Portuguese elections – new class battles loom.

This article was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International.

On the surface little seems to have changed as a result of the election to Portugal’s Legislative Assembly on the 6th October. But, beneath the surface, processes are developing which are likely in the next period to explode into a radical change in the situation.

Prime Minister António Costa is set to retain his position, as are most of the cabinet members of his so-called “Socialist” Party (PSP) minority government. The PSP has 20 more seats than it obtained in 2015, having taken 5% more of the vote, but still needs the backing of other parties in order to maintain its rule.

Costa’s government is widely misrepresented outside the country as having ended austerity on coming to power. The reality, as the CWI has reported previously (https://www.socialistworld.net/2019/08/30/fuel-tanker-drivers-strike-paralyses-portugal-where-next-for-the-left/), is that while some of the previous government’s cuts have been softened, living standards for the working class have continued to fall, Even while Portugal’s economy has grown at a faster rate than the rest of Europe, average wages have fallen every year that Costa has been in power, At the same time the biggest companies are making huge profits. Waves of strikes began to rock the government towards the end of its’ last term including in schools and hospitals. Sections of workers began to realise that the government will not halt the fall in their living standards. Costa has aggressively deployed anti-trade union legislation against striking nurses, fuel-tanker drivers, airline workers and others.

Costa and the Socialist Party is being increasingly exposed to wider and wider layers of the working class, However, the full bill for their actions was not presented for payment in this election, This is because firstly his rule has coincided with a weak, temporary and rapidly evaporating growth in Portugal’s economy. This was fuelled by a growth in tourism and a property bubble whose other effects are to send housing costs sky-rocketing. Secondly because of the entrapment of the Portuguese left – the ‘Left Bloc and the Communist Party, in a parliamentary alliance with Costa has meant they have not represented a pole of attraction for those looking to change the situation.

Support for the (also misnamed) “Social Democratic” Party, a right wing party which has been the main party of Portuguese capitalism since the revolution of 1974, continued to plunge. It received its lowest share of the vote (28%) since 1983, losing 9 seats and leaving it with 77 MPs. The SDP ruled Portugal until 2015 in coalition with Christian-Democratic Party the CDS-PP which was similarly punished for the coalition’s brutal record of austerity in office, leaving it with just 4.3% of the vote and 5 MPs. (One political commentator had dubbed it the “taxi party” because its entire parliamentary caucus could now fit in a single car).

Between them, these parties lost another third of a million votes in this election and more than a million votes over the last decade. Five general strikes rocked the country before this government lost power in 2015. These parties have been punished for the damage they were willing to do to public services, the wider economy and living standards at the behest of the Troika (the International Monetary Fund and EU institutions), They have lost a considerable section of their support in the middle class to the Socialist Party, which has presented itself as the party capable of holding a lid on workers’ struggles and as the party of economic stability.

Economic growth or new crisis

Forecasts for economic growth, however, were cut this month from 2.6% to 2% and could be cut further as the impact of a slowdown in Germany and other European countries are felt. Credit ratings agency DBRS upgraded Portuguese debt in the wake of the election results to BBB but they are gambling that the PSP will be able to continue to contain workers’ struggle indefinitely, They have not reckoned on the explosive social situation that is developing as the Portuguese economy weakens and pressure from capitalism to make deeper cuts is brought to bear, Costa should see his own future in the demise of the PSD and the CDU. Despite its apparent electoral advances, there is no great enthusiasm for the PSP government, as shown by the turnout of 54% – the lowest since the fall of the dictatorship – and the increase in spoiled ballot papers. Grudging acquiescence to a Costa government could turn quickly into determined opposition, especially if there is a lead given and an alternative boldly presented. There is no question that when the next crisis hits, Costa’s party will try to make the working class pay. It was his PSP which originally signed the Memorandum with the Troika before losing power to the PSD.

Left Bloc and Communist Party

Costa benefited in this election from the absence of any credible alternative. In several countries, social democratic parties are temporarily regaining some of the ground they lost in the last period as disappointment grows with new left and workers’ parties. In Portugal the MPs of the Left Bloc (BE) and the Communist Party (PCP) had supported Costa’s government in parliament for the whole of its last term. The damage that this has done is starting to show but will become even clearer in the period ahead unless the left takes a different road. The Left Bloc held onto 19 seats and 10% of the vote but that conceals the 50,000 votes it lost in a period when it should have been growing as the governing capitalist party was in a minority and vulnerable to exposure from the left.

The Communist Party, with its more working-class support-base suffered more. It stood again in coalition with the Green Party and collected its worst results since the end of the dictatorship. It lost almost a third of its 17 MPs. There has been a half-concealed crisis in the organisation, With PCP MPs who were critical of the “geringonça” – the contraption – with Costa having been relocated to constituencies where they have little chance of being re-elected. Left-Bloc leader Catarina Martins appealed to Costa to draw up a joint governmental programme with her in order to “choose stability” but by contrast PCP General Secretary Jerónimo de Sousa was forced to declare on election night that the PCP will not again sign up to a written agreement with the PSP.

It is actions that count however. The parties of capitalism failed to gain a majority in 2015 but the parliamentary left did not use this weakness to fight for significant advances for the working class. Workers are unimpressed by small concessions like the scrapping of charges for school text books which are trumpeted by the PCP in particular as evidence that their unprincipled alliance was worth the cost.

As a result of the left’s wrong polices, there are signs that other political forces are attempting to fill the vacuum. Environmentalist Party PAN increased its support significantly from a small base and three parties entered parliament for the first time this year – liberal capitalist parties Free and Liberal Initiative and the far-right party Enough, The latter tries to cultivate “nostalgia” for the Salazar dictatorship and racism against Roma communities. The CWI warned before the election that in Portugal “some are looking to far-right forces in Portuguese-speaking Brazil and neighbouring Spain. Portugal could see similar developments if the left squanders its opportunities and ties itself to the establishment.” The left, however, has not yet exhausted its opportunities to take the initiative and cut across any growth in support for the far right.

An alternative socialist programme for the BE and PCP

The Left Bloc and the Communist Party should advance a bold socialist programme of demands, and fight energetically for that programme which could win significant concessions and exposing Costa’s government as unwilling to side with workers against the bosses. No support should be given to Costa’s government to stay in power and prepare to launch a new assault on the working class when the recession hits. There is little risk of the PSP losing power to a government of the openly right wing parties – fear of which put pressure on the left parties in the last election. The left should sound the alarm and call the working class to struggle against the government and the big business interests which stand behind them. That means supporting movements on the streets, in working-class communities and in workplaces and co-ordinating their tactics in parliament with those movements. No MP who attacks workers in the midst of struggle, as some Communist Party MPs have done recently – should stay in post. There is intense anger about the fact that Portuguese wages are at less than half the European average and about the insecurity at work. The CGTP union confederation, together with new independent unions that have sprung up amongst dockers, nurses, teachers, tanker drivers and others should coordinate a strike campaign against low pay, precarious work and the anti-union laws, starting with an initial one-day general strike.

Costa has announced that he will do whatever it takes to ensure Portugal will post a budget surplus next year and begin to reduce its colossal debt. The CWI says scrap the debt instead, and the whole rigged capitalist system with it. Nationalise the banks and major companies and use their resources to fund the investment in infrastructure and public services that Portugal so desperately needs. This needs to be done as part of the introduction of a democratic socialist planning of the economy based on nationalisation and workers’ control. It will be the working class which will be made to pay for Costa’s pipe dream of a debt-free capitalist Portugal, unless it defends itself by building a political force and a movement that opens the road to socialism.