In 2019, European and legislative elections will take place in Portugal in a national political context different from any other in the European Union (EU), where austerity policy still prevails and the rise of the racist and xenophobic right seems unstoppable.
Over the past three years, the minority Socialist Party (PS) government has been supported from outside by the Left Bloc (BE), the Communist Party of Portugal (PCP) and the Ecologist Party-The Greens (PEV). By applying expansionary policies unique in Europe, wages and welfare payments have risen (the minimum wage by 20%), privatisations have stopped (including those of metro rail systems), unemployment has halved to 6.3%, casual workers in the public sector have been made permanent and the electricity and public transport bills of over 700,000 poor families have been reduced. In the 2019 budget, the maximum level of university fees will be cut by 20%, text books will become free for the period of compulsory education and all children will have access to a nursery.
Other gains include: re-establishment of four holidays cut by the previous government; cuts to tax rates on labour income and a tax rise on large firms; elimination of excess taxes on wages and pensions and application of a new tax on luxury real estate; reintroduction of collective bargaining in the public sector and the ending of forced transfers of public servants; a stop to evictions of old or disabled people living in the same place for 15 years and revision of rental laws to protect tenants; and guarantees of social security protection for self-employed workers who provide services to different firms.
After years of apathy, trade union struggles have also been on the rise: this year workers in health, education, transport and other sectors have been fighting to recover what they lost under the EU-driven austerity that was applied between 2011 and 2015 by the right-wing administration of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the People’s Party (CDS-PP).
There is also no sign of any resurgence of the far right in Portugal: its marginalisation contrasts with neighbouring Spain, where the xenophobic, anti-feminist and ultra-centralist force Vox has recently begun to register in opinion polls.
The PCP and the Left Bloc, which held its Eleventh National Convention in Lisbon on November 9-11, can take a lot of the credit for these advances. Over three years their pressure has pushed the government of Prime Minister António Costa into implementing policies that it was reluctant to adopt or was not even contemplating. This process began immediately after the 2015 elections when in order to win Left Bloc backing the PS had to drop its proposals for a pension freeze, cuts to employer contributions to the social security fund and a law to make sacking easier.
Left Bloc pressure even managed to produce a joint working group with the PS on Portugal’s public and external debt burden: it concluded that EU budgetary rules were “unfair and unsustainable”, but the Costa government has shown no sign of acting on this diagnosis.
The positive role played by the party since 2015 was a theme in Left Bloc national coordinator Catarina Martins convention opening address. She struck the first note of a theme that was to recur throughout the convention — the threat to social gains that a PS absolute majority at the next election would entail:
If the PS had had its way, pensioners would have lost two months’ worth of their pension. If the PS had had an absolute majority and imposed these outcomes, pensioners and workers would be worse off. What a relief the left had the strength to frustrate the proposals in the PS’s program!
Popular support for the gains won since 2015 has been shown in opinion polls. At the 2015 elections the total broad left vote, including the animal rights party People-Animals-Nature (PAN), was 52.2%: as of October it was averaging 57.1%. Over the same time, the combined support for the PSD and CDS-PP fell from 38.6% to 34.3%. The decline in support for the parties of the right led Martins to tell the convention that tactical voting for the PS to keep the PSD and CDS-PP out of government had become a thing of the past: “That vote of fear of the right, the vote that preferred a bad outcome to a very bad outcome, that vote is dead. May it rest in peace.”
Nonetheless, the advances wrung from the Costa government by PCP and Left Bloc efforts have not so far been reflected in increased support for these parties. The winner in polling has been the PS government itself: its support peaked at 44% in 2017 and now stands at 40% (the PS vote in the 2015 elections was 32.8%).
This advance has led sections of the PS, backed by important parts of an exasperated Portuguese business elite, to fantasise about achieving an absolute majority at the 2019 national election. If that proves impossible, Plan B could be to make a governing alliance with the PCP, leaving the more troublesome Left Bloc out in the cold. At the same time, the PSD has made clear that it would be prepared to join with the PS in building a “government of the centre” in order to marginalise both left forces.
Inevitably, the approach to the PS with elections less than a year away dominated the Left Bloc’s pre-convention discussion, which revolved around three motions proposing different orientations towards Portugal’s social democracy. Between them these motions elected 582 of the 625 convention delegates, with the remaining 43 delegates being shared between six regional platforms.
Motion A (“A Stronger Bloc to Change the Country”) won 83.7% support in branch delegate voting and 523 delegates (at a ratio of one delegate to 13 members). It won backing from three of the Left Bloc’s internal groupings — Alternative Left (its only formal tendency), the platform New Course and the Anti-Capitalist Network. The motion vindicated the Left Bloc’s position of critical support to the PS government as an alternative to the right, marked the gains achieved, but also pointed out how much else could have been won if the Costa government had not complied with EU directives on public sector deficit and debt reduction.
