Temporary blog of the CWI

Elections in Portugal: Stability on the surface…

…But future upheavals await

By Pedro, Socialistisch Alternatief (CWI in the Netherlands)

After 4 years of a policy of conciliation by the left reformist parties BE and PCP, the general (parliamentary) elections in Portugal on 6 October gave a victory to the ruling “Socialist” party (PS), but without an overall majority or enthusiasm from the masses. The number and intensity of workers’ struggles has been increasing, and as a new economic crisis looms, class struggle in the coming years promises to be tenser. A combative left is needed to unite and give a programme to a working class which increasingly moves into struggle.

The last 4 years and the “Contraption” government

After the brutal austerity of the troika and the previous right-wing government, the general elections of 2015 have given rise to a minority government of the PS, supported in parliament by the left parties: the BE (Left Block) and the PCP (Portuguese Communist Party). The first aim of the left parties in supporting the PS government was to avoid the continuation of the right-wing government. Under the condition that the austerity measures of the previous years would be reversed and some left-wing policies implemented, the left parties committed to support the government in parliament for 4 years. The support of the left parties for a PS government was unique since the revolutionary period in 1975 and this unusual type of government was called the Contraption (‘Geringonça’ in Portuguese).

The economic situation was better between 2015 and 2019 than in the previous years, which allowed for some concessions to the left. There were small increases of the minimum wage (from €485 per month in 2014 to €600 per month in 2019), the reversal of cuts to salaries and pensions from the troika years, a decrease in the cost of public transport, and a reduction of electricity bill for the poorest families. Thus, there was a feeling by a big part of the working class and middle layers that at least it was not all bad news, and that the ‘Contraption’ government was better than usual. This feeling was reproduced in international capitalist media, either advertising the Portuguese ‘Contraption’ as a good example for the capitalist economy, or as a good example for left parties to follow in other countries.

At the same time, the ‘Contraption’ government was only formed after the PS gave guarantees to national and international capitalists that their profits and the EU austerity rules would not be put in danger. When needed, the PS government has injected billions into banks with the support in parliament from the right-wing parties. The labour laws and the housing laws of the troika years have been kept intact. Public investment has been lower than ever before and public services have been kept severely underfunded. In 2017 alone, forest fires killed over 100 people and burned over 500,000 acres of forest. These events have shown the tragic consequences of privatization and lack of funding of fundamental services such as fire prevention and firefighting, as well as of the private ownership of most of forest land and lack of public environmental planning. 

Concerning the economic growth registered during these years: it has been based on tourism, low wages, flexible contracts, housing speculation and the replacement of public services with private investment. Even though the minimum wage has increased, the average wage has not followed the same trend. Precariousness, low wages and high rents continue to devastate the lives of workers.

Faced with this situation, the left parties have kept their commitment not to endanger the stability of the government in parliament, even when the government proves to be clearly in the service of capitalism. More strikingly, these parties have kept all their limited efforts confined to parliament, never trusting the action of the masses to put pressure on the minority government and conquer victories. In particular, the PCP has used its influence over the most important trade union federation (the CGTP) to lower the combativity of the trade unions and avoid the development of struggles. The commitment of the BE and the PCP to the stability of the PS government has led these parties to practice class conciliation, and betray the working class in important struggles. Moreover, these parties have dropped part of their programme since the formation of the ‘Contraption’. The payment of the public debt, the financial system, the euro and the EU are no longer questioned by the left parties.

Reorganization of the working class

The experience of the working class speaks louder than the capitalist media and the conciliatory speeches of left bureaucrats. Even though 2016 (first year of the ‘Contraption’ government) was a year with less class struggles, these have been increasing in number and intensity year upon year since then, inside and outside the CGTP. As the CGTP leadership increasingly blocks struggle, new trade unions are being created. The working class slowly reorganizes and learns from experience the need to strengthen its own tools, the impact of strike, the need for strike funds, democratic organization of the struggle and class solidarity. This process is, of course, full of contradictions, including new opportunistic leaderships trying to take advantage of the situation.

As a result, 2019 has seen the development of important strikes of nurses, dockers and truck drivers, among others. All of them have demanded the most basic labour rights, like the definition of working hours and payment of overtime. Some of these have threatened to paralyze important parts of the capitalist economy. The answer of the PS government to these strikes has been brutal. 

Indeed, we witnessed in 2019 the biggest attacks on the right to strike in the history of Portuguese “democracy”: minimum mandatory services on strike days set at 100%, police and military being used to cross picket lines and replace strikers, judicial attacks on new unions, persecution and arrests of strikers. All the dirty tricks have been used by the PS government, without an adequate answer by the CGTP: mass mobilization for the right to strike.

