Portugal – Victory for Left Bloc

08 November 2015

IN PORTUGAL’S recent elections, the people voted to chuck out a European Union backed pro-austerity government. The governing coalition between the liberal Portuguese Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the conservative People’s Party (CDS-PP) won only 102 seats out of 230.

By contrast, the anti-austerity left did well. The Socialist Party (PS) won 32.3 per cent and the Communists (PCP) 8.3 per cent. Most strikingly, the Left Bloc won 10.2 per cent, more than doubling its result from the last elections. With 550,945 votes and 19 seats, the Left Bloc are now the third strongest party in parliament.

Nevertheless the right were complacent. These three left parties had never been able to unite before, although the PS had moved to the left, promising to end austerity. So it came as a shock to the governing parties when Left Bloc leader Caterina Martins declared that, “The government of Pedro Passo Coelho is history”.

The three left parties had reached an agreement to form an anti-austerity government, based on the left’s majority in parliament.

In response President Anibal Cavaco Silva (himself a PSD member) invited the defeated Coelho to form a government, because Coelho’s party has the single largest number of seats in the parliament.

Silva suggested that an anti-austerity government was illegitimate, arguing that no governing coalition in Portugal had ever included “anti-European” parties, or parties that wanted to take Portugal out of the Eurozone.

In fact neither the PCP nor the Left Bloc actually campaigned to leave the euro. What they opposed were the neoliberal austerity policies dictated by the European Central Bank and European Commission, just as Greece’s Syriza did in January. Disregarding this inconvenient truth, EU politicians openly backed Silva’s actions.

Silva claimed that the basis for 41 years of “Portuguese democracy” was the exclusion from government of the Communists and the far left. He claimed that their presence would call into question the EU’s various treaties and pacts, including the Lisbon treaty.

For good measure he also accused them of threatening the Portugal’s membership of NATO. Since the biggest left party PS is completely loyal to both the EU and NATO, this effectively identifies Portuguese democracy with austerity policies dictated from Brussels and Frankfurt.

In fact Portugal owes its democracy neither to NATO nor to the EU but to 1974’s Carnation Revolution, which ended more than 40 years of dictatorship under António Salazar and Marcelo Caetano. This democratic revolution developed towards elements of a social revolution, with workers’ occupations of the factories, shipyards, offices, shops and even hotels and beaches. It saw the takeover of the great landed estates by their labourers, and of the mansions of the rich by the homeless. Urban and rural workers’ councils were also formed.


Ironically, this revolution was brought to an end when the Socialists and Communists agreed to a “democratic” constitutional settlement. So if anyone is responsible for Portugal’s 41 years of democracy, then it is the very same parties that Silva is now trying to exclude.

Even so, Portugal’s constitution does as a result contain some very unusual rights for workers. Sackings are allowed only in very special cases; the right to strike extends to the security forces; public transport is to be run by the state; and all government measures have to observe the principles of social justice. Even “workers’ control of production” is included, as well as the abolition of the huge estates.

But this constitution today is an obstacle to the implementation of austerity. Two of the Coelho government’s major “reforms” have been vetoed by the constitutional court in the last two years. Cuts to the wages of civil servants were rejected because they contradicted the article on social justice. Legislation on pension cuts and the deregulation of dismissals were also stopped.

As a result, the Coelho government did not get very far with its “reform programme”. While pro-austerity governments in Greece cut public spending by 30 per cent, Portugal achieved only a seven per cent reduction.

But that was still enough to worsen the recession severely, with only a slight recovery over the last year. There has been a huge fall in wages amidst an unemployment rate well above 25 per cent, excluding workfare schemes. Over a third of young people are out of work, 120,000 of whom have emigrated.

Programme of the Left

The agreement between the PS, PCP and the Left Bloc is as yet a simple declaration: an end to attacks on employment rights, and the reversal of wage cuts and “pension reforms”. This might not be socialism but, as in Greece earlier this year, it is quite enough for right-wing parties and EU leaders to decide that Portuguese voters had no right to vote this way.

The three left parties elected a Socialist as speaker of parliament and decided to force a vote of no confidence within two weeks. The question is though, will all of the PS’s deputies vote for it?

The President, a large part of the media, the political establishment and “friends from abroad” are all putting pressure on the right wing of PS to make a “responsible choice”, that is to violate the mandate given to them by Portuguese workers and youth.

Faced with this, pressure from the unions, and especially from their rank and file, will be decisive. The General Confederation of the Portuguese Workers (CGTP) and the Left Bloc have called a demonstration in front of parliament on the day of the no confidence vote.

The campaign to bring down Coelho’s government has to be combined with a fight in the factories and neighbourhoods, to create councils of action that can turn a left victory at the polls into a struggle for a government of the working class, and not just a coalition under pressure from within and without to betray its election promises, as Greece’s Syriza-led government did in July.

If a left government is formed in Portugal it will most definitely face economic blackmail by the EU and the bankers. But a workers’ government, if it breaks up the repressive state forces and mobilises and arms the workers, can not only end austerity and make the rich pay for their capitalist system’s crisis, but bring to life all those rights that are today only words on paper in the constitution.

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