The Left Faced with the Elections in Portugal

An Interview with Jorge Costa. Portuguese Prime Minister, Antonio Costa, recently called a snap election with the aim of being rid of parliamentary dependence on the parties of the left. We spoke with Jorge Costa, leader and parliamentary deputy of the Bloco de Esquerda [Left Bloc] about the situation of the left in the current conjuncture.

For the last few years, Portugal has been ruled by the Socialist Party (PS) alone. However, never having had an absolute majority, it has been forced to reach agreements with the left in what was popularly known as "geringonça." [“contraption” in Portuguese] An experience full of tensions and conflicts, which ended in a break when the Socialist Party refused to agree with the budgetary demands of the Bloco de Esquerda and the Communist Party.

That leads the country to new elections in a complicated scenario, marked by the pandemic and the rise of the extreme right.   We spoke with Jorge Costa, leader and parliamentary deputy of the Portuguese Bloco de Esquerda, about the electoral situation, the particularities of the Portuguese political setting, the role of the social movements and parties, and the growth of the new extreme right in a country which up until now has been on the margins of this phenomenon.

Brais Fernández: After years of Socialist Party government, Portugal is plunging into new elections. What has happened?  Tell us a little about the general political, social and economic landscape for people who do not follow Portuguese politics on a day-to-day basis.

Jorge Costa: In the wake of the Troika’s [the European Commission (EC), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)] intervention, the 2015 elections resulted in the creation of a new situation. Despite having the most votes, the right-wing coalition remained a minority in parliament.  At that time the Bloco de Esquerda and the Communist Party declared they were willing to block a right- wing government and to search for a basis of political agreements with the PS "in the perspective of a legislative agreement," as they wrote at the time. A legislative agreement is different from a governmental agreement, it does not imply participation in the Executive, but a series of programmatic consensuses in exchange for voting for the investiture of a minority government. These agreements established measures and timetables for the recovery of income - salaries for 35 hours of work for state employees, an increase in the minimum wage, tax relief for work, unfreezing and recovery of lower pensions - in addition to blocking new privatisations.  The stabilisation of this framework allowed the left during the time of the legislature to achieve some additional advances in important areas, such as the regularisation of precarious state workers, social protection of the "self-employed", reduction of university fees, a new progressive basic law of health and a process of decriminalisation of assisted dying, with the latter still underway.

This political framework, contemptuously baptized by the right as "geringonça" (a nickname later adopted by supporters of the agreement), created a new framework for social relief and a will to fight, especially among state workers and the precarious sectors that emerged on the public scene.  It was also in this period that new mass movements emerged, with the largest feminist and anti-racist demonstrations ever recorded in Portugal, as well as important youth mobilizations for climate justice, within the global movement that would later be interrupted by the pandemic.

The limitations of this framework did not take long to become evident: the Socialist Party obeyed the orders from Brussels in decisions such as the application of bank resolution rules in the case of Banco Espírito Santo, the containment of public investment at anaemic levels or the lack of a substantive response in the recovery of public services affected by the Troika cuts.  The labour laws kept intact the setbacks of the period in which the right went beyond the impositions of the Memorandum of Understanding made with the troika.

Despite these persistent lockdowns, the recovery in income combined with the increased demand in tourism and the fall in interest rates on debt thanks to the ECB policy, have enabled a rapid recovery in growth and employment, which is reflected in the growing intention to vote for the Socialist Party.

In 2018/19 it began to be clear that the PS was moving towards a political confrontation one which would allow it to set the stage to become an absolute majority.  Party president, Carlos César, began referring to the forces of the left as an "impediment" to the good government of the Socialists.  But the appeal failed.  In October 2019, the left parties essentially maintained their positions (Bloco 9.5% with the same number of deputies, PCP 6.3%) and the PS elected 108 deputies, surpassing the right-wing parties, but still seven seats short of an absolute majority.  Immediately new negotiations began but now without that "state of urgency" with which the PS negotiated in 2015. While the PCP was only willing to enter into specific negotiations without an overall political agreement, the Bloco de Esquerda proposed to negotiate such an agreement, but with a precondition: the elimination of the regressive measures introduced by the troika in labour legislation (devaluation of overtime, reduction of the number of vacation days, reduction of the basis for the calculation of severance pay from 30 to 12 days for each year of work and other measures.)  The day after the meeting with the Bloco, António Costa met with the employers’ confederations.  It is also important to note that the new government has not been able to reach an agreement on the reform of the Labour Code.  The minority government went on without a plan, budget by budget, stating more and more openly its blackmail -- political crisis and early elections -- and showing contrasting attitudes towards the parties of the left: hostility towards the Bloco, and towards the PCP condescension and attempts to subordinate it.  

