Portugal: Left Bloc gains put Socialist Party in hot seat


Activists wave left Bloc flags.

Will Portugal finally see the end of the austerity imposed over four years by the right-wing coalition of the Social-Democratic Party (PSD) and Democratic and Social Centre—People's Party (CDS-PP)?

This alliance, running for the first time as a single ticket called Portugal Ahead, won the country's October 4 elections, but with only 38.4% of the vote (down from 50.4% at the 2011 poll). Of the 5.41 million Portuguese who voted, 739,000 turned their back on the outgoing government, leaving it with only 107 seats in the 230-seat parliament - down 25.

As a result, the PSD-CSD — which boasted in the election campaign it had proved a reliable tool for the pro-austerity Troika of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund — could lose government.

Part of the right's lost votes were accounted for by the rise in abstention — which rose by 238,000 in a country of 9.68 million potential voters. The 44.1% abstention rate was Portugal's highest since democracy was restored by the 1974 Carnation Revolution.

Some votes would have shifted to the Socialist Party (PS), which governed from 2005 until 2011. However, the PS vote rose by only 4.3%, from 28% to 32.3% (180,000 votes extra). It won 86 seats, 12 more than in 2011.

The PS even failed to beat Portugal Ahead in Lisbon, of which PS leader Antonio Costa was mayor before becoming PS leader earlier this year.

This result showed that, despite Costa's woolly anti-austerity rhetoric, his party is still distrusted for imposing austerity at the behest of the Troika in 2011.

The PS also failed to shake off its image as the party of the political caste. This was reinforced by the arrest of former prime minister Jose Socrates last November on corruption charges.

Due to the PS's partial recovery, the combined vote of Portugal's “parties of government” was their worst result since 1985 (70.7%). At the same time, the parties to their left — principally the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and the Left Bloc — won their highest ever combined score (18.4%).

Overall, the broadly defined parties of the left, including the PS and smaller forces that failed to win seats, won more than 55% of the vote.

Very few of the votes missed by the PS went to United Democratic Coalition (CDU), the coalition of the PCP and the Green Ecological Party (PEV). It scored only 4000 more votes than in 2011, going from 7.9% to 8.3% (16 to 17 seats).

Some disillusioned PS voters may have joined those supporting People Animals Nature (PAN), which entered parliament for the first time with 1.4% and one seat.

Left Bloc

The big winner was the Left Bloc, the radical coalition launched in 1999 as an electoral alliance of three parties coming from Trotskyist, Maoist and dissident PCP backgrounds.

The Left Bloc vote nearly doubled, from 5.2% to 10.2% — 289,000 voters to 551,000. It won 19 seats, 11 more than in 2011, its best ever result. It is now the third force in parliament.

The Bloc boosted its representation in main urban areas and regions alike, including for the first time on the tax-haven island of Madeira. It now has MPs from 10 of Portugal's 20 electoral districts, doubling its representation.

This result came as a shock. In polls this year, the Left Bloc averaged only 4.2%. Even during the two weeks of the formal election campaign, its poll rating averaged only 6.8%. Of the four major tickets, only the Left Bloc scored higher than poll predictions.

The result is even more surprising given the crisis at the Left Bloc's national convention last November. The radical party/movement split in half over issues of leadership selection and tactics towards the PS.

To have hauled itself out of that crisis to score above 10% is a remarkable achievement.

At the same time, none of various splits the Left Bloc has suffered over the past five years — most importantly Livre, which advocated unconditional participation by the left in a PS government — won any seats.

Another failure was the Movement for the Earth, which could manage only 0.4% after scoring 7.1% in last year's European elections.

Campaign

The Left Bloc ran an aggressive campaign against the conservative government — “a government more German than the German government itself” — and hammered the danger of resignation with the campaign slogan of “make a difference!”

In an October 5 article on Spanish website Publico, Bloc MP Jorge Costa and leader Adriano Campos explained the Bloc's success by saying: “The Left Bloc's result reveals the strengthening of an anti-austerity camp that has been able to absorb the greater part of the votes lost by the right, as well as mobilising the support of many people unhappy with the PS.