On the one hand, some sectors advance, showing the power of the working class. On the other hand, attacks on strikes and the idea that strikes should not disturb the capitalist economy are being normalized. Again, the left parties have not correctly supported the workers on strike and threatened the stability of the government, especially when the trade unions involved were outside the CGTP. Worse, some leaders of the BE, PCP and CGTP have publicly attacked the workers on strike. A well-known BE member was the loudest voice against the strikes in the Volkswagen factory and the leaderships of PCP and CGTP attacked the truck drivers’ union. Moreover, several leaders of these three organizations opposed the right to raise strike funds during the nurses’ strike. In this situation, right-wing opportunists and even far-right figures try to take advantage by pretending to support the workers that the left parties have abandoned.

Election results

This was the situation leading up to the general elections. The capitalists are pleased by the stability provided by the PS government and supported its continuation. Although wide sectors of the working class and middle layers have sympathy for the ‘Contraption’ government, there is no real enthusiasm. That explains the increase of abstention from 2015 to 2019 by 2.5%, reaching 45.5%, as well as the PS’s failure to win a majority, with 36.7% of the votes.

The PCP lost 5 MPs out of 17, losing 1.8% and 130,000 votes. The BE has kept its 19 MPs, but lost 0.5% and 57,000 votes. Meanwhile, the PS gained 4.3% and 114,000 votes. We can conclude that the PS has benefited from the ‘Contraption’ while the BE and PCP have been harmed by it. The left parties have lost votes to abstention and to their right. The expectations of the BE and PCP bureaucrats that the experience of the ‘Contraption’ would increase their electoral results and participation in government have not been realised. Indeed, the gains of the ‘Contraption’ have been mostly awarded to the party in power. 

Instead of campaigning combatively and proposing a united front of the left to replace the PS government with a socialist programme, BE and PCP campaigned purely on the idea that a PS minority government was slightly better than a PS majority government! They did not even explain how they could do better than during the last 4 years! As a result, there was no real perspective for building a working class, socialist alternative on offer in these elections.

The traditional right-wing parties (PSD and CDS) have been shown to have no alternative to the PS’s policies. Thus, they only mobilized their most loyal electoral base, with 27.9% voting for the PSD and 4.3% for the CDS, very negative results for both these parties. The Animal Party (PAN) obtained 167,000 votes (3.3%, 85,000 votes more than in 2015) and increased its MP representation from 1 to 4, benefiting from the increasing importance of climate issues. Three new parties elected 1 MP each: one pro-EU left reformist party (Livre), one ultra-liberal party (Liberal Initiative or IL) and one far-right party (Chega), the first far right MP ever elected in Portuguese democracy! Despite the bad results for the PSD and CDS, the total number of votes for the right-wing parties (PSD,CDS,Chega,IL,Aliança) was around 1.8 million, close to the result of PSD and CDS in 2015 (1.98 million). The rise of IL and Chega thus represents a reorganization and radicalization on the right, which may deepen in the next period.

As a result of these elections, the PS only needs 10 MPs from other parties to have a majority of 116 MPs in parliament. The PS is confident that it can convince the BE, PCP, PAN or the right-wing parties to approve its policies without needing an agreement for 4 years as it did in the previous period. Hence, the Contraption in its original format is over. Yet, the leaderships of BE and PCP have shown interest in proceeding with conciliation politics and participation in managing capitalism, and thus no significant changes are expected in the short-term.

Oppose the far-right!

The election of 1 MP from the far-right for the first time ever may seem irrelevant when compared to the influence the far-right already has in other European countries. However, it qualitatively changes the importance of the far-right in Portugal. This position in parliament will provide many opportunities for their divisive racist rhetoric to jeopardise the unity of the working class. With the next economic crisis and the impoverishment of the middle layers in society, if the left leaderships continue on the path of conciliation, the far-right has huge potential for growth. Mass mobilization and unity is required to push back the far-right!

A combative left is needed

It is already well known that the economic situation in the coming years will be less favourable than that of the previous ones, with the strong possibility of a recession. The PS government will deal with it like all other capitalist governments: with austerity and policies favouring the capitalists. BE and the PCP will be tested by these events. On the one hand, proceeding with conciliation politics will increasingly lead to direct attacks on the working class and show the dangers of reformism. On the other hand, rejecting austerity will require breaking ties with the PS. The PS understands this and may, when the crisis comes, choose to discard the left parties and make deals with the right-wing parties, for the sake of capitalist interests.

At the same time, the organization and combativity of the working class is expected to keep increasing. The trade unions and left parties need to become tools to express workers’ interests in these struggles, reject class conciliation, stand for class solidarity and unity and formulate a programme that unites their demands, clashes with capitalism and points out the steps towards victory. A socialist programme is needed for the left to express the will of workers and youth to fight against high rents, low wages, precariousness, all kinds of oppression and environmental destruction. Indeed, this requires breaking with the EU austerity straight-jacket and developing major investment plans to reinforce public services and build public housing. The nationalization of the transport and energy-related companies is necessary for an ecological planning of the economy that serves the environment and the majority of the population. This includes public ownership of the land and technical aid to small land-owners to plan in forest areas for diversity and security. Finally, the nationalization of the financial institutions and democratic workers’ control over a public banking sector is essential to fund the transition towards a society for the many, not the few, with full employment with stability, decent wages and no more than 35 hours of work per week.