• The Radical Left and Social Democracy in Portugal – Achievements and Obstacles

  • Adriano Campos , Alda Sousa | 20 Apr 19
  • 2019 is a crucial year. Not only will the European Parliament elections be held but there will be general elections in Portugal in September or October, and they are politically interconnected. No national strategy can ignore the immense changes in the world, in Europe, and in the EU since 2014, which means that these elections will take place in a very different context from that of five years ago. In 2015, the then leadership of Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc, hereafter Bloco) approved a resolution drawing the conclusion that the ultimatum imposed on Greece and its political consequences indicates that the left must be prepared to break with the European institutions.[1] In the transform! 2018 yearbook, Marisa Matias and José Gusmão laid out the thinking behind this.[2] It is only natural that strategies and alliances for European elections would derive from common (or divergent) analyses that also stem from different national experiences.
       In the last three years, the very original and unique solution for governing Portugal, a minority government of the Socialist Party (PS) dependent on agreements made with Bloco and the Communist Party (PCP), has drawn much attention and interest. At the same time, there has been room for some misunderstandings and assessments that miss the point (for us, for instance this government cannot be called ‘left’). In what follows we will try to evaluate this recent experience, while also dealing briefly with the relationship between Bloco and the PS in different phases since 1999.

    From the founding of Bloco de Esquerda to the crisis and 2011 elections

    The process leading to the formation of Bloco in 1999 has been explained in extensive detail elsewhere.[3] Nevertheless, we will briefly mention some points relevant for this discussion.
       By the end of the 1990s, of all radical left organisations existing in the revolutionary period of 1974-75 only three had survived: the UDP (ex- Maoist, the largest far-left organisation in 1974-75), the PSR (the Portuguese section of the Fourth International), and Política XXI, a 1990s split from the Communist Party. Many others disappeared, in some cases due to illusions and proximity to the PS.
       A referendum on abortion took place in 1998. The NO position won by a narrow margin of 50.9% to 49,1%; the turnout was only 31.9%. Defeats often contribute to the disintegration of political organisations, but they may also be an opportunity to learn lessons and build new alternatives. This is what happened in Portugal in the aftermath of the referendum.
       The weakness of the radical left then became more apparent, leading to debates within each of the three organisations that later founded Bloco, the central question being: What is the value of a left organisation if we are not able to stop the attacks of the ruling class or to win a referendum on abortion?
       Nearly twenty years after its foundation, we believe it is useful to point out some crucial moments of this process, including its ‘successes’ which rest on some initial choices:
    · Bloco was neither a mere electoral coalition nor a fusion of the three organisations behind its formation.
    · The challenge was to create a new political party as an alternative to the PS and the PCP. A call to launch Bloco (‘Starting anew’, see box) was signed not only by activists from the three organisations but by hundreds of trade unionists, feminists, ecologists, anti-racists, LGBTI activists, artists, and intellectuals
    · Bloco was not founded on the basis of a priori ideological cohesion but by strong agreement around a programme of political intervention, capable of formulating concrete political proposals and having an impact on society.
    · As a result of these initial decisions, Bloco built its own political leadership, which was not a caucus of the three former organisations. It is significant that in its first five to seven years there was an unwritten rule that half of the Mesa Nacional (the national leadership of ca. 80 people) should consist of members who had not been part of any of the three founding organisations. This choice proved very important in integrating different social experiences and political cultures.
    · Membership is on an individual basis; there was no collective affiliation of the three organisations. Today Bloco has more than 8,000 members. Although it obviously incorporates people who had had many years of activism, the majority of today’s Bloco members are people for whom Bloco is their first organised activity in a political party.

       The appeal that brought together the founding members of Bloco was, at the same time, broad and very ambitious. Since the very beginning, we defined ourselves as anti-capitalists and socialists.

    ‘Starting Anew’ (1999)

    ‘Bloco absorbs the great traditions of popular struggle in the country, learning from other experiences and challenges. Bloco renews the legacy of socialism and incorporates the convergent contributions of a diversity of citizens, power, and movements that, throughout the years, have been engaged in searching for alternatives to capitalism. This is the starting point for building a popular, plural, effective, influential, and militant left, capable of rebuilding hope.’