The PS’s acceptance of European Commission constraints meant that, while there was space to reverse austerity in an economic upturn, the structural weaknesses of the Portuguese economy persisted beneath the surface: the banking system remained vulnerable, public investment still lagged, public debt restructuring was still pressing and Portuguese assets were still easy targets for speculative foreign investment. Most importantly, the labour market “reform” of the previous conservative government are still in place. The next economic downturn would make this failure to tackle radical change clear and in this context the worst possible result at the next election would be a PS majority, allowing Portugal’s social democracy to resume its natural stance as a centre party allergic to introducing policies alienating to big business.
The motion also noted the generally positive role of the PCP, with whom the Left Bloc has been in agreement in parliamentary voting on most issues. Interviewed before the convention by the Portuguese press agency Lusa, Martins said the Bloc “greatly valued work and convergence with the communists” despite the PCP’s opposition to euthanasia and right of adoption by same-sex couples.
In presenting Motion A, the Left Bloc’s European MP Marisa Matias outlined five fronts of social and electoral struggle: recovery of labour rights; revival of public services, especially the National Health Service; a strategy to de-carbonise the economy; increased public investment; and securing food sovereignty. Public control of strategic economic sectors, beginning with banking and energy, would be needed to guarantee advance on most of these fronts.
Such proposals were the minimum needed to lock in the gains of the past three years and continue the attack on poverty and environmental degradation, in Portugal and Europe. They would be incompatible with the EU budget treaties, compliance with debt obligations and probably membership of the euro, but were indispensable if an alternative to the racist and xenophobic programs of the right was to be built. They would also be the basis of Left Bloc’s proposal for a left government in Portugal qualitatively different from the PS-led “contraption” of the past three years.
For Motion C (“More Democracy, More Organisation”), the Left Bloc’s performance since its last convention in 2016 was “positive on the whole, though it is possible it could have gone further”. As for the eternal problem of getting the balance right between building the social movements and working in the institutions, “we are no longer completely focused on parliamentary work, but this is a path along which we have only taken the first steps.”
The main concern of Motion C, which won 1.9% in the convention delegate elections (12 delegates) and was mostly made up of younger members, was the Left Bloc’s structures and internal life. This was supposedly marked by top-down decision-making, lack of attention to local organisation (the Left Bloc had managed to stand in only 170 out of 308 municipalities in the 2017 local government elections), the beginnings of careerism and, most critically, the domination of the organisation by its internal groupings. Motion C read:
Sooner or later new joiners end up detecting the contradiction between the Bloc’s moderate proposals and the underlying leftism of the tendencies. Some stay and fall into line with the tendencies, but the majority of joiners, the best ones, pull back when they realise that this is not the Bloc they were promised. That’s why we have such a high abstention rate in internal elections, in many instances over 90%.
The treatments proposed for these ills were: obligatory subjection of the proposals of leading bodies to preliminary scrutiny by local organisations, empowerment of local structures and avoidance of any single tendency from getting control. The motion read:
It is elementary justice to emphasise that everything we have, a Bloc that is relevant and the third largest party with representation in the Assembly of the Republic, has a lot to do with the work carried out by the two main tendencies [Alternative Left and the Anti-Capitalist Network]. We would be ungrateful if we didn’t recognise that. That said, so long as the tendencies don’t come to an end, it is very important that neither of them gains complete control of the Bloc. If that were to occur, it would be the end of the Left Bloc and we would return to the days of being a completely irrelevant grouplet.
Motion C also laid down tactical responses to various scenarios that could follow the 2019 national elections: in the case of a PS absolute majority, opposition; in the case of a PS relative majority dependent on Left Bloc support, continue the tactic of the last three years; but “in no circumstance agree to enter a PS ministry”. This was in contrast with Motion A, which did not enter into specific options about the conditions under which it would consider entering government.
Motion M (“A Bloc That Doesn’t Lean Backwards”) described the line adopted by the leadership as helping the PS implement “austerity-lite”. For Motion M, “emigration patterns have not been reversed, unemployment is still high and jobs were created through casualisation, mainly by applying the minimum wage.”
According to Motion M, which won 7.5% support in the convention delegate elections (47 delegates), the gains of the last three years had to be viewed as nothing more than a slight alleviation of austerity:
To the government’s narrative that it was the timid “recovery in incomes” that drove economic growth must be counterposed the reality that in a country that is ultra-dependent on the international economic conjuncture it was economic growth in the European area that allowed a limited recovery in incomes within the framework of the constraints accepted by the government. Thus, taking advantage of this positive international economic conjuncture and having the support of the parliamentary left, the PS government chose the road of austerity-lite and restricted itself to exploiting the room to manoeuvre given by economic growth so as to barely reverse the most onerous aspects of the project of social destruction implemented by the Troika and the right.
