Portugal: Politics in limbo as left pushes for clear gains

May 27, 2016
A Left Bloc protest against austerity. Photo by Paulete Matos/Transform Network.

Portuguese politics is in limbo. It has been since elections last October failed to give any party an outright majority.

The Socialist Party (PS) was eventually able to form a minority government after forming an agreement with forces to its left: the Left Bloc, the Portuguese Communist Party and the Greens.

The good news is that this limbo, the thin ice on which this agreement is skating, also presents an opportunity for the left to engage in clear and clean politics with room for actual negotiation.

The bad news for the right wing and its allies is that this thin ice is proving remarkably resilient — the opposite of what they had expected and indeed hoped for.

In the October elections, the far left Left Bloc scored its best ever result on a clear anti-austerity platform, doubling its vote from about 5% in 2011 to just over 10%.

The Left Bloc is holding its National Convention over June 24–26, which will define its strategic line. Scrutinising the processes and dynamics of this political party like never before, certain sections of the media have sounded the alarm: “Left Bloc bombards government with extensive demands.”

According to the media, the party is bombarding the government, which depends upon it for support, with threats and imposing conditions upon it.

This interpretation is exaggerated and offensive, but also revealing. It expresses the Left Bloc's large share of responsibility in contributing to a new government solution. Due to the desperation of the shattered right, this solution is still subject to suspicion from key sectors (such as the mass media) still loyal to the program of austerity.

Repositioning the dispute

The coalition of right-wing parties won the election last October with 38% of the votes. However, it was incapable of forming a parliamentary majority.

The PS, with 32% of the votes, was forced to abandon the austerity measures it supported in the election campaign in order to meet the demands of left-wing parties and obtain a parliamentary majority.

These demands included the end of privatisation, wages and pensions recovery and the end of attacks on labour laws.

Left-wing parties do not participate in the government, led by PS General Secretary Antonio Costa, but are indispensable to the parliamentary majority that supports it.

This majority is based on strategic political agreements, including the approval of the national budget. By not forming part of the government, left-wing parties can maintain their strategic and programmatic independence.

This independence is vital in the current climate, while still leaving the left able to externally influence the balance of power.

The effect of this agreement has been extraordinarily important: it has shifted the political struggle to the sovereign field of democracy, leaving the right wing to advocate for the decisions European institutions seek to impose on Portugal.

Instead of the “politics of inevitability” argued by the former government and the Troika (the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund), fatalism and the “opportunities” of the neoliberal El Dorado, we are now seeing a re-politicisation of parliamentary disputes and an inclination towards social and trade union movements.

Left Bloc's agenda

The Left Bloc has a clear political agenda regarding this struggle: to fight for wage restitution and to broaden social rights.

For instance, a proposal presented by the Left Bloc, the Social Electricity Tariff, which cuts the price of energy for low-income customers, would benefit 1 million households. It would be paid for by the big players in the sector.

Nevertheless, what we are witnessing is a fragile synthesis of proposals put forward by four different political forces, forged by income recovery and the country's reconstruction.
This synthesis, fragile though it may be, is indeed, by definition, a part of democracy.

However, it is facing constant suspicion from the media, still seduced by right-wing austerity, in a context where these new circumstances and boundaries for negotiation are seen as weaknesses.

The media's interpretation of the Left Bloc's actions is alarmist and biased. But it also reveals a kind of Freudian slip whereby the media mirrors the political mind-set of the forces sponsoring it.

This has compelled Left Bloc spokesperson Catarina Martins to make a public clarification. Martins said that, “without a new strategy for the country, it is not possible to defeat austerity and to commit to income recovery on which the parliamentary majority is based”.

This new strategy is essential in the fight for political space around Europe's future. It is, therefore, neither a warning nor a political weapon — it is the logical conclusion of something more fundamental.

This is that Portugal will not be able to sustain itself as a country while it remains tied to “bailout” agreements and the restrictions imposed by the Troika.

It is clear that the disagreement between social democratic parties (like the PS) and parties of the left is about the political answers in response to the Troika institutions that have seized the European project.

In Portugal's case, this is one of the most obvious gaps between the PS and the forces to its left, but also one of the most sensible ones. Following a government that bowed down to European institutions, the left is unrelenting in outlining the issues surrounding public debt and austerity in the public agenda — refusing to cede to the PS's contradictions.

This difficult balance was present in the negotiations leading to the first national budget agreed to by the entire spectrum of left parties. This was also the first budget in years to respect the Portuguese constitution and provide a minimum of social justice.

But the difficulty of trying to move beyond austerity while simultaneously complying with current Eurozone regulations was also clear.

Clear results

However, there are clear results. PS, with a government supported by left-wing parties, is being prevented from shifting dramatically towards the right.

The tense relationship with European institutions is demonstrating the vulnerability caused by PS's “erratic” behaviour. An example was the reformulation of the first draft of the budget, unanimously considered by the EU institutions to be “the worst version” of a budget that already leant left.

The PS gave in to blackmail from Brussels, which led to BANIF Bank (the fifth bank to go bankrupt in eight years) being sold to Santander, a ruinous deal for the Treasury.

The Left Bloc and Communist Party voted against this “solution”, with Left Bloc reiterating its argument for nationalising the banks.

In spite of these difficulties, the strong left-wing presence, which has gained legitimacy through its electoral success, has earned some gains. It has resulted in a tentative income redistribution, a meagre wage and a recovery in labour rights, and a weak improvement in social policies.

A different attitude on the part of the government, which must not be underestimated, has been clear from the start. During the first joint press conference given by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the new Portuguese prime minister, journalists pressed for more details on the budget, then being debated in the corridors of European institutions.

Costa's answer was to ask the journalist not to “bother Mrs Merkel with the Portuguese Budget, because she certainly has her own budget to worry about”.

The veiled barb aimed at Troika loyalists was quite clear, but was not the most important thing to emerge from the conference. The fundamental point was that Europe can expect a stronger stance from Portugal, rather than the obedient bureaucratic executors of Europe's will that made up the previous government.

'Force of Hope'

The left provides effective ground for a new dialogue, refusing to passively perpetuate privileges.

And that is the reason why the Left Bloc's political slogan, “Force of Hope”, presents itself as an analysis and a program of a Portuguese left that is making more of a difference than ever.

It is making a difference by fighting with confidence, by taking responsibility instead of renouncing it, and by trying to appeal to society as a whole in the name of resistance, while still opening up new possibilities.

It is a “force of hope” that does not neglect its socialist core, that builds alternatives and new ways of struggling, but also manages its social and parliamentary responsibility to regain, one by one, all the rights lost during the period of austerity.

The success of this struggle is the main prerequisite to gaining popular support, which is needed for future achievements and transformations.

An atmosphere of decisive transformations is looming over Portugal. The most basic position of utter refusal to take part can unwittingly validate the same argument it is fighting against. We should resist the temptation towards a plain, simple and inflexible refusal, towards plain and simple denial without looking at the context.

[Abridged from Transform Network.]

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