Shifting currents after Portugal’s election

October 28, 2015

In Portugal's elections on October 4, center-left and left-wing parties--the Socialists, the Left Bloc (known as Bloco), the Communists and the Greens--won just over half the seats in the 230-seat national assembly. But on October 22, Aníbal Cavaco Silva, the president of the republic--who is constitutionally empowered as the elected head of the executive branch to oversee negotiations for forming a new government--asked the right-wing coalition of the Social Democrats and the Democratic and Social Center, which together won just 37 percent of the vote, to form a minority government. Cavaco Silva provocatively declared that he would not support a left-wing "anti-European" government.

João Camargo, a member of the Left Bloc elected to the city council in Amadora and founder of the "Que se lixe a troika" ("The Troika can fuck off") movement and Precários Inflexíveis, a struggle of low-wage workers, explained the current state of play as the left parties prepare a vote of no confidence in the minority right-wing government. This article originally appeared in Spanish at the Viento Sur website, and was translated into English by Lance Selfa.

THE ULTRA-neoliberal, center-right Portuguese government (a coalition of the Social Democratic Party, or PSD, and the Democratic and Social Center Party, or CDS) that "went further than the Troika" in enforcing austerity won the October 4 legislative elections with 36.8 percent of the vote (1.99 million votes). The Socialist Party (PS) came in second with 32.4 percent (1.75 million votes).

The biggest surprise was the performance of the Left Bloc, which increased its vote the most, with 10.2 percent (551,000 votes), followed by the Communist Party (PCP) with 8.3 percent (446,000 votes). If we compare the results to those of 2011, the right-wing parties lost more than 700,000 votes, the PS won 160,000 more, Bloco increased its total by 260,000 and the PCP won 3,400 more.

The Socialist Party, which for 40 years had shared power with the social democrats (PSD) and the conservatives (CDS), suffered a big blow, as the polls had clearly projected the result. The PS wasn't seen as an alternative to the right's austerity program. It ran a disastrous campaign after its best-known leader, former Prime Minister José Sócrates, was arrested for corruption.

Bloco de Esquerda spokesperson Catarina Martins
Bloco de Esquerda spokesperson Catarina Martins

The PS now faces a major dilemma: shift to the right and give its blessing to a right-wing government, or turn to the left and embrace a totally new scenario, never before seen in Portugal: a Socialist Party government that relies on the parliamentary support of parties of the left (Bloco and the PCP), which won a combined 18.5 percent of the vote (about a million votes).

Aníbal Cavaco Silva, the president of the republic who himself served as prime minister from 1985 to 1995--overstepped his role, declaring before the election results were even known that he would not support a minority or unstable government.

This was yet another lie in his long career. Two days after the election and after meeting with his party (the PSD), Silva told the country that he had asked Pedro Passos Coehlo (the outgoing prime minister and leader of the winning neoliberal coalition) to form a minority government in which parties that didn't accept "treaties and international and historic agreements" or additionally the "great strategic choices" of the last 40 years would be excluded.

In other words, Passos Coehlo unilaterally declared that accepting the status quo regarding NATO, the EU, the euro, the European Stabilization Treaty and the future Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership were a precondition for forming a new parliamentary government. This decision aimed to exclude Bloco and the PCP from any future government. So Antonio Costa, the PS leader, turned to the left.

THE MEETING between the PS and the PCP on the day following Silva's announcement of the "rules" about which parties could enter the government exploded like a bomb. The communists said they would support a Socialist Party government and, eventually, would be open to helping form it. The PCP clearly resented being upstaged, yet again, by Bloco and issued a historic message: the possibility of participating in a broad coalition.

For Bloco, spokesperson Catarina Martins had, through the course of the campaign and in a debate with the Socialist leader, laid out Bloco's conditions for an agreement on the left, specifically the removal of three points from PS's program: a freeze on pensions, the reform of the welfare state including future pension cuts, and labor flexibility.

On election night, Martins stated clearly: "The Left Bloc will do everything in its power to prevent the formation of a right-wing government. Now we await the response from the other parties." The Communist Party spoke afterward and said the same. The final decision was left in the hands of the Socialist Party.

After winning the PCP's support, the PS began to speak of the possibility of forming a government of the left. That unleashed terror in the right-wing coalition and among the pundits. All of them spoke of an anti-democratic coup d'etat.

The press, waving the flag of the red scare and referring back to the 1974-75 revolutionary period in Portugal, confirmed that simply proposing a break with extreme austerity would provoke hostility across the bourgeois media. From the European Union--on behalf of which German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble expressed satisfaction that the slight plurality for the right-wing coalition demonstrated the Portuguese people's support for austerity--came European Commission president and former right-wing Portuguese Prime Minister José Manuel Durao Barroso, declaring that any government supported by the extreme left parties would face a violent reaction from the markets.