Concretely, what are the demands which the Bloco de Esquerda and the Communist Party put on the table?

Weeks after the 2019 elections, the budget for 2020 remained viable through the abstention of the deputies of the Bloco and the PCP (and of the three elected representatives of the animal party, PAN) owing to a significant reinforcement of investment in health. But the budget for 2021 has already been voted against by the Bloco de Esquerda, after a negotiation in which we refocused on the elimination of the troika's labour law regulations and other structural social policies.
Based on the lessons of the pandemic, we also put forward proposals to modify the extraordinary funds created for emergency response and the preparation of a new social benefit against poverty that would strengthen the pre-existing provisions and without arbitrary exclusions.

Given the vulnerability that the pandemic revealed in the National Health Service (SNS), the Bloco proposed a remuneration scheme exclusively for health professionals so as to attract and retain professionals in the SNS who today, through better offers for doctors and nurses in particular, are being sucked up by private hospitals.

All this the government refused, and the budget for 2021 was approved only with the abstentions of the PAN (Pessoas-Animais-Natureza, People-Animals-Nature) and the PCP (whose main achievement was the guarantee of the payment of 100% of the basic salary for workers in extraordinary dismissal).  At this stage, the Communists continued to defend the position that labour laws, not being strictly budgetary issues, should be negotiated by the government with the unions.
The PCP changed this position in the budget negotiation for 2022, at which time the party began to adopt a position of an acceleration of the increase in the minimum wage as well as the withdrawal of the troika from labour laws - as the Bloco had been doing with force, since the proposed post-election 2019 agreement. And that was enough for it to vote against.

Faced with the rejection of the budget, António Costa, who has never given up on freeing himself from having to negotiate with the left, rushed to ask for new elections to attempt to gain an absolute majority – all this during the budget debate.

The PS has been strengthened electorally, but according to the polls, not enough to achieve an absolute majority. Why has it decided to force elections?  How do you characterize its politics and its government?

The next elections have become a plebiscite. Costa will face a tough survival test if he does not win an absolute majority after provoking a snap election. His bet, without which he is far from the majority, is the penalization of the parties of the left for their rejection of the budgets, and the failure of the right, now riven by internal disputes for leadership and haunted by pressure from the extreme right.  This is the reason why many moderate voters, despite being dissatisfied, may prefer continuity to alternation.  All these calculations remain to be proven ...

As I have already mentioned, a characteristic of the PS government is its subordination to the European rules and regulations.  Even in an exceptional situation, in which the rules of the budgetary agreement are suspended, Portugal is among the last developed countries in terms of public investment in response to the crisis.  And despite having some budgetary margin to move forward this alignment blocks measures unfavourable to big capital whether in the real estate sector, in the privatisation of electricity companies or in private health.

I believe that the Portuguese experience brings to the table the complexity of the relationship with the socialist parties in Europe. On the one hand, depending on the situation, they are progressive socio-liberal or neoliberal parties.  On the other, in a context of a rise of the extreme right or consolidation of the traditional right, despite still being immersed in a crisis of a historical nature, they appear as an option for large numbers of people on the left. What kind of relationship do you have with the PS?

The relationship of the Bloco de Esquerda with the PS has always been marked by an intense political conflict.   The Socialist Party is, like the PSD, the main protagonist of the conservative modernisation model that explains the persistent delays in the country, from the privatisation of strategic sectors of the economy to the authorship and consolidation of measures to muzzle workers in the productive process.  Over two decades, this conflict gave way to important convergences (decriminalization of drug use, LGBT rights), but has persisted in key areas of social and financial policies.