“The firmness of our proposal to reverse the cuts imposed by the pro-Troika parties allowed the Left Bloc to strengthen its position and advance among the class that lives from its labour: we can see this clearly in the vote achieved on the outskirts of Lisbon (11%), Oporto (13%) and Setubal (13%).

“The confrontation pushed by Left Bloc spokesperson Catarina Martens exposed the PS's freezing of pensions and earned the support of a part of the pensioners and of the people who depend on social security payments to avoid falling into extreme poverty.

“By confronting head-on the consequences of a clash with a European Union dominated by [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel and thus opening a serious and coherent discussion on the question of the euro, the Left Bloc re-won popular confidence in a socialist alternative that breaks with the powers-that-be.”

The Bloc also stood out for the leading role of women in its campaign. Besides Martins — the only woman leader of Portugal's major parties — the Left Bloc's message was forcefully pushed by economist Mariana Mortagua. She is famous for exposing a bid by the conservative government to restore life-time pensions for MPs via the small print in the last national budget.

What government?

Portugal now faces complex negotiations over which party or parties will form government. The options are:

• A repeat of the PSD-CDS alliance as a minority government. This would require the PS to at least abstain on a motion of opposition from the Left Bloc and/or PCP-PEV.
• A German-style “grand coalition” between the PSD-CDS and PS. This would require a comprehensive written program for government between the partners.
• A minority PS government. This would require a minimum agreement with the Left Bloc and PCP-PEV, with at least one supporting it and the other abstaining against the opposition of the PSD-CDS.
• Some sort of left government, including the PS and one or both of the Left Bloc and PCP-PEV. If only a two-party agreement, the party not participating would have to agree to at least abstain on its formation.

A major variable is the attitude of conservative President Cavaco Silva, who can be expected to put maximum pressure on the PS to come to terms with the PSD-CDS.

In their Publico interview, Costa and Campos described the immediate prospect: “Everything indicates that the president of the Republic will allow the formation of a minority government of the right, which will need the abstention of the PS to approve its basic axes (government program, budgets).

“This scenario will produce a deep crisis in the PS, which is wedded to the pro-austerity policies of the European socialists and with Antonio Costa announcing the calling of a special congress.”

For the Left Bloc, the bottom line for any agreement with the PS is action on jobs, wages and pensions. After discussions with the PS on October 11, Martins said that agreement was possible. This assessment was shared by Costa, who said that “the conditions exist that would allow this agreement to take place”.

At the same time, the PS leader made clear that his party would abstain on the formation of a PSD-CDS minority government if it had no alternative to offer. In this way, he is pressuring the Left Bloc and PCP-PEV to demand as little as possible if they want to see a PS or left government.

Alarm

Costa's comments after meeting with the Left Bloc appear to have set off alarm bells with the PS right wing and the Portuguese establishment.

Former prime minister and European Commission president Jose Manuel Durao Barroso said: “I know one thing. Socialist voters didn't vote PS so that it would form a government with the PCP and the Left Bloc.”

Oporto federation president Jose Luis Carneiro said: “The proposals in the PS's electoral program that a majority of the PSD-CDS is prepared to accept … show that it is possible to guarantee the international commitments of the Portuguese state and marry intelligent and sustained competitiveness with social justice.”

On October 14, Francisco Assis, a PS member of European Parliament, backed a minority government of the right: “The best solution for the PS and the country is that it takes on the leadership of the opposition in the national assembly.”

By contrast, former PS presidential candidate Manuel Alegre said: “At this moment a government of the PS, PCP and Left Bloc is what guarantees stability and is the alternative that has a parliamentary majority”. Alegre said a left government was “a democratic solution”.

Expect no early solution to negotiations in which the PS is racked with differences and all parties are manoeuvring to make their rivals pay the highest political price for failure.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed analysis of the Portuguese elections and their aftermath will soon appear at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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