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António Costa

António Costa. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Web Summit / Flickr / CC BY 2.0, license linked below article

Kevin Ovenden analyses the Portugese general election result which has given the centre-left Socialist Party a majority

Sunday's general election in Portugal brought an increase in the vote of the outgoing Labour-type governing party, giving it an outright majority of 117 seats out of 230 in the national parliament.

Opinion polling – some of it dubious – had predicted a much tighter result under the proportional election system between the centre-left Socialist Party (PS) and its centre right rival, confusingly called the Social Democrats (PSD).

Instead, the PSD vote only modestly increased (and it lost seats). The right saw both a radicalisation and a fragmentation expressed by the big advances of a far-right racist party Chega, which is now the third party in parliament, and an ultra-free-market party, Liberal Initiative.

The radical left unfortunately suffered a very bad defeat. The Left Bloc, which was formed out of anti-capitalist groups and activists coming together in 1999 as part of the rising of the movement against corporate globalisation, saw its vote share halve to 4.5 percent. Its number of MPs fell from 19 to five. Similarly, the Communist Party in alliance with the Greens lost six seats and fell to 4.4 percent.

What brought about this result?

Portugal is the poorest country in Western Europe. It is also sharply class divided and as elsewhere in southern Europe emerged from dictatorship in the 1970s.

It was, like Greece, very badly hit by the EU-imposed austerity following the 2008 financial crisis. A backlash against that, spurred on by a series of big social movements, ousted the centre-right government and brought the PS to office in 2015 as a minority centre-left government.

It rested in parliament for support on the Communists and Left Bloc who had made considerable electoral gains from the anti-austerity movement. They did not join the government but supported it from outside through a political compact that became known as the “contraption”.

A further election in 2019 brought a similar overall result. This time the PS did not enter into a formal “contraption” arrangement but instead set out to govern just short of a majority but resting in turn upon either the votes or the abstention of the radical left or upon the right to get measures through.

Those measures have been heralded by many centre-left commentators as a model of what social-democratic or Labour-type parties should do elsewhere.

In reality, after the peak of the austerity assault in 2015, with a slight loosening of the EU-IMF stranglehold and more recently the pandemic forcing a temporary move away from budget cuts the government found itself with a degree of space - “fiscal headroom” - to make some modest improvements for working people.

But it was a bit like taking some steps up a fast downwards moving escalator. The huge impact of the worst austerity years was not reversed. The radical left's demands to overturn the austerity-era cuts on workers' rights and employees' entitlements were not met. Yet for six years the left has found itself propping up this government, in one way or another, until in October last year both the Communists and the Left Bloc came together to vote down the 2022 budget alongside the right-wing opposition, triggering the general election.

Meanwhile, over the last two years there has been the fragmentation and radicalisation on the right. The Chega (Enough) party is not even three years old. Its combination of racist demagoguery and posing as an insurgent force – even though its economic policy is entirely compatible with big business – has enabled it to grow in concentric circles.

First, like its counterpart in Spain, Vox, from hard right elements of the older right. It has effectively absorbed the votes of the Christian Democrats. Second from non-voters. The turnout in this election was up by 9 percentage points but still only at 58 percent. There is deep alienation in Portugal from formal parliamentary politics.

Third, it hopes to draw in the working class poor and unemployed. Youth unemployment is at 25 percent. The figure would be higher without emigration. Some 20,000 nurses have left the country to work in countries such as Germany, France and Britain. The health system is in meltdown. 

A radical left that up to the middle of the last decade had advanced and had been connected with some very big social struggles has since, as some of its militants complain, become more and more oriented on parliament and never-ending tactics of negotiating with a minority centre-left government.

It was not formally in coalition, but for many voters it looked like it. And its main political argument increasingly became that it could be the instrument for shifting the much bigger governing party to the left through parliamentary tactics.

But that meant that when the election was called, there developed a widespread popular mood to put an end to the uncertainty and parliamentary logjams. Liberal voters of the centre, even centre-right supporters, did not trust the official opposition not to collaborate with the rising far right or Thatcherite maniacs. Some opted for the centre-left.

It seems many radical left voters thought that if it was all about propping up a centre-left government, they may as well vote for the centre-left anyway. (A similar development took place in Germany last year.) The Left Bloc and Communist Party struggled to have a distinctive message. Claims that the Left Bloc had made a big difference on social rights, such as for women and LGBT people, didn't really cut through as the government could easily claim credit for those, which don't cost the state budget a cent.

The election was very much a referendum on the prime minister, Antonio Costa. His popularity during the pandemic has see-sawed. In recent months it has climbed back as the government, as elsewhere, has sought to use extensive vaccination (Portugal's take-up is very high) to cover for previous failures.

In particular, tourism makes up 20 percent of the Portuguese economy – similar to Greece. So the prospect of being a tourist hotspot this summer as better off people from richer countries look to spend their household savings built up under lockdowns is very enticing.

Thus a vote that is not so much enthusiastic but pragmatic for a prime minister who is seen not to have done too badly and who people hope will bring a stable exit from the pandemic and a reasonable disbursement of the EU's recovery funds that are now being transferred.

Those funds come with huge strings. Above all they require countries to get back on the track of reducing debt and deficits and certainly not using state spending to undermine corporate capitalism or to shift the balance of power to working class people.

Antonio Costa took a gamble by going for the election. But he had the support of the president, a lot of the media and the establishment.

His aim was clear. Having sapped the strength of the radical left by getting it to support one compromise after another over the last six years, he saw a chance to push it back at the polls to reassert the political centre. He managed to blame the left for a winter election that people didn't want and to take their votes. He has a majority in parliament. Politically he is not so different from the centre-right, and will govern that way, now free from radical left incumbrance.

What was held up as a model for the radical left in Europe – the Portuguese contraption – has turned out to be a long drawn out neutering and now a very bad defeat.

It would be a mistake to read off from that the notion that the working class has given up on all those insurgent and combative aims of seven years ago. We shall see how social and union struggles unfold. The explanation is much more likely that presented with only governmental alternatives at the election many former radical left voters switched to ensure a majority left of centre government, since either way it was a PS government on offer. 

This poses major issues for the radical and anti-capitalist left in Europe. There will be much debate about how to go forward and regroup. This follows the similar defeat of Die Linke in Germany, the different but bigger defeat of Corbynism in Britain, the collapse of Syriza as an insurgent left force in Greece and the recovery of the old centre-left under a new name, KiNAL, the subordinate position of the once radical Podemos in Spain, and other examples.

A decade ago there was a major debate on the left in Europe about whether the focus should be upon social struggles and a left politics of rupture with the system or upon “left governmentalism”, either by direct participation or being a ginger group on social democratic parties. Most people agreed with the governmental approach. Some even lampooned anti-capitalists who did not agree.

Well, it is 10 years on. The debate is back. And not in the best of circumstances. It will be important to discuss this seriously and frankly in the course of common struggles against the multiple crises we face.

We have to do better than the last six years. 

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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