If in 2015 the Bloco had mistakenly believed that programmatic conditions existed and had sufficient confidence to put its own ministers in a coalition government, such a government would have lasted only a few weeks: in December 2015, only two months after the elections, the Socialist Party was selling a state-owned bank, Banif, to Banco Santander, with losses of 3 billion euros for the Portuguese state. No leftist minister could approve such a decree.

The experience of the “geringonça” (agreements between 2015-2019) has at times been treated in the international debate as if it were a “model”.  For us, it does not represent a ready- made model since it is the result of very particular national circumstances.  It was a minority government of a center party, not a government of the left.  Its parliamentary base was the result of important commitments regarding political change: the end of austerity and the recovery of the income of the population.  This platform was then exhausted and the Socialist Party refused to accept the demands of the left; that its support for the government would correspond to the recovery of lost labour rights (essential to correct the prolonged stagnation of average wages) and the creation of conditions for the continuity of the SNS [Servico Nacional de Saude/National Health System] (which had been degraded by private predation).

On the other hand, Portugal seemed one of the last countries in Europe without a significant extreme right, but then the Chega phenomenon erupted, something that seems surprising in a country whose Constitution was born from the overthrow of a dictatorship by an alliance between sectors of the army and the popular classes.  What is the Portuguese extreme right like and what are the causes of its rise? 

In the current reorganisation of the Portuguese right, two new poles stand out, one the extreme right and the other ultra-liberal, which share the same economic programme, based on tax benefits for the rich and the privatisation of public services.  The radicalization of the whole of the right wing, heir to the troika, hostile to the social state and, in the case of the Chega party, openly racist, is a process with an international dimension. Trump's mandate in the United States has contributed resources and a culture to the current that energizes this radicalization.  It was above all this international dynamic that drove the launch of Chega.

Under this impulse, a handful of militants from far-right groups and others disaffected with the PSD (who left the party after the end of the mandate of former Prime Minister Passos Coelho) set out to create the new party.  The conservative segments of the traditional parties (PSD [Partido Social Democrata/Social Democratic Party] and CDS [Centro Democrático e Social – Partido Popular/Democratic and Social Centre –Peoples Party]) thought that the time had come to assert an ultra-reactionary and ultra-liberal programme and they managed to gather enough  lumpen elements around them to achieve in a short time a significant territorial presence as well as absorbing the electorate of the moribund CDS, thereby achieving significant electoral results in the municipalities.  A part of Chega's electorate is in the disadvantaged marginal areas and comes from abstention, but another part is a former ultraconservative or Salazarist electorate that has sheltered for years under the banners of the traditional right.  We will see how it will resist the call for a useful vote to the PSD, but it is a force that has already gained its own space.

The vast majority of the Portuguese electorate does not have a direct memory of the dictatorship and the war, both of which ended almost half a century ago.  Chega has a very masculine and older electorate, although the nostalgic side of its discourse is much less appropriated than that of Vox, for example.  It is an aggressive machismo right, which exploits tension in the peripheries, hatred of gypsies and Muslims, and in general of the poor, whom it calls “subsidy dependents”.

In youth sectors, the growth of the Liberal Initiative, a brutally individualistic and "meritocratic" rhetorical right, libertarian in customs and anti-communist, has been more important, and it also comes from segments of the PSD and CDS.  In 2019 it ran for the first time and only elected one deputy, but it does have prospects for growth.

The Bloco confronts the fragmented right starting from its common heritage - the politics of the troika - and its privatising mania, when the pandemic was an evident threat to the well-being of the majority of the population, when the role of the State in health, education or the maintenance of employment relegated the propaganda of the right to silence.

Regarding the fight against Chega, in addition to exposing the party's links with highly undesirable sectors of the economic elite or with the most fanatical and dangerous denialism, the Bloco has kept the issues of migration and refugees, racism and historic memory on the agenda, which we refuse to weaken under the pressure of an emerging, violent and revisionist common sense.  The social presence of a new black movement, very youthful and inspired by the North American Black Lives Matter, with which the Bloco maintains very close relations, is important.

What is the situation of the Social Democratic Party (the main center-right party in Portugal) and the rest of the right in the face of the elections?

