Portugal’s left makes major gains in national elections

Bill Bonnarby Bill Bonnar

It might have slipped under the radar but last month saw the left in Portugal make astonishing gains in the general election. The Left Bloc emerged as the third largest party in the country with more than 10 per cent of the vote while the Democratic Unity Coalition; an alliance of the Communist Party and the Green Party came 4th with almost 9 per cent. In total the left polled around 1 million votes; the most successful electoral result in a generation.

This breakthrough will not surprise too many observers. While much of Europe’s attention has been focused on Greece the effects of draconian austerity measures on Portuguese society has been devastating. Like Greece successive Portuguese Governments have had to rely on bail outs following the financial crash of 2009.

The cost has been the implementation of severe austerity packages forcing the working class to shoulder the burden of a financial crisis caused by the banks. Unemployment, particularly among young people, has rocketed with mass unemployment now a permanent feature of the economy. Public expenditure has been slashed with deep cuts in health, education and welfare.

One response is that hundreds of thousands of mostly young people have effectively fled the economic crisis and emigrated.

Another has been voter cynicism. The turnout in the recent election was around 56 per cent; the lowest since the government emerged from dictatorship in the mid-seventies.

The election result has plunged Portugal into a political crisis. The ruling Conservative SPD and its smaller right wing allies emerged as the largest grouping but short of an overall majority. The opposition Socialist Party which is similar to the British Labour Party has threatened a vote of no confidence and has even made overtures to the radical left opposition.

The prospect of the country’s radical left entering government has set alarm bells ringing around Europe and even provoked the threat of legal action in the Portuguese courts to stop it happening.

Whether the left parties would consider it wise to join such a coalition is open to debate and seen by many as a tactic to expose the Socialist Party.

Their offer to join with the Socialist Party in an anti-austerity coalition has been done in the certain knowledge that the SP would never agree such a move and ultimately will vote for austerity and to allow the SPD to continue in power. The Socialist Party is in a state of permanent decline having alienated much of its working class base.

The Left Bloc was formed in 1999 from the coming together of two small left wing parties. Although its vote has fluctuated widely since then the recent election was its best result ever with around half a million votes and the election of 19 MPs.

It also has one MEP and sits as part of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left. The Left Bloc was formed as a broad based coalition rather than a traditional party; something that many within its ranks see as a strength and a weakness.

They have been subjected to some serious internal divisions in recent years over issues like should the move to become more of a formal political party or should they define themselves as socialist or anti-capitalist.

The Portuguese Communist Party are a very different prospect. Founded in 1921 in the wake of the Russian Revolution and with an immediate mass base it was banned following the military coup of 1926.

For the next 48 years it led an underground existence and formed the main and often only opposition to successive fascist governments. In fact, when the party was finally legalised in 1974 it was revealed that members of its Central Committee had, between them, spent more than 300 years in jail.

Since 1974 the party has retained a strong and consistent base in traditional working class areas around Lisbon and Setubal and in the rural south of the country, With 70,000 members it polled around 450,000 votes in the recent election.

It has 15 MPs, three MEPs and 213 local councillors. Although it has fought recent elections as part of a left/green coalition it has always maintained its own distinctive identity arguing an unequivocal case for socialism.

Since the economic crash of 2009 Portugal has been locked in an economic and social crisis. The recent election has added a new dimension to the situation.

The pro-austerity parties have nothing to offer but more of the same. The emergence of a major left alternative has thrown the whole system into crisis; a crisis that will continue to play out in the months ahead.

This article was first published in issue 467 of the Scottish Socialist Voice. Subscriptions are available here.