vote to the left of the SP. (The PCP’s abstention had allowed the minority SP government’s budget to pass once the BE and the parties of the right opposed it.)

As for the racist Chega, its emergence has ended complacency about a supposed Portuguese exemption from racist and xenophobic politics. Chega indulges in nostalgia for the country’s 1932–74 dictatorship and lays all Portugal’s present problems at the door of the political system born of the April 25, 1974 Carnation Revolution.

Recent polling shows Chega competing with the BE for third place, behind the PS and PSD, and almost certain to enter parliament at the next election.

In January’s presidential election, held mid-pandemic, Chega leader André Ventura won 11.9% of the vote, while BE candidate Marisa Matias only managed 4% after achieving 10.1% in 2016.

Convention

The delegates to the convention, whose theme was “In Response to the Crisis, Justice”, had to decide between five motions on the path the BE should take in the next two years.

BE’s decision-making process differs from that of most of its European counterparts. Their congresses are usually structured around a single draft resolution from the outgoing leadership to which congress delegates propose amendments.

The BE approach allows a more useful debate over the state of the political battleground, strategy and tactics, the BE’s goals for the next two years and how to meet them.

Three of the five resolutions going to this convention achieved little support. For Motion C — “More Democracy, More Organisation” — a core problem for the BE was the ongoing existence of the political currents that had founded BE in 1999: the Anticapitalist Network, descendant from the Trotskyist Revolutionary Socialist Party (PSR) and the Popular Democratic Union (UDP) association, of Maoist origin.

Motion C elected 8 delegates (2.3% of the total) to the convention, won the support of 17 after the debate had been heard and had four supporters elected to the 80-member National Board.

Motion N — “For a Peaceful Revolution” — criticised the BE leadership for not breaking with the PS government in 2017, when it was clear that prime minister António Costa was defaulting on the 2015 agreement allowing him to govern.

The success of Chega leader Ventura in the presidential election was a warning sign: “Underestimating the rise of the far right shows that the BE, along with the PCP, did not understand that there is a widespread lack of faith in their proposals and abilities.”Motion presenter Paola Rosa called for the BE to focus on anti-racist work.

Motion N had five delegates (1.4%), won the support of seven and had four supporters elected to the National Board.

Motion Q — “Breaking Chains, Fighting for Socialism” — denounced what its presenter João Patrocínio called “the absolute focus on parliamentary work”. The BE was less and less a party-movement and increasingly “a party like the rest”.

The only solution was to “undo ultra-centralisation and institutionalisation” by limiting the mandates of officeholders, having internal referenda on key decisions, allowing a permanent internal discussion bulletin and having compulsory rotation of full-time party workers.

Two of Motion Q’s nine delegates (1.5%) left it in the final convention vote and it won no positions on the National Board. The support of Motions C and N enabled it to win one position on the BE’s 7-member control commission.

The main debate

The main contest at the convention was between Motions A and E. Motion E — “Faced with Impoverishment, Polarise Leftwards” — was the work of the Convergence platform, the product of a December 2019 meeting of BE activists of different sensibilities and aimed at “contributing to the rethinking of the BE and its presence and intervention in society”.

Motion E shared Motion N’s criticism of the BE leadership’s “drift” after 2017, supposedly due to a commitment to governmental stability that only the PS could, and did, benefit from. The BE, as a radical alternative project to the PS, was “compromised”.

The BE’s presidential election campaign, despite the effort and commitment of Matias and the strength of its platform, “did not distinguish itself clearly and in depth from other candidacies, getting entangled in an approach that continued to insist on agreements with the PS.”

Motion E also shared the viewpoint of the other minorities that the BE’s internal life was being stifled by the dominant alliance between its founding tendencies.

The motion called for the BE to internalise an ecosocialist outlook and to consistently present itself as ecosocialist:

“We propose an alternative model that changes ownership forms, production relationships and productive forces, with respect for people’s dignity and based on a better life and not on consumerism [and] a just energy and agroecological transition process, with radical decarbonisation of the economy.”

Its other main points of emphasis were the need for an emergency plan to meet the social and economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis, restructuring of the Portuguese debt burden, a vast social housing plan, and the restructuring of all these projects along regional lines as a way of returning work and life to the country’s increasingly empty interior.

Motion E had 66 delegates (19.2%) elected to the convention, won the support of 64 after the debate had been heard and elected 17 supporters to the National Board and one to the control commission.

Majority approach

The main speakers for Motion A (“Getting out of the Crisis, Fighting Inequality”) were the BE’s best-known leaders, who mainly avoided polemic with the other four tendencies, focussing for the most part on the tasks of the BE in relation to the Antonio Costa government and the rise of the far right.

However, Pedro Filipe Soares, Motion A’s presenter and chair of the BE’s parliamentary caucus, took up the issue of whether BE’s break from the PS was permanent, as apparently welcomed by Motion E.

He said: “Has the BE ever let down the left? No, this is the left that has never let down the left [and that’s why] a left budget will have the vote of the BE.”

Whether the PS was likely to present such a budget for 2022 was unlikely given its “submission to European interests” while “leaving workers behind”.

In summarising for Motion A, MP Jorge Costa said the convention had seen “a real debate in which we faced up to our difficulties”. If, during the pandemic, “we’ve never had so much dialogue with sectors in struggle, we need much more to convert this influence into muscle for social resistance”.

Referring to the criticism of Motion C, Costa added: “We’re not building a shrine to the heroes and heroines in the struggle for socialism but a political force to defend the people from the predations of vulture capitalism.”

That job must begin with the repeal of Portugal’s labour law, so that economic recovery is not based on the super-exploitation of workers.

Motion A had 233 (67.9%) delegates elected to the convention, won the support of 210 in the final vote, won 54 members of the National Board, and five of the seven-strong control commission. This result amounted to a loss of around 20% support compared with the previous convention.

In closing the convention, re-elected National Coordinator Catarina Martins committed the BE to a resolute fight against the far right and to backing the gamut of struggles ready to break out when the pandemic eases.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]