Portugal: settling for neoliberalism?

Submitted by Matthew on 11 November, 2015 - 11:37

On 10 November, the conservative Passos Coelho government in Portugal, in office since 2011, fell. It is likely to be replaced by a government of the Socialist Party (SP, similar to pre-Corbyn Labour) supported by the Portuguese Communist Party and the Left Bloc.

Passos Coelho has carried through Portugal’s mandated cuts programme since it applied for a eurozone “bailout” in April 2011. The SP, which had gone for the bailout, crashed in parliamentary elections in June 2011.

In new elections on 4 October 2015 Passos Coelho lost his parliamentary majority. His bloc was still the largest minority in Parliament, and the president (a long-time leader of Passos Coelho’s party, the PSD), initially called on Passos Coelho to continue. But the SP voted down Passos Coelho on 10 November.

That is welcome. But the SP has said it will continue on the basic terms agreed with the eurozone by Passos Coelho, which are harsh, although Portugal quit “bailout programme” status in 2014. The SP will ease some cuts, but that’s all. For a while in October, anti-EU people on social media were passing round the story that Portugal post-election proved that the EU had carried out a “coup” against Portugal’s election majority. The story originated in an article in the Tory Daily Telegraph (23 October), but was also promoted by left-wingers such as Owen Jones.

That the right-wing president was keen to keep his right-wing crony in office needs no “Brussels conspiracy” to explain it. A similar thing happened in Portugal in 1978. The Socialist Party had come out ahead in the election in 1976, but needed a minor party to assemble a parliamentary majority. It chose a minor right-wing party, the CDS, rather than the Portuguese Communist Party. In 1977-8 the CDS withdrew support and brought down the government. The president, Ramalho Eanes, unilaterally appointed an “independent”, Nobre da Costa, to form a government on a drastic cuts programme, and when Nobre da Costa’s administration fell replaced him by the right-winger Mota Pinto. The episode is an argument against a powerful presidency, not an argument in favour of re-erecting barriers between countries in Europe.

The Left Bloc’s decision to support a neoliberal SP government should be discussed on the left. The Bloc was formed in 1999 as an alliance of the soft-Maoist UDP, the “Mandelite” Trotskyist PSR, and a Portuguese CP splinter called Politica XXI. Its first leader was Francisco Louca of the PSR. Since then the components have largely dissolved into the Bloc. The APSR, a group within the Bloc set up as a loose successor to the PSR, was dissolved in 2013. The Bloc’s decision follows the same pattern as the decision of Denmark’s Red Green Alliance in 2011 to support the Social Democratic government of Helle Thorning Schmidt, which promised some easing within neoliberal parameters but in the event delivered not even that. But in situations of parliamentary stalemate, the job of revolutionary socialists is to fight for their own independent working-class programme, rather than to concede to neoliberalism in the name of parliamentary lesser-evilism. The Bloc’s stance also follows the same pattern as Syriza’s Left Platform in the early days of the Syriza government in Greece, a stance which led to the Left Platform failing to advocate a clear alternative at the crucial moments.

Comments

Submitted by martin on Wed, 18/11/2015 - 14:16

The Solidarity 384 article on Portugal says the Portugese SP is a "neo liberal" party and seems to suggest that the Left Block shouldn't have entered governement with them. I think this misreads the situation.

Whilst the Portuguese SP back in 2008-2012 implemented harsh austerity, the programme the new leader of the SP Antonio Costa ran on in this election is not Neo Liberal. It seems straightforwardly Keynesian and social democratic. So they promised to match the Troika's targets for reducing the deficit but Costa pledged to do this not through austerity but boosting disposable income to households.

Reuters reports "He proposed to boost incomes, hiring and growth in order to cut the budget deficits while scrapping austerity measures and cutting taxes, asserting that would still allow deficits to reduce in line with the Euro convergence criteria". "Also, he pledged to roll back a hugely unpopular hike in value added tax on restaurants and reinstate some benefits for civil servants "

Obviously Hollande's Socialists in France stood on pretty much the same thing and then ended up imposing more austerity themselves. However there has been a rising tide of Anti-Austerity agitation in Portugal and the country is moving leftward. Costa himself seized power of the SP against a neo-liberal former leader.

