Portuguese politics is in limbo. The good news is that this limbo, the thin ice on which this agreement is skating, also presents an opportunity to engage in clear and clean politics with room for actual negotiation. The bad news for the right wing and its allies is that this thin ice is proving remarkably resilient, the opposite of what they had expected and indeed hoped for.
By the end of June, Left Bloc (BE) will have held its National Convention, which will define its strategic line. Scrutinising the processes and dynamics of this political party like never before, certain sections of the media have sounded the alarm: “Left Bloc bombards government with extensive demands.” According to the media, the party is bombarding the government, which depends upon it for support, with threats and imposing conditions upon it.
This interpretation is exaggerated and offensive, but it’s also revealing. It expresses the Left Bloc’s large share of responsibility in contributing to a new government solution that, due to the desperation of the shattered right, is still subject to suspicion from relevant sectors of informal powers (the mass media, for example) who are still loyal to the programme of austerity. Let´s summarise how things stand.
The coalition of right-wing parties won the October 2015 election with 38% of the votes. However, it was incapable of forming a parliamentary majority that could support a right-wing government. The Socialist Party (PS), with 32% of the votes, was forced to abandon its liberal agenda from the election campaign in order to meet the demands of left-wing parties and to obtain a parliamentary majority. These demands included the end of privatization, wages and pensions recovery and the end of attacks on labour laws.
Left-wing parties do not participate in the government, led by Socialist Party (PS) General Secretary António Costa, but are indispensable to upholding the parliamentary majority that supports it, which is built upon sectorial and strategic political agreements, including the approval of the National Budget. By not forming part of the government, left-wing parties can maintain their strategic and programmatic independence, which is vital in the current climate, while still being able to externally influence the balance of power.
The effect of the configuration of this agreement has been extraordinarily important: it has shifted the political struggle to the sovereign field of democracy, leaving the right-wing to advocate the decisions of European institutions. Instead of the “politics of inevitability” argued by the former government, instead of the troika’s fatalism and the “opportunities” of the neoliberal Eldorado, we are now witnessing a re-politicisation of parliamentary disputes and an inclination towards social and trade unionist movements. Left Bloc has a clear political agenda regarding this struggle: to fight for wage restitution and to broaden social rights. According to a proposal presented by Left Bloc, the Social Electricity Tariff, which reduces the price of energy for low-income customers, will automatically benefit one million households and will be paid for by big players in the sector.
Nevertheless, what we are witnessing is a fragile synthesis of proposals put forward by four different political forces, forged by income recovery and the country’s reconstruction. This synthesis, fragile though it may be, is indeed, by definition, a part of Democracy. However, it is facing constant suspicion from the media, still seduced by right-wing austerity, in a context where these new circumstances and boundaries for negotiation are seen as weaknesses.
Let’s return to the media’s interpretation of Left Bloc’s actions. This interpretation is not only alarmist and biased, but also reveals a kind of Freudian slip whereby the media mirrors the political mind-set of the forces sponsoring it. This has compelled Left Bloc’s spokeswoman, Catarina Martins, to make a public clarification. The text simply says that “without a new strategy for the country, it is not possible to defeat austerity and to commit to income recovery on which the parliamentary majority is based”. This new strategy is essential in the fight for political space around Europe’s future. It is, therefore, neither a warning nor a political weapon – it is instead the logical conclusion of something more fundamental: Portugal will not be able to sustain itself as a country while it remains tied to bailout agreements and the restrictions imposed by the Budget Treaty.
It is clear that the disagreement between Social Democratic parties and parties of the Left is about the political answers to the institutions that stormed the European project. Also, in Portugal’s case, this is one of the most obvious gaps, but also one of the most sensible ones. Following a government that bowed down to European institutions, the left-wing is unrelentingly outlining the issues surrounding public debt and the Budget Treaty in a public agenda, refusing to cede to the Socialist Party’s contradictions. This difficult balance was present in the negotiations leading to the first National Budget agreed by the entire spectrum of left-wing parties, which was also the first in years to respect the Portuguese Constitution and provide a minimum of social justice. Alongside the levelling of differences between PS and the Left, the difficulty of attempting to move beyond austerity whilst simultaneously complying with current Eurozone regulations was clear.
However, there are clear results. PS, with a government supported by left-wing parties, is being prevented from shifting dramatically towards the right. The tense relation with EU institutions is demonstrating the vulnerability caused by PS’s “erratic” behaviour, an example being the reformulation of the first draft of the National Budget, unanimously considered by the EU institutions to be “the worst version” of a Budget that already leant in favour of the centre-Left. At the same time, PS gave in to blackmail from Brussels, which led to BANIF Bank (the fifth bank to go bankrupt in eight years) being sold to Santander, a ruinous deal for the Treasury. Left Bloc and PCP voted against this solution, with Left Bloc reiterating its argument for the nationalisation of banks.
In spite of all these difficulties, the strong left-wing presence, which has gained legitimacy through its electoral success, enabled a (tentative) income redistribution, a (meagre) wage and labour rights recovery and a (weak) effort for social policies.
Also, a different attitude, which must not be underestimated, has been clear from the beginning. During the first joint press conference given by the German Chancellor and the new Portuguese Prime Minister, journalists pressed for more details on the Portuguese National Budget, which was being debated in the corridors of European institutions. António Costa’s answer was not restricted to bringing the attention of the conference back to the refugee crisis – the reason for the meeting between the two Heads of State –, but also to asking journalists not to “bother Mrs. Merkel with the Portuguese Budget, because she certainly has her own budget to worry about”. The veiled barb aimed at troika loyalists was quite clear, but wasn’t the most important thing to emerge from the conference. The fundamental point is that Europe can now expect a stronger stance from Portugal in dealing with political players, rather than the obedient bureaucratic executors of Europe’s will, as with the previous government.
The Left provides effective ground for a new dialogue, refusing to passively perpetuate privileges. And that’s the reason why the title of Left Bloc’s aforementioned political motion, “Force of Hope”, presents itself as an analysis and a programme of a Portuguese Left that is making more of a difference than ever. It is making a difference by fighting with confidence but not ingenuity, by taking responsibility, not renouncing it, and attempting to appeal to society as a whole in the name of fundamental resistance, while still opening up new possibilities. A “force of hope” that doesn’t neglect its socialist core, that constructs alternatives and new ways of perpetuating the struggle, but also manages its social and parliamentary responsibility, in order to regain, one by one, all of the rights that were lost during the period of austerity. The success of this struggle is the main prerequisite to gaining popular support, which is so necessary for future achievements in all its transformative amplitude.
An atmosphere of decisive transformations is looming over Portugal and the most basic position of utter refusal can unwittingly validate the same argument that it is fighting against. It’s here that we should resist the temptation towards plain, simple and inflexible refusal, towards plain and simple denial without looking at the context. How can we argue against Marx’s quotation: “If I negate powdered wigs, I am still left with unpowdered wigs”.