       From a political point of view, Bloco, from its inception, proclaimed its opposition to the neoliberal consensus generated by Berlin and Paris, represented by both the PSD (Partido Social Democrata), which in fact is a liberal-conservative party, and the PS in Portugal. These two parties of the ‘Centrão’ (Centre) have been ruling Portugal since 1976, in turn or even in coalition. They decided Portugal’s accession to the EEC in 1986 without public discussion, let alone a popular vote, which was also the case with the Treaty of Maastricht and other treaties. Bloco was to challenge this status quo, and under our influence the question of the European Union took on importance in Portuguese politics well before the years of the Troika.
       In the 1999 general elections Bloco won 2.4% of the vote and two seats (Francisco Louçã and Luis Fazenda). According to Portuguese electoral law, this permitted the formation of a parliamentary group and the right to speak in every debate.
       With that election, Bloco accomplished a leap forward in national politics. Its parliamentary presence made its proposals widely known and popular. Had we not achieved this electoral result it is possible that Bloco would have disappeared.
       From 1999 to 2011 we faced differing political situations. In 1999, the Socialist Party had exactly 50% of the seats (115 of 230) and formed a minority government. In order to have a law approved in parliament, it had to choose between getting votes from the right or making concessions to the left parties. From 2002 until 2005 the right was in office (with Barroso as Prime Minister), and conflicts were heated on all fronts, reaching a climax in 2003 with the Iraq invasion. In 2005 and 2009 the PS received absolute majorities with José Sócrates; austerity measures began to hit home and privatisations went forward. Bloco combined a strong opposition in Parliament with extra-parliamentary political initiatives, for example a march for jobs across the country.

    Resisting the Troika’s austerity regime (2011-2015)

    In 2011, following the defeat in parliament of Stability Pact 4, Prime Minister Sócrates resigned but first called in the Troika. The agreement was signed with the PS, PSD and CDS-PP (Centro Democratico e Social- Partido Popular). Both the PCP and Bloco refused to meet with the Troika. New elections took place in June, with the right-wing coalition winning and pursuing the most aggressive social policies of the past thirty years, even exceeding what the Troika demanded. This resulted in the impoverishment of a large majority of workers and pensioners via cuts in wages, pensions, and social benefits, tax hikes, and attacks on public services. But it also affected the structure and organisation of the working class, since collective- bargaining agreement contracts went down from covering 1.3 million in 2011 to 300,000 in 2014 (meaning only 6% of the labour force). There were huge popular mobilisations (the largest since 1974-75), which climaxed in a few key moments without continuity, and several general strikes. Between 2011 and 2014, the PS was led by its most right-wing section and barely projected an opposition role.
       In these years, Bloco (which had lost eight of its sixteen MPs) faced a very difficult challenge: to maintain a consistent political programme that combined rejection of austerity with the urgency of debt renegotiation, exposing the contradictions of an authoritarian European Union and financial system, all the while taking part in all forms of resistance. At the same time, we were not only part of, but also key movers in broad initiatives on democracy, a national health service, and other issues, which brought together vast sectors of the left (PS, PCP, Bloco, and independents) against the Troika and around alternatives. With the proximity of the 2014 European and then the national general elections, there was enormous pressure on us (both external and internal) to form pre-electoral coalitions with the PS. As the majority of Bloco rejected that choice, some activists left.

    Lessons from the Portuguese non-model(4)

    It is necessary to explain the conditions for the Portuguese ‘non-model’, since its circumstances are so particular that no generalisation is possible, and explore the experience of Bloco during the two and a half years of the government that replaced the right-wing ‘Troika Consulate’ in Portugal (2011-2015).

    October – November 2015: a new political situation and a difficult decision

    After four years of austerity and social destruction, the October 2015 elections represented a setback for the government parties – the PSD/CDS coalition received 38% of votes, which reflected a loss of almost one million votes, and the PS experienced a modest recovery (32%). Bloco came third, with 550,892 votes, almost twice its 2011 score. As the two left parties, Bloco (10.2%) and the PCP (8.6%) got almost one out of five votes, and the parliament was faced with two alternatives: a minority government of the right with no allies, except if the PS chose to help it; or a minority government of the PS with a possible alliance with the two left parties – both of them would have been necessary. In brief, the then President of the Republic, Cavaco Silva, empowered the previous Prime Minister, Passos Coelho, to form a new right-wing government, which was defeated in parliament, replaced by a new PS government (with António Costa as Prime Minister) based on two formal pacts, one with Bloco and one with the PCP. So, for the first time ever, the PS was forced to establish an alliance with the left, and the left, also for the first time, accepted being part of such an alliance.[5]
       The alliance was preceded by a public call in a TV debate during the electoral campaign by Bloco’s spokesperson Catarina Martins, challenging António Costa to drop three essential points of his programme (freezing pensions, creating a new form of easy firing, and reducing firms’ contributions to social security). Her clear conditions for a dialogue on a possible future government became a decisive question in the national debate. This was not an electoral trick but a clear response to the needs of the people, and we believe this is how a left party should act to create political change.
       After the election, the PS, in order to get a parliamentary majority, was forced to accept these conditions along with others. Both Bloco and the PCP established written agreements for that purpose, neither of them being part of the cabinet.[6]

