António Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal since November 2015 (Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Web Summit via Sportsfile)
Portugal’s Socialist Party won a big victory in the country’s general election last Sunday.
The party, which is similar to Labour in Britain, will now have a parliamentary majority and will not rely on deals with other parties.
During its last term in office the Socialist Party was dependent on the votes of the radical Left Bloc and a left‑green grouping led by the Communist Party. But by last October the scale of government attacks on workers became too much for the Socialist Party’s junior partners They refused to back the government, and that led to last weekend’s election.
The budget proposed to pump £37.4 billion of European Union aid into the economy over seven years. But only two thirds of it was earmarked public projects, with the remainder to be injected into private businesses.
In the election the Socialist Party went on to win 41.7 percent of the vote, five percentage points up from 2019. The conservative Social Democratic Party finished second with 29.3 percent, almost exactly the same as last time.
The big losers were the Left Bloc—whose vote halved and went from 19 seats to five—and the Communists. The results leave in tatters the idea of left parties prospering by entering government or supporting traditional social democrats.
Between 2015 to 2019, a minority Socialist Party government ruled thanks to a formal alliance with the left and the Greens. But that agreement ran out after 2019, and the left parties instead offered informal support.
All these manoeuvres have led to disaster. This type of politics also failed in the Spanish state, where the once radical Podemos has also played the junior role in a “left” government. That government has put business interests first during the pandemic, relaxing safety measures at the bosses’ request.
The left strategy pursued in both Spain and Portugal has been a disaster for both the working class, and it for the left parties that advocated for it.
As far back as 2018, Francisco Louca, one of the historic leaders of the Left Bloc, pointed to the dangers of coalition. He said, “These institutional machines therefore absorb much of our activist capacity. It is never clear in advance whether or not this will lead to adaptation to the system, but this institutional standardisation generates pressure in this direction.”
He detailed the possible “adaptations” as “resignation to very limited measures in the name of maintaining the positions acquired, refusal to criticise the institutions or their management in the name of possible future agreements, the idea that politics advances in small steps”. Louca could see the dangers, but that didn’t stop the Left Bloc from embracing coalition.
Playing second fiddle to the Socialist Party in government far from emboldening the radical left, has instead moved them away from an orientation on the struggles from below.
An example of this can be seen in the way the Left Bloc and the Communists in 2019 stuck with the government as it mobilised troops to break a national lorry drivers’ strike. There has been plenty of resistance recently in Portugal. Teachers, rail workers, subway workers, pharmacists, health workers, tax office workers and many others struck last autumn. But the left, obsessed with government intrigues and electoral manoeuvres, would not take the lead and generalise the struggles.
One danger is that this creates additional space for the far right. Last Sunday the racist Chega (Enough) party went from one MP to 12. It will become the third biggest party in parliament after securing over 7 percent of the vote.
This is less than the 12 percent that Chega grabbed at the presidential election last year. But it is a real threat, now posing as a permanent feature of mainstream politics. Portugal will now see the social democrats ruling in the interests of big business while trying not to detonate working class opposition. There will be some minor concessions to workers, but all within a strictly pro-business agenda.
It’s clearer than ever that the arena of struggle is in the streets and in the workplaces—it should be fused with politics that tries to overthrow the system, not make deals with it.