Our article seemed to suggest the Left Bloc is mistaken to form a united front governement with the SP, and it will end up behaving the same way as the left wing in Syriza did when the Tsipras governement caved and imposed the new memorandum.

I don't think this is inevitable and given the Portugese working-class desire for a anti-austerity government to be formed, left wing deputies should support the formation of that goverment.

The nature of that government and the Left's intervention with in it can be determined by struggle on the streets, in the unions and by struggle within the Left Bloc itself.

Submitted by martin on Wed, 18/11/2015 - 14:17

Dave Kirk argues that the Portuguese SP is not neoliberal, that the Left Bloc is right to form a government coalition with it, and that the nature of an SP-led government is fluid, indeterminate, determinable by struggle on the streets.

With enough street agitation, it could become a workers' government?

On Sunday 8 November I went to a session at the Historical Materialism conference where Mariana Mortagua, economic spokesperson of the Left Bloc, spoke.

In response to questions, she made none of the claims that Dave makes. She defended the Left Bloc decision to ally with the SP with obvious unease, and only as a way to put a brake on the right-wing direction of Portugal under the PSD government.

There are variants within neoliberalism. The Portugese SP's current policy is a less harsh variant than the PSD's, but, as Dave himself points out, it is "pretty much the same thing" as Francois Hollande promised when campaigning for president in France. Or as Helle Thorning-Schmidt's Social Democrats promised in Denmark in 2011. Or, indeed, as Justin Trudeau's Liberals promised in Canada's recent election.

The Portuguese SP is different from the Canadian Liberals in having some links with the labour movement, but different also from the British Labour Party, or even the French SP, or even Greece's Pasok, in the weakness of those links.

It was founded only in 1973, as a small exile group. It built up support in the tumult of 1974-5, but as the "safe" option as against the revolutionary left, the Stalinists, and the supporters of the old fascist regime.

After the Eanes military coup in November 1975, it became the major governing party of stabilisation, and of integration of Portugal into European capitalism. (Under the Salazar and Caetano dictatorships, Portugal's economic orientation had been more to its then-surviving colonial empire, which collapsed in 1974-5).

Costa represents a nudge to the left compared to the previous SP leadership, but nothing anywhere near the Corbyn surge in the British Labour Party.

Should the revolutionary left nevertheless merge with this not-so-bad neo-liberalism as the best available alternative to the harsh neo-liberalism of the PSD? I think that an independent working-class stance is both more likely to win concessions in the short term, and essential for the longer-term task of transforming the workers' movement so that it can transform society.

The revolutionary left might well address itself to rank and file working-class supporters of the SP with a policy offering support to an SP government under certain conditions, but those conditions should include major steps to empower the working class rather than just a braking and softening of neo-liberalism.

Otherwise our essential policies are relegated to a limbo of things to be done at another time - not in this crisis, not in this moment of uncertainty within the bourgeois order, not now when the working class is suffering and stirring, but at some quiet and ideal future time.

That stance might well leave Portugal unable to form a government, and forced into new elections, or make "centre" elements of the old parties split away to form a new governing coalition. Those outcomes, with the revolutionary left standing clearly as the pole of working-class opposition, would be better than a peace treaty between the revolutionary left and modified neo-liberalism.

Submitted by USRed on Thu, 19/11/2015 - 22:12

Martin makes intelligent points but it seems to me that the right thing to do under current conditions is to wait and see what this new government actually does. If in fact its policies are as right-wing as Martin expects and neither the PCP nor the Left Bloc are able to "blackmail" the PSP, then by all means the Left Bloc should resign from the government (and yes, that means the government would fall and new elections would be held). But I'm not going to attack the "peace treaty" until it's 100% clear that the "peace" involves what Martin says it does.

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