Portugal’s Left Bloc: ‘Our role is to be a left-wing reference point to the movements’

August 10, 2023
Left Bloc
Portuguese Left Bloc leader Jorge Costa. Photo: Supplied

Left Bloc leader Jorge Costa discusses Portugal’s politics under the Socialist Party (PS) government and the party’s changing relation to it, with Green Left’s Dick Nichols.

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The Left Bloc lost half its electoral support between 2015 and 2022. How much of this slump was due to factors beyond its control and how much to the Left Bloc’s own shortcomings?

The agreement between the PS and the Left Bloc, which formed the basis for the Left Bloc supporting a PS government without joining it, was signed in 2015. Back then, the PS came second in the general elections and the issue was to prevent the right wing from continuing to govern.

In the 2019 elections, when the agreement had been fulfilled, the Left Bloc won 10% (half a million votes), which was almost the same result as four years previously (our best result ever).

So, the explanation of our January 2022 result is not to be found in some continuum of gradually increasing bad election results. Rather, we fell abruptly, to only half the vote and a quarter of the members of parliament compared to October 2019.

The reason was our refusal to vote for the PS government’s 2021 budget. In negotiations we fully respected our mandate, which was to use our influence to achieve important gains with regard to labour legislation and investment in the National Health Service (SNS). However, we were not able to reach an agreement with the PS that would achieve these goals. So, we did not have grounds for voting for the national budget.

That decision for strategic independence from the PS was not followed by a large section of Left Bloc voters. But we did not use their criteria to decide our vote: we used strategic criteria — those of our independent political project.

In the days before the election, a second factor emerged that also contributed to the Left Bloc’s bad results: national polling showed that the parties of the right, taken together, were equalling the PS vote. This polling, which pointed to a victory for the right when taken together with the far-right vote, created a wave of fear that mobilised some left people towards the PS.

In the end, the feared right victory did not happen and the PS ended up with an absolute majority in parliament. The polls were either wrong or they contributed directly to a shift in voting intentions. In either case, those final polls were also very important in mobilising left voters towards the PS.

Did the Left Bloc’s poor result show that it misread the popular mood?

We used our mandate to exert pressure around strategic issues for the working class, like labour legislation, SNS [national health service] funding and casualisation. We will always refuse to be an appendix to the PS, to be a fifth wheel on the wagon of government.

In the circumstances, we had a choice to make: for autonomy or subordination to the PS. We chose autonomy. We lost a lot of weight, but we kept our backbone intact and we are now able to strike back, which is what we are doing.

We face the PS’s absolute majority with a parliamentary caucus that is much smaller than before, but one with a coherent relationship with the popular movements that are emerging.

Polling shows the Left Bloc recovering support to 8‒10%. What explains this shift?

The policy of the PS absolute majority is marked not only by great arrogance but also by the government’s coming apart at the seams, with members of government (13 to date) falling because of scandals.

But its declining vote is mainly due to its lack of answers to the social crisis. People are under the pressure of wage stagnation as a result of the government-bosses pact and of the combined effect of inflation and interest rate rises. Portugal has a massive housing crisis, with lots of people unable to pay for a home and endlessly searching for accommodation.

We are also facing huge difficulties in the normal functioning of public services, mainly education and health.

Portugal also has a development model based on massive and unsustainable tourism. This is one of the main explanations why Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth does not produce a corresponding increase in living standards. Instead, people are getting poorer because the share of wages in the distribution of the country’s wealth is shrinking.

With more than two years to the next election, can the Left Bloc force a change in PS’s line?

The socialists have an absolute majority: they do not need any more votes to change policies. We understand that to achieve any changes, we have to come out onto the streets. So, the Left Bloc is very much engaged in organising, and giving a solid political reference point to, the social movements and the workers.

Over the past years we have seen very significant protest movements. For example, the biggest ever demonstrations of public school teachers, repeated strikes of doctors and nurses, and public transport strikes that have been going on for a long time.

We also see the politicisation of the LGBTIQ+ and feminist movements and their resistance to the conservatising pressures accompanying the rise of the far right. These movements have had a very important role to play in the past period, with enormous demonstrations of young people. They are a crucial part of the landscape of social resistance.

The role of the Left Bloc right now is to be a left-wing reference point, to offer left-wing politics to these movements and the mass sectors they represent. That is what we are doing to confront the government and extract political change from it.

There’s a sharp contrast between the approach of the Spanish radical left and its Portuguese counterparts. What conclusions would you draw as to which approach is preferred?

When the Left Bloc lost half of its vote in 2022, Pablo Iglesias, at the time leader of Podemos, rushed into public debate to make a balance sheet of the Portuguese experience. He was critical of our option of staying outside the PS government.

He said we should have been in government to have influence, to have our voters understand that to vote for the left is to elect possible members of government, change the rules and change government policies.

But the fact is that, at the end of our agreement in 2019, the Left Bloc kept its influence and re-elected its 19 MPs. The loss of half of our vote happened when, with no agreement with the PS, we had to choose between being an autonomous force of the left, using its representation to exert influence over government decisions, or becoming an unconditional supporter of the PS. We chose the first option.

At no time have we had any doubts about the nature of the liberal centre PS government. We never saw it as part of a progressive camp, as a left government. We always saw it as offering an opportunity, through political agreement, to extract gains for the working class.

In contrast, when we look at the balance sheet of the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) – Unidas Podemos (UP) government, we have to be honest and say that the advances that the left wing got from participating in the government were tiny and few.

If you make a serious balance sheet of the labour law reform that was led by Yolanda Diaz and Pedro Sanchez, or of the social policies in general of the Spanish government over the past four years, you have to make an effort to find the hallmark of the left.

Now, in the next parliament, the parties that held ministries in the outgoing government (Podemos and the Communist Party of Spain/United Left) will have together, at best, ten MPs. This marginalisation of the parties that joined the previous PSOE-UP government has to mean something.

The strategic debate is about how to find ways of building electoral majorities that block the right and far right’s path to power and at the same time, within these majorities, allow an open conflict with the liberal centre.

We need to think about how to build a strategic alternative from the left that is able to make policy for the majority. We do not want to be the left flank of a government that goes on implementing liberal politics and remains completely subordinate to the monetary and budgetary rules of the EU and the Eurozone.

We have to do everything to block the access of the right and the far right to government, true. But we should by no means erase the left and its goals into a “progressive bloc” that is hard to distinguish from the simple liberal centre rule of the PS.

[Abridged and edited from a much longer interview at links.org.au.]

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