    What the left coalition with the PS achieved

    The main achievements of this political process will be briefly summarised in terms of the democratisation measures and the economic and social impacts of the agreement. Then we will discuss the conflicts between the left parties and the government, and how Bloco is presenting its alternative.
       a. Improvements in civil liberties
       With the new composition of parliament, several laws were passed:
    abolishing fees for abortion (a 2007 referendum had legalised abortion, but the right-wing majority government had imposed fees to deter its use), broadening the rights of gay couples, which included adoption, generalising medically assisted reproduction for single women and lesbians, ruling on the conditions for surrogacy, establishing full gender parity in political representation, and authorising the medical use of cannabis. In some cases, Bloco and the PS formed a majority for such laws since the PCP voted with the right-wing parties against lesbian rights, gender parity, surrogacy, and cannabis. More recently, both Bloco and the PS proposed laws to legalise euthanasia. In this case, these initiatives were defeated by only five votes, the PCP again voting with the conservative parties.
       The relevance of this agenda is apparent since it pursues a process of democratisation and effectively challenges different forms of oppression.
       b. Social and economic achievements
       The agreement includes the following measures that were enacted in this period
    · the reversal or limitation of privatisation or concessions established by the right-wing government in public transportation (the national airline and public transportation in the two largest cities);
    · new privatisations were explicitly forbidden;
    · a 20% raise in the minimum wage until 1 January 2019;
    · four public holidays were re-established after being abolished by the previous government;
    · all pensions were unfrozen (and keyed to the rate of inflation) and smaller ones were augmented every year by 3-4%;
    · the programme of geographic dislocation of public servants against their will was rescinded;
    · the collective bargaining process for public servants was re-established;
    · the tax on consumption in restaurants was decreased from 23% to 13%;
    · giving all children access to a nursery by 2019;
    · giving books to all students under seventeen years of age;
    · the extraordinary tax imposed on wages and pensions during the Troika period was abolished;
    · taxes on wage income were reduced and the tax on large firms increased;
    · a new tax on luxury real estate was created;
    · foreclosures have been suspended for old or disabled people living in the same place for fifteen years, and the rent law is being revised to protect tenants;
    · new rules have been applied for the self-employed that provide services to different firms assuring them social security protection;
    · tuition fees in public universities will be reduced by 20% this year;
    · the pensionable age will be reduced for workers who started work at a very young age;
    · electricity bills will be reduced.

       The global effect of these measures in 2016 and 2017, in a favourable context with lower oil prices and better export prospects given the mild recovery in Europe, was a combination of minor growth in GDP (4.3% in real terms, after falling by 7.9% during the recession and austerity period), a sharp rise of employment (plus a reduction of officially registered unemployment from 17.5% in 2013 to 7,4% this year, and a reduction of the public deficit (from -3.1% in 2015 to 0.9% in 2017 and to a prospective virtual zero in 2018), in this case due to the effects of the recovery (which however occurred at the expense of freezing public investment)). In any case, aggregate demand expanded as the joint result of more confidence and improved pensions and wages. Fighting impoverishment had a real social impact. It is a fact that no other European country has pursued these kinds of policies.

    Limits of the accord with the PS

    Although major challenges are still unmet, such as reducing external and public debt, the fact is that Bloco was able not only to study and present concrete alternatives on such topics but also to force a public discussion around them. Indeed, a report presenting a concrete proposal of debt mutualisation of 52 billion euros was signed by Bloco and the PS, with the participation of members of the government, including the statement that the current European Union budgetary rules are ‘unfair and unsustainable’. Still, the government does not intend to act on it nor present any sort of alternative to the European authorities. Getting clarity on the fact that the government opposes a strategy of debt restructuring, even though it was forced to acknowledge the unsustainability of the budgetary rules, strengthens the struggle against the debt.
       Other conflicts between the left parties and the government emerged as the budgets were implemented and differences with the PS became more obvious. In all instances, Bloco put forward its views, understanding that building a relationship of political forces requires detailed and convincing alternatives and mobilisations, not just slogans.

