Portugal: New times, new left

April 5, 2000

By Francois Vercammen*

LISBON — A crowd of nearly 1000 gathered in the main amphitheatre of the University of Lisbon on January 29-30 to "listen, discuss, converge" and set up a new political formation — the Bloco de Esquerda, or Left Bloc.

The Bloc's founding assembly proved a resounding success, adopting statutes, approving a program and electing a leadership. Still very much a minority, the Bloc has broken the political monopoly that the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) has exercised for half a century over the non-social democratic left.

Although the convergence between the three political parties involved (UDP — the Union for Popular Democracy, PSR — Revolutionary Socialist Party and Politics XXI) has been under way since 1991, only in the past year has unity become a reality, in the context of success in the European and national parliamentary elections.

Membership of the Bloc is individual, but the parties maintained their press, meetings and programs, although they have no special rights in the new organisation. Public activity is carried out by the Bloc and the elected deputies are identified with the bloc, whether or not they are members of a party.

Inside the Left Bloc, the mesa (the national leadership group) is made up on a parity basis: the independents on the one hand, the party members on the other. But all the members of the mesa are elected by the congress; the parties make proposals, but the members have the final decision.

If the structure appears complicated, it flows from political conviction and a unitary internal dynamic generated by the Bloc's initial success. Until now, there has been political agreement between the parties which has allowed the development of analyses, points of view and propositions, as well as two electoral programs, but there had been no agreement yet on a fundamental program.

According to provisional estimates, the Left Bloc already has around 1600 members in 15 of the 20 regions of the country — before any systematic recruitment. The preparatory commission proposed that a national assembly be directly convened at which those who have joined the Bloc at least a week before the congress would have the right to speak, vote, elect the leadership and be elected. Those who merely attended the congress would only have the right to speak.

At the congress there were four reports followed by debates: activity in the first year, statutes, a political resolution, and the election of leadership bodies.

The definition of the goals and nature of the party dominated the debate on the statutes. A reformist minority current within Politics XXI presented a series of amendments to the main texts. Article 1, adopted by the congress, states: "The movement defends ... the perspective of socialism as expression of the emancipatory struggle of humanity against exploitation and oppression".

The reformist current within Politics XXI proposed instead: the Bloc "considers socialism as the main historic factor in the democratisation and civilisation of capitalism", and "recognises the importance of the market, without attributing to its unconditional liberty some kind of intrinsic value ... Without its subordination to the values defined by the community, democracy is impossible." It continued, the Bloc "... defends and promotes a civic culture of participation and democratic political action in the framework of the state of law and respect for human rights. Socialism is the name given to social transformation based on these principles."

The other key debate concerned the nature of the new movement. The minority within Politics XXI proposed the suppression of certain articles in the statutes, in particular a section which obliges Bloc members to "promote [defend] the political objectives of the movement and act in a consequent fashion". The minority also opposed the formation of "nuclei", as well as their concrete tasks.

The debate on these questions was heated and lively. The objections centred mainly on the dangers of "democratic centralism" and "manipulation" in the relations between party and social movement.

The Bloc's program should be read by the whole of the militant left. The innovation of language and style is striking. Under the heading "A new political reality", the Bloc identifies itself as "a universalist left based on solidarity". Its radical opposition to globalisation is summed up in the denunciation of a "civilisation of injustice".

The third chapter, "Left Europeanism: a new contract", which rejects the Europe of the market, is framed by a strategy for the "refoundation of Europe" essentially based on employment and the Convention on Human Rights. There follows "The road to a new left", and "A Bloc in the form of a movement".

A proposed first leadership of the Bloc was approved by 85% of voters. This first national leadership (the mesa) creates a united functional framework which should allow the expression of all opinions, with 40% women and a representative geographic spread.

Political-institutional conditions are relatively favourable for the left in Portugal (notably the degree of proportionality in parliamentary functioning), compared to most other European countries. But the leading cadre of the Left Bloc have exploited these conditions very well.

This reflects the experience of the Portuguese revolution (1974-75), in which the PSR and UDP were real actors in the process, but also the experience of its defeat, which dealt a harsh blow to a whole generation of militants. Those who did not abandon the struggle had to confront Portuguese society this time through universal suffrage and the elected institutions. This trajectory, as well as the political changes undergone by the three components of the Left Bloc in the last decade, explain their capacity to create the space for convergence and their genuine social implantation.

The Bloc's proposed draft law on "religious liberty and the secularisation of the state" is exemplary from this point of view, insisting on individual freedom of conscience and the democratic rights of the church as a private organisation, but also being a radical break with the hold the church exercises on public institutions. It has led to widespread public debate and has split the PS.

The same goes for the decriminalisation of abortion (torpedoed by the PS) and the outlawing of domestic violence against women. The Bloc has also reasserted the democratic rule that the program of the government is voted on by the parliamentary assembly.

In a series of resolutions, the Bloc proposes to take parliamentary and extra-parliamentary initiatives aimed at the recomposition of the left, in Portugal and in Europe. At the international level, the Bloc favours "meetings with the currents and formations of the new left, left socialists, communists, ecologists and democratic movements of national affirmation", notably in the form "of an international seminar on this subject [fundamental rights in the European Union] to be organised in our country ... on the most appropriate date in 2001".

In the presidential elections, the Left Bloc will fight against all the limits of the existing democracy and "will launch a great struggle among public opinion for a profound reform of the Portuguese political system". It will also organise a "national conference on the quality of democracy".

The Bloc will also develop "a process of Round Tables to discuss with the societal left on an alternative, capable of converging on the political level without endangering the autonomy of its specific terrains of intervention". It also announced a series of big campaigns, notably against tax avoidance and banking secrecy, for the decriminalisation of abortion and on sexual rights.

The Bloc does not plan to launch a youth organisation in the two years to come, but favours a conference on this subject. On trade unions, it views favourably work "towards a new trade union tendency". It also favours "meetings and conferences ... which would assist the renewal of the ideals and practices of Portuguese trade unionism".

"Listen, discuss, converge", the first convention of the Left Bloc, was a valuable step towards the renewal of the left.

[Francois Vercammen is a member of the united secretariat of the Fourth International. Abridged from International Viewpoint. Special low rates (for new subscribers only) Australia $35: Cheques payable to Solidarity Publications, PO Box A105, Sydney South 2000.]

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