A spectre is haunting Portugal ― the spectre of Greece and of SYRIZA, its radical-left party. All the powers of neoliberal Europe, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have entered into an unholy alliance to exorcise this spectre.
Accompanied by representatives of German big business, Merkel ran the gauntlet of protesters in Lisbon for six hours on November 12. She congratulated Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho for his “courage” in applying austerity (a “success story”) and urged the country’s most unpopular political leader to stick to his guns.
Two days earlier, Portugal’s most respected politician, retiring Left Bloc coordinator Francisco Louca, had told the party's eighth national convention that “we struggle relentlessly for the resignation of Passos Coelho”.
Louca said: “The people can’t withstand the destruction, the unemployment, the impoverishment, the economic degeneration”.
As a result of policies imposed as a condition of the 78 billion euro “rescue package” by the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund (the troika), austerity has shrunk the Portuguese economy by 3.3% in the year to September.
Official unemployment has risen from 12.4% to 15.8% and youth unemployment from 30% to 39%. Young people are flooding out of the country in search of work and ever greater numbers of people in Portugal are going hungry.
For Louca, the alternative to this disaster is a government of the left, a “government of the social movements that are running through the arteries of the republic”. This was a reference to ongoing waves of protest that reached new peaks with a million-strong demonstration across Portugal on September 15, followed by a huge union-led protest on September 29.
Yet a left government would seem to be pie-in-the-sky, especially when the Left Bloc stands at only 7.5% in the latest opinion poll. Even with support added for the Democratic Unity Coalition (CDU), led by the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), backing for forces advocating a left government comes to only 17.1%.
That is against the 34.2% still behind the parties of the governing coalition ― the Social-Democratic Party (PSD), at 26.3%, and the Democratic and Social Centre-People’s Party (CDS-PP), at 7.9%.
Add in support for the Socialist Party (PS), presently leading the polls at 32.1%, and the degree of backing for the five main forces on the Portuguese political battleground still hasn’t changed drastically ― despite the unprecedented social pain.
But the feeling that the government is on the way out grows daily. Left Bloc parliamentary fraction leader Luis Fazenda told the convention: “The wind is shifting, the government of Pasos Coelho and Paolo Portas [CDS-PP leader and foreign minister] is finished.”
Fazenda said: “Now is the moment of truth, of finding the right political outcome.”
The government’s own tactics reflect this sense of a turning point. As the convention was taking place, Carlos Abreu Amorim, deputy leader of the PSD parliamentary group, said: “We need to know if [PS leader] Antonio Jose Seguro prefers to ally with and, eventually, to tie himself to, an extremist party without solutions for Portugal [Left Bloc] or if he prefers to make an agreement with the majority for a change of regime … now is not the time for hesitations nor for maybes.”
For the PS, however, it is through “hesitations and maybes”, combined with noisy populism against the government, that its support base can be held together.
Its strategy combines trying to spook the troika ― you people will have another Greece on its hands if you do not reschedule Portugal’s debt repayments ― with an “alternative plan” of asking European agencies to increase credit to small and medium business.
For the time being, the party is being spared the fate of its sisters in Greece (where its equivalent party is at 5.5% in the latest poll) and Spain (at 23.9%), by being in opposition and by the still-widespread feeling that troika “rescue” was unavoidable.
Another factor helping is the still limited collaboration between the forces to the PS’s left ― the Left Bloc and the PCP.
Although they came together to propose a joint censure motion against the government in early October, the prospect of any higher forms of unity are nil at the moment. This is despite the fact that the PCP’s five points for a left government that breaks with troika austerity are close to the Left Bloc’s.
Hard road to unity
How to break this impasse was the main theme of debate at the convention, where two positions were up for voting: Motion A (“The Left Against the Debt”) and Motion B (“For a Fighting Socialist Response”).
Motion A spelled out that a left government must (1) cancel illegitimate public debt and renegotiate the rest, (2) restore wage and welfare payments, (3) nationalise banks receiving public subsidies, reverse privatisations, and boost public investment for full employment, and (4) introduce a tax system based on fighting fraud and shifting the tax burden to capital.
Motion B agreed that “a new government of the left would refuse and reverse the policies and politics of the troika, firmly stand for the welfare state, and work towards the renationalisation of essential public services and strategic industries”, but did not make a specific stance towards debt renegotiation a precondition for a left governmental alliance.
Debate focused on what exactly a left government would be, how much to compromise to achieve it and how to raise the influence of the Bloc within the broad spectrum of the left.
“If only we had the 20% that the latest polls have given SYRIZA in Greece,” lamented Joao Madeira, presenter of Motion B. He called for “less tacticism and more boldness” in the Bloc’s relations with the SP and PCP. However, what this would mean in practice was unclear.
Madeira also said that the Left Bloc growth had been slow and the party had to act less as a parliamentary force and “more as the social and political activists that we are”, especially at the local level.
Daniel Oliveira, another Motion B supporter, former National Executive member and well-known journalist in Portugal, criticised the left government formula as vague, (“a nice phrase for a billboard or a state of mind”). Oliveira added: “In coming years there will be no left government that excludes the PS.”
The social majority
Motion A supporters replied in various ways. Long-time leader and historian Fernando Rosas said, to stormy applause, that “the political situation will change a lot in the coming months, and there will be a left government, whether the PS leadership wants it or not”.
Incoming joint national coordinator Joao Semedo, while accepting that the PS camp is much bigger than its leaders and parliamentary fraction, rejected a policy of an alliance with a PS that has “one foot in the troika memorandum and the other in the opposition”.
Semedo said the “Left Bloc will play its part to help bring about convergence, without sectarianism or pretensions of hegemony” but “others must also play their part”.
The Left Bloc's proposal for a left government is based on the foundation of what Semedo calls “the new social majority”. It presupposes that rising social mobilisation will present the PS with the choice of shifting leftwards or losing significant portions of its social base, like the social democratic PASOK party in Greece.
This pressure can be seen in the decision of 17 PS MPs to back the successful Left Bloc-initiated appeal to the Constitutional Court against the government’s decision to cut Christmas bonus pay to public servants and pensioners.
At the end of the debate, Motion A won 80% of the vote while motion B won 17%. In the election for the 80-seat National Board, Motion A supporters won 61 positions and Motion B supporters 19. Changes proposed by Motion B supporters to the party statutes lost, some quite narrowly.
Left government impact
If a left government came to power in Portugal, what could it actually achieve against the powers of neoliberal Europe? That would depend on the solidarity it received from working people in other European countries.
The Left Bloc is acutely aware of this and puts special emphasis on the European dimension. The convention opened with an impressive multilingual international meeting, hearing from leaders of European left parties, including SYRIZA leader Alex Tsipras (via video), French Left Front leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, national coordinator of Spain’s United Left, Cayo Lara, and Germany's Die Linke (Left Party) European MP Gabriele Zimmer.
Each speaker not only focused on denouncing the crimes of austerity, but on tracing out alternatives. Most of all, the meeting dramatised that the seeds of another Europe, based on solidarity, social justice and equality between nations, already exist.
That reality helped newly elected national co-coordinator Catarina Martins tell the convention’s final session: “We want to sack this government because it is a government whose program is to impoverish the country deserves to be sacked. It is a government without honour.”
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. He attended the Left Bloc convention as a representative of the Socialist Alliance. An extended version of this article will appear on the site of Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, with English translation of the two motions presented to the convention.]