    Conflicts on finance and banking, and labour laws

    In some cases, questions that were not determined by the agreement were included in later negotiations and a consensus was eventually established; this was the case with the new tax on luxury property and many other fiscal measures in the current budget. However, this could not happen in the case of regulation and management of the financial system and labour legislation due to divergent strategies on these issues.
       As a consequence, the left parties opposed the sale of Banif, a small regional bank, to Santander, and that of Novo Banco, which used to be the largest private commercial bank, to Lone Star, a US real estate firm. In other cases, the left opposed special privileges for the banking industry. These conflicts showed why the left parties were right not to accept participation in the government, since there is a huge difference between the views of a centre government, such as that of the PS, and the left on financial and other questions.
       The difference between the government and the left on issues of labour legislation is even more consequential, since it is occurring against the background of social struggles. For two years, Bloco discussed a package of measures with members of the government to correct precarious labour contracts and promote jobs with full rights. Some of these measures were approved after lengthy debate, and this reduced the amount precarious independent workers pay into social security and increased the level of social-security contributions the contracting firms have to pay so that these workers can enjoy better pensions when they retire. It was a major victory not only for the left parties but also for the social movement of precarious young workers, which has been the last decade’s most militant movement in Portugal.
       The issue of the social contract has repeatedly been in the forefront of the national debate. On one occasion, in early 2017, the PS government proposed reducing the social security contributions paid by firms, which the employers applauded. It was the first case of a direct violation of the written agreement with Bloco. The party reacted and rejected the proposal, since it would damage the revenues of the public pension system, and finally defeated it.

    Victories: Bloco defeats an agreement between the government and companies

    The most important victory for the workers’ movement and for Bloco was forcing the government to treat precarious workers in public services – schools, hospitals, etc. – as permanent public servants. This possibility has been extended to more than 30 thousand eligible public-sector employees who applied for the programme.
       Precarios Inflexíveis, the most important organisation of the social movement of precarious workers, in which left activists play a significant role, promoted both a new law, which was approved by parliament and the organisation of the workers themselves, in order to fend off the resistance from the intermediate levels of bureaucracy in public services, such as universities and hospitals, and even the government itself. The process is still ongoing. This is a strategic movement for Bloco, as a militant force for self-organisation and a political actor able to impose the new law.
       In March and April of 2018, after suffering defeat on the issue of social- security contributions by firms and accepting the important changes in favour of the precarious workers, the government proposed new changes in the labour laws. Some of the enacted changes were good for workers, such as reducing the number of years (from three to two) for permissible successive non-permanent contracts, or limiting the number of the contracts for short-term temporary work. But some of the government’s proposed changes are extremely objectionable: augmenting the trial period to 180 days a year – with no rights and no compensation if one is fired during that period – or establishing the possibility of oral contracts for up to 35 days, mostly for tourist services, but now extended to the whole economy. The trade unions and the left parties are mobilising against these proposals.

    A high-level conflict: taxing the subsidy to the Chinese-state-owned electricity company

    Our final example of conflict with the government is around the energy issue. Bloco, following its written agreement with the PS government, was able very quickly to implement an important change for poor families: Access to the social rate for energy, at a substantially lower price, was broadened from ca. 50 to 700 thousand families (one in eight families), simplifying at the same time the procedure for verifying income tax declarations and avoiding any bureaucratic obstacles. But the big conflict on the energy question would occur at the end of 2017, when parliament approved a new tax on the power company, worth several hundred million euros, after a negotiation between Bloco and the ministries of finance and economy. However, the government was pressured by the Chinese government – since the 2012 privatisations the Chinese state owns the largest national energy firm – and with the help of the right-wing parties it managed to impose a new parliamentary vote reversing the previous decision. This major political tempest demonstrated how difficult it is to challenge international capitalist interests, how vulnerable the PS is to their power, and also how Bloco ought to pursue its fight for the benefit of the people.

    The agreement did not put an end to the social struggle

    Whoever argued that the agreement between the left parties and the PS would muffle the social movement or restrict its forms of protest was proven wrong. Precisely the opposite happened. Since many workers see that the government is more vulnerable to social pressure and that the left parties are their allies, more mobilisation is in fact possible.
       There is a clear confrontation around social and economic alternatives. In this framework, the leaders of the right-wing parties and the big employers accuse the government of being a ‘hostage’ of the left, and although they are wrong on who ultimately wields effective power this is their perception of the strength of the movement led by the left. Simultaneously, the lessons of these agreements are a major divisive issue inside the PS itself.
       The construction of social action, political protagonism, and alternatives is therefore a key defining task for the left. In this connection we will end by simply citing three current examples. The first involves teachers who are demonstrating and preparing a long period of contestation with strikes from October on.
       Our second example is the organisation of different collectives and organisations against oil prospecting and, in general, for a radical change in climate policies. These organisations are particularly strong at the local level and converge in some initiatives, such as the Portuguese-Spanish demonstrations against the Almaraz nuclear plant or the Retortillo Uranium Mine, with a recent victory over the latter in the form of a decision by the Spanish parliament to halt this crime against the environment.
       Finally, a third and growing social movement that has been particularly resourceful is the feminist movement, in particular against offensive court decisions that underplay domestic violence and feminicide, and which criticise street harassment and denounce rape culture. These movements are growing as they develop a