The Left Bloc’s support for the government meant “deepening the processes of media politics, parliamentarism and short-termism … The image of a Bloc comfortably integrated into a political system that it supposedly wants to change can only be an obstacle to building an alternative political project to the present state of affairs.”
In presenting Motion M, Inês Ribeiro Santos said that “the building of an anti-capitalist party that represents a change to the status quo and not its preservation means affirming oneself as an alternative to neoliberal policies and not being seen as a ghost party that stands neither in government nor in opposition.” As against Motion A’s five key priorities, Motion M presented a list of 29 demands as a “minimum program for a dignified life”.
For Motion M supporter Carlos Carujo, interviewed by Expresso before the convention:
This convention should be a moment of fundamental choices by the Bloc for the next two years. But Motion A is ambiguous as to the question of government. It talks about a left government without saying what it is, in what circumstances it would be created and with whom. On agreements with the PS it leaves everything in the air for the leadership to decide what it wants, and it shouldn’t be like that.
In essence, the debate between Motion A and Motion M continued that which has been running in the Left Bloc since it first reached the agreement with the PS that allowed the right to be thrown out of government. It meant the Left Bloc and the PCP could squeeze gains out of the Costa government, but it also put pressure on the two left organisations not to withdraw from supporting it.
The majority’s answer to the criticism of Motion M came in the conference debate. Firstly, the Left Bloc was in condition to enter government, even if the conditions for so doing didn’t yet exist. MP and finance spokesperson Mariana Mortágua said:
Are they asking us if we want to get into government? Yes, we want to get into government. Are they asking us if we want to get into government? Yes, we’re a force that’s up to it. We’re a political force. A force of positive proposal, of courage, with the humility to discuss with whomever wants to build to the left.
Three years of having to leave the PS without grounds for opposing its proposals had created, in the words of Martins, “a more decisive, better prepared party, more solid in its analysis and its proposals. The Bloc has shown that it has capable people who know more than a lot of ministers, because we understand problems through life.” The Left Bloc, in the words of former national coordinator Francisco Louçã, “has to provide certainty as to what’s going to happen with health, with public transport, with education, in everyday life. That’s what will allow us in the future to achieve government and positions of great responsibility.”
The core problem was the balance of forces with the PS and this would only change when there was broader understanding in society of the need to challenge EU-imposed constraints if social gains were to be defended and extended. The immediate phase would therefore be a battle for hearts and minds with the PS, to which MP Joana Mortágua made this contribution:
The PS told the country that it was possible to turn the page on austerity at the same time as abiding by the goals of the [EU] budget compact, but it is precisely that promise which is the contraption’s straitjacket. After achieving what we did the PS always stood in the way when we wanted to go further. [Increased] public investment is the contraption’s limit, and not because of the issue of the sustainability of public finances, but because of the issue of the sustainability of the campaign of Mário Centeno.
This was a sarcastic reference to the successful bid of Portuguese treasurer Mário Centeno to become the chairperson of the Eurogroup of EU finance ministers, replacing Dutch counterpart Jeroen Djisselbloem, the lead thug in the Eurogroup’s brutal bashing of the Greek SYRIZA government in 2015. The other main line of attack on the PS was its refusal to countenance change to the EU-sanctioned labour law inherited from the right. For MP José Soeiro this was “a stab aimed at the chest of the workers”.
The second most common theme of debate concerned the degree to which the Left Bloc had only won “crumbs” from the Costa government and might have become compromised by its position of critical support. MP Jorge Costa was adamant this was not the case:
The economic powers-that-be don’t forgive us for having carried out the struggles we have. The real estate funds don’t forgive us for the fight we carried out against speculation; [oil multinational] Galp doesn’t forgive us for having stopped them drilling oil wells; [delivery company] CTT doesn’t forgive us; [telecommunications and multimedia operator] Altice doesn’t forgive us; the [ultra-rich] Queiroz Pereira family doesn’t forgive us; the polluters of the Tejo River don’t forgive us; [energy giant] EDP doesn’t forgive us for having forced them to implement the social tariff [for poor households]; the bosses’ confederations don’t forgive us for having increased the minimum wage to €600…
They don’t forgive us and this can only mean one thing: in recent times we´ve been doing something right.
For Motion M supporter Francisco Pacheco, however, the contraption had gone on long enough: “From our perspective we cannot give ourselves the luxury of having another four years of contraption.”
