The general elections in Portugal on 6th October marked an historic defeat for the right wing parties which together only managed to win 30% of the votes. Working people preferred the limited but real anti-austerity policies of the last four years over a return to the vicious neo-liberalism following the 2008 crash. Abstention however remained very high at 45.5% and much remains to be done in a country where low wages, mass migration, poor job security and a squeeze on public spending still affect the majority. Nevertheless many commentators have remarked on this isolated success for a social democratic party in Europe. It shows the potential for a Corbyn government with even more radical policies. The ecologist, animal rights party (PAN) were big winners too, entering parliament with 4 members.
Election facts and figures
Party % Votes seats 2015
PS 36,65% 1866407 106 +20
PSD 27,90% 1420553 77 -20 (with CDS)
BE 9,67% 492487 19 0
PCP 6,46% 329117 12 -5
CDS 4,25% 216448 5 see above PSD
PAN 3,28% 166854 4 +4
PS = Socialist Party which led previous government with external support from BE(Bloco Esquerda/Left Bloc) and CDU (PCP Communist Party and their ecologist front). PSD- Social Democratic Party but right of centre, CDS – right of centre Christian Democratic, PAN – People Animals and Nature – ecologist.
Unlike in Britain with Corbynism, an upsurge in support for anti-austerity and other progressive policies has not mainly expressed itself within the social democratic party. It was largely under the pressure of the two more radical left parties, the Bloco Esquerda (Left Bloc) and the Portuguese Communist Party, that the last PS government under Antonio Costa was formed in 2015 after the collapse of the right of centre government that had originally formed the post-election government. Catarina Martins, the leader of the BE had challenged Costa in a TV debate to make a turn away from the PS policies on freezing pensions, the minimum wage and social spending. In exchange, the radical parties would allow the PS to form a government. A formal agreement called the Geringonça (literally, contraption) was signed and it was kept to for the last four years. The two radical parties supported the government externally, not taking any ministerial posts. This gave them freedom to criticise and campaign around areas not covered by the agreement. The reflationary measures actually helped to bring down unemployment and increased economic growth.
A key difference from the situation in Britain is how a fairer voting system with almost complete proportionality allows radical alternatives to the left of the mainstream social democrats to emerge. This system was a gain of the 1974 revolution that overthrew the Salazar military dictatorship. One of the reasons Corbyinism emerged as a radical left movement inside the Labour party is that it is so difficult for new parties to emerge in Britain.
During the election campaign the Socialist Party began to talk about the need for an absolute majority i.e. without the need for the BE or PCP but that did not go down too well in a country which has lived through the absolute majorities of a military dictatorship. So this was modified into a position of appealing to the electorate to make sure its ‘hands are not tied’. Once you are in a sort of alliance with the radical left, that can have an impact on your membership. We have seen over the last period a clear tendency within the PS which wishes to escape dependency on the radical left as well as currents who are much more attracted to working closely with it. Some commentators have even suggested that the PS hierarchy are worried that the Bloco will start to have the same effect on their party as it has had on PCP support which has declined as the Bloco has grown.
Early indications a few days after vote, are that there will be negotiations for a renewal of the external support formula. Alberto Costa has stated clearly that there will be a new Geringonca. If the PS decided on some other alliance, such as previous ones with the centre right, it would be very vulnerable on its left today.
The PS increased their percentage share and number of seats but are still way short of an absolute majority. During the election campaign the Bloco and the PCP were very clear about the demands it would put on the incoming PS government: a further big increase in the minimum wage, a change in the labour laws to give workers more rights and security, free nursery places, take back the postal services into public ownership, properly funded health, affordable housing, accessible higher education and real action on the climate emergency.
This time around it will not necessarily be the same. The PS is already saying its increase in seats gives it more power – will they concede less to their external partners? The PCP who lost over 2 percentage points is also more wary and may only support on an issue by issue basis and not sign an overall agreement. Also as Bloco founder, Francesco Louca suggests, in an interesting interview from Jacobin, there were some favourable economic factors that facilitated the previous government’s successes – the oil price, tourism boom and low interest rates. State resources are still squeezed and there may be less leeway for progressive measures. The Bloco, the PCP and PS activists on the left understand that their tactic cannot be based solely on institutional negotiations but has to be combined with a higher level of social mobilisation, in the workplace and the community. Despite the left success in the elections remember that 45.5% did not vote so there is a degree of confusion and apathy too. This could have provided fertile ground for the re-emergence of a strong hard right current. Fortunately the relative strength and vitality of the left in Portugal has meant far right populism is much weaker than in other European countries although it is disturbing that Chega (Enough), a far right outfit, has managed to win one seat in these elections.
Can we learn anything from the Portuguese experience despite the very different institutional constraints here? Certainly the way in which different left currents came together around a credible political project is something that has not happened successfully in Britain. Similarly the way in which the left in Portugal talks the language of ordinary people and eschews ultra-left propagandism is something to study. Choosing to develop a political line based on what people’s concerns actually are rather than some abstract formula is another lesson.
Hackney North and Stoke Newington CLP