Today the right is going through a period of fragmentation, with the dispute over the leadership of the PSD, the disappearance of the CDS, the appearance of a new ultra-liberal party and the strong showing by Chega, led by a defector from the PSD and which will have in Vox the party from which it is most directly inspired. That is how, since the intervention of the troika, the right has not been able to exceed the threshold of one third of votes.
Thus, the ambitions of the right-wing to power remain unlikely and the rise of Chega further aggravates this context, since, however definitive the guarantees of the leaders of the right are that the racists will not be part of their governments, a part of the "center" electorate, which oscillates between the PS and the PSD, fears that a vote for the traditional right will end up placing  the extreme right in the decision making sphere.  For now, the electoral prospects for the right wing are slim.

Portugal is an exceptional case where two lefts, one more pro-Soviet (PCP) and the other more linked to the radical traditions that reemerged in post-68 (the Bloco), were able to consolidate amidst neoliberalism. How are the relationships between them?

Relations between the Bloco and the PCP are distant. The PCP has a profoundly "campist" view of the world situation, leading the party to defend regimes ranging from the Chinese CP to Putinism, from the Syrian Al Assad dynasty to the disgraced part of the Angolan oligarchy.  In terms of rights and freedoms, I’ll give some examples of the differences: the PCP is against euthanasia or the legalisation of cannabis, it rejects gender parity in the electoral lists, it denies the existence of a problem of structural racism in the country and only belatedly has it adopted a comprehensive programme on LGBT issues.

Despite these differences, we agree on the vast majority of parliamentary votes of an economic or social nature. This could have raised the possibility of a political relationship in recent years, but unfortunately the PCP has always refused, not only tripartite meetings with the PS during the validity of the agreements, but even to periodic forms of bilateral relations that would allow it to join various movements and negotiations. On the other hand, the union leaders of the PCP have taken care in recent years to exclude militants linked to the Bloco and other union currents from leadership positions to the point of refusing to carry out debates proposed by minorities in the leadership of the CGTP (Confederação Geral dos Trabalhadores Portugueses/General Confederation of Portuguese Workers) 

What is the outlook in the field of social mobilization? What struggles and sectors are currently at the forefront of the recomposition of a combative force in Portugal, through which the left can rebuild an alternative to the right as well as to social liberalism?

The pandemic had a very big impact on social movements and struggles. Successive confinement and social isolation led to a generalised demobilisation and the breaking of links amongst activists.

There have been occasional struggles in healthcare, public services or in vulnerable professions such as security and cleaning.  In the public services, in particular, several strikes planned in preparation for the elections were suspended. It is still too early to assess the depth of the effect of the pandemic in worsening a long cycle of union degradation and weak social conflict.  This poses difficult questions for a combative left that depends on the organization of confrontations linked at the parliamentary and social levels, proposals mobilized and with majority support in society.

In the past months there have been some signs of a recovery in the movement for climate justice and the antiracist struggle and those of African descent (which produced the largest demonstration of the pandemic period, associated with the global protests against the murder of George Floyd on June 6, 2020), but the feminist movement has not yet managed to resume the upward cycle that it had in the period immediately before Covid, with unprecedented actions on the streets.

Finally, the debate on the European question has taken on new force in the pandemic. How do you assess the situation at the European level?

The pandemic crisis deepens the asymmetries between the states of the single currency. The funds for economic recovery appear late, are insufficient and, for the most part, generate new debt. Admittedly, the German taboo on mutualisation of the debt has been partially broken.  But while the German economy benefits from massive state aid, the governments of the most indebted countries voluntarily submit to budget strangulation because they anticipate that in the near future the now-authorized deficits will trigger austerity measure.  The taboo on direct financing from the European Central Bank to the states was not broken, nor were the budgetary rules that, crisis after crisis, have proven counterproductive.  With these rules, the financial resources now mobilized may even aggravate the asymmetries that already exist in the Union, as evidenced by the disparity between national crisis response plans.

No reconstruction program will be sufficiently far-reaching if it does not include restructuring of sovereign debts (particularly the debt held by the European Central Bank) and breaking with neoliberal treaties that attack public services and state investment.

10 November 2021

About the Interviewer:  Brais Fernández is a militant with Anticapitalistas in the Spanish state and on the editorial board of the magazine Viento Sur.

Article published by Jacobin America Latina, translated by David Fagan

Jorge Costa