On February 20, voters handed a humiliating thrashing to Portugal's incumbent conservative Social-Democratic and Popular Party (SDP-PP) coalition, returning the centre-left Socialist Party to government with an outright majority.
The Socialist Party (SP) received 45.1% of the vote (up from 37.8% in the previous general election in 2002), giving it 120 seats in Portugal's 226-seat parliament. The combined vote for the SDP and PP was 36% (down from 48.9% in 2002), giving them 84 seats in the new parliament.
Unlike neighbouring Spain, where the conservative government of Jose Maria Aznar survived for three terms largely on the back of a real-estate boom, Portugal's three years of conservative government were marked not only by reactionary social policies and craven support for the US war on Iraq, but by economic stagnation.
By ramming through welfare cuts, health system privatisation and anti-union laws, the SDP-PP coalition government didn't achieve its goal of bringing the state budget deficit beneath the European Union's maximum of 3% of GDP, but it did boost unemployment to over half a million and increase poverty, especially among young people. Added to this pain was a further restriction on women's right to abortion.
The backlash against the SDP-PP government resulted in around 400,000 voters shifting back to the Socialist Party. Equally importantly, however, was the rise in the vote to left of the SP — the vote for the Left Bloc more than doubled to 365,000 (6.4%), while the United Democratic Coalition (UDC), formed by the Portuguese Communist Party and the Greens, gained 53,000 votes taking its share of the total vote to 7.6%.
The UDC will have 14 MPs in the new parliament — two more than it previously had — while the Left Bloc will have eight, rather than its previous three.
The Left Bloc, begun as a coalition of Trotskyist and Maoist groups but now with a large majority of unaligned members, was the big winner on February 20. Over the last six years the Left Bloc has consistently built protest and social movements at the same time as using parliament to showcase detailed policy alternatives to government neoliberalism. It has also been at the forefront of campaigns against domestic violence, for de facto marriage rights for gays and lesbians as well as the decriminalisation of drug use.
Left Bloc proposals showing how Portugal's ramshackle welfare system could be properly funded, how the rich could be made to pay their taxes and how state-owned industry and services could be run in the interests of working people convinced tens of thousands of voters that "another Portugal is possible" (and what it could look like).
The electoral gains of the Left Bloc sharply increase the pressure on the Communist Party's leadership to drop its sectarianism towards a political force it has traditionally treated as ultra-left upstarts.
Faced with an SP government that will have little choice but to implement a more moderate version of the last three years of neoliberalism, Portugal's workers, students, unemployed and pensioners will be looking to the Communist Party and Left Bloc for a united response to the new government's austerity plans.
From Green Left Weekly, March 2, 2005.
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