After a frustrating meeting between the PSD-CDS coalition and the PS, Costa met with Catarina Martins at the Left Bloc's headquarters. The Left Bloc's spokesperson declared that "the Passos (PSD) and Portas (CDS) government was a thing of the past." The next day, this meeting and the statements that followed it were blamed for the drop in the stock market.

THE SECOND meeting between the Socialist Party and the center-right coalition also ended badly, effectively ending negotiations within the "center bloc." The PSD and CDS accepted 20 proposals from the PS program, but the PS demanded support for 20 more, while the right, hoping to extend the talks, replied that it was ready to negotiate everything.

At this point, the PS, whose own positions were up for grabs (with one of its historical leaders opposed to, and others in favor of, a left alternative), shifted sharply to the left. Antonio Costa promised that the party would hold an internal referendum to approve the left alternative. Then, the right-wing parties began to embrace the idea of backing away from further talks with the PS. They presented themselves as victims, hoping the president's veto of a potential government of the left would bail them out.

At this time, a Socialist government, supported in parliament by the Left Bloc and the Communist Party, is a real possibility. Still, the devil will be in the details.

It's clear that the PS will not adopt an anti-capitalist position, because it does not want to challenge the EU-imposed austerity regime. It will face major difficulties in trying to put into practice agreements it is striking with the Left Bloc and the CP. The left parties are fighting to guarantee an end to austerity in the short term and a restoration of salaries, while they also want to prevent the "more-aggressive-than-the-Troika" right-wing coalition from returning to power.

At the same time, the left parties are exploring all possibilities to force the PS to choose between going the route of Greece's PASOK (destroying itself through pacts with the right) and that of the British Labour Party (revitalizing itself in the manner of Jeremy Corbyn's election). They're also trying to pull as many SP members as they can towards the left, so that they can confront the right wing within the Socialist Party.

Two weeks after the elections, the president of the republic, following through on his promise, named Passos Coelho as prime minister against the parliamentary majority of the Socialists, the Left Bloc, the Communists and the Greens, which hold 53 percent of the seats between them.

In his October 22 statement, the president openly called for SP deputies to rebel against their own party and support a right-wing government. What's more, he again attacked the left, emphasizing that he couldn't work with "anti-European" parties--the term the right uses to undermine any agreement between the PS, the Left Bloc and the PCP. He concluded by clearly threatening that he would not accept a majority government of the left.

IN RESPONSE to this, the PS, the Left Bloc and the PCP (all together or some combination thereof) plan to introduce a no-confidence motion in the parliament to bring down the government named by the president.

The complication is that in January there will be elections for the president of the republic. The current president cannot dissolve parliament and call new elections because new parliamentary elections may not be constitutionally called within six months of a prior election, and the constitution also states that the president-elect in January cannot call new parliamentary elections until after being in office for six months. This means that the outgoing parliament replaced by the October 4 elections will continue on for at least nine months--six months after the January presidential elections.

If President Cavaco Silva continues to illegally resist naming a government of the left that would, in fact, have a parliamentary majority, the government voted out of office will continue, but it will not be able to pass a new national budget against the left-wing majority. In other words, it won't be able to implement new policies.

The day after Cavaco Silva handed the government to the right, the PS candidate for the second-most important post in the republic (the president of the parliament), Ferro Rodriguez (one of the most left-wing SP elected officials), was elected with 120 of a total of 230 votes (from the PS, the Left Bloc, the PCP and the Greens) over the right's candidate.

This is the first defeat for the right, and next week, there will be another test: the vote to bring down the right-wing government and to toss the ball back in the president's court. Will he give in to a government of the left or leave the county in a state of suspended animation for nine months? Is this the "stability" and "responsibility" he talked about?

The contradictions of this process seem to be consolidating the leftward shift in the PS. The president's reactionary move took the wind out of the sails of a rebellion by the most right-wing leaders in the PS. If the PS had not shifted to the left (by refusing to accept a minimum program of stopping austerity and helping the people to regain what they've lost in recent years), it ran the risk of being absorbed by the PSD.

This apparent shift toward the left presents a number of possibilities--in Portugal as well as in other countries where elections are just around the corner, such as Ireland and in the Spanish state.

All the signals from the Portuguese bourgeoisie indicated that it wanted to see a PS-PSD government. That is no longer an option. Now that the political center has given way, the left needs to push against it.

The class struggle that has broken out in parliament has united all voices of reaction in the country. The president's desperate attempt to rescue the miserable status quo--of austerity, precarity and a massive theft of wealth from workers for the benefit of capital--is a taste of the kind of surprises that await a stronger left. It won't be long before all of these contradictions express themselves in the streets and put an end, once and for all, to politics as usual ("el arco del poder") and "the end of history."

First published in Spanish at Viento Sur. Translated by Lance Selfa.

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