The convention discussion tended to mix set-piece exchanges between speakers from the three tendencies with more interesting “battlefront reports” from many the 625 delegates. They were often from the more distant regions, including the Azores and Madeira, and spoke to the complex issues they face building social resistance and the Left Bloc in their remoter communities. Such contributions reflected the written pre-convention discussion, which covered more than 60 topics, including “new” issues such as the fight against racism in a society that prides itself on its lack of racial discrimination and the recent revival of the feminist movement. These combined with the longer-standing challenges for the Left Bloc, such as its weaker implantation in the countryside and the urgent need for it to develop its program and support base around such issues as agriculture, forestry management and fishing.
Nonetheless, the main feature of the discussion, provoked by Mortágua’s forthright statement that “we want to govern”, was speculation about the conditions under which the Left Bloc could seriously entertain entering government. However, the most real options here couldn’t be discussed in a debate where Motions M and C proposed categorical vetoes. There was no discussion, for instance, of whether the Left Bloc should ever consider being a minor partner in a PS government, and on what conditions. Some delegate contributions to the effect that “wouldn’t it be wonderful if X was a minister” generated leadership interventions cautioning that conditions for entering government were a long way from being fulfilled and that the really existing PS was a loyal executor of the directives of the European Commission.
In her closing address, Martins spoke to the issue after stressing that the asphyxiating European budget compact had to be overturned through popular mobilisation:
All politics is a struggle for power and for government. Here it is, this is our struggle for government: we want to be able to accomplish it before our people. We will struggle so that this government comes about. Don’t ask if we want to be part of the next government, but whether we are certain that we will have the strength to become part of a government when the people want it.
Which was the most useful answer that could be given to all the speculation of the delegates: the higher the level of social mobilisation and the stronger the Left Bloc, the greater would be the possibility of a left government in which it could and would take part.
All of which was trying for the professional political commentators. Their offerings on the “meaning of the convention” ranged from:
This was the congress consecrating the Left Bloc as party of government. It is a party very rapidly carrying out the evolution from party of protest to institutional party. (Luís Aguiar-Conraria)
to the other extreme:
Does the Bloc think that the PS is really a left party? It doesn’t. Does the Bloc think that monetary integration [the euro] is the most appropriate framework in which to develop the Portuguese economy? It doesn’t. But the Bloc, as a result of the fright of 2011 [when it lost half its 16 seats in parliament] and the PCP’s turn in 2015 [to critical support for a PS government], has to exchange its ritual intransigence for “readiness to go into government” — one foot, however crippled, in power. None of this is “moderation”, in the sense of acceptation of the principles of representative democracy, market economy and European integration. (Rui Ramos)
The voting on the motions brought no surprises, with Motion A winning 90% support (459 out of 510 voting), Motion M 7.8% (40 votes), Motion C 1.7% (9 votes) with 0.4% abstaining (2 votes). Motion A also won 70 of the 80 positions on the Left Bloc’s National Board (with 457 votes out of 584 delegates voting). The other 10 positions went to Motion C (62 votes) because the delegates supporting Motion M proved unable to present a united ticket. There were 57 informal votes and eight spoiled ballots. Motion A also won all seven positions on the Control Commission.
The convention thus saw a strengthening of the majority and a weakening in support for currents critical of the agreement with the PS. Support for the line of Motion M fell to 7.6% from the 11.4% won by its predecessor Motion R at the last national convention, while support for the leadership majority rose from the 79.7% registered in 2016. For this observer, having spoken to a number of delegates, this seemed mostly due to the inability of Motion M supporters to outline a feasible alternative to the critical and conditional support the Left Bloc had given the PS and to their vetoing of any repetition of the contraption regardless of alternatives that might be possible after the next national election.
With the degree of unity registered in this vote the Left Bloc is well placed to face its first challenge in 2019 — to win more seats in the May European parliamentary elections by participating actively in the “And Now, The People” coalition of radical left parties from Finland, Sweden, Denmark, France and Spain.
This was the theme of the convention’s opening international meeting, focused on the emergence of the right in Italy and the sadistic anti-refugee policies of its Northern League and Five Star government. Italian Left MP Erasmo Palazzotto and Eleonora Forenza, Member of the European Parliament for Communist Refoundation and Power to the People, explained how resistance to the Italian government’s poisonous xenophobia was on the rise. Indicative was the wave of support for Domenico Lucano, the mayor of the Calabrian town of Riace, who has been charged with “fostering trafficking in illegal persons” because of his policy of welcoming refugees and settling them into the community.
The core message of the meeting was that the racist right is the product of the “normal” Europe of neoliberal austerity. The Left Bloc’s Eleventh National Convention was an important step forward in building the fightback against that Europe and against its hate-mongering racist and xenophobic offspring.
Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. He attended the Left Bloc convention on behalf of the Australian Socialist Alliance. A shorter version of this article has already appeared on the Green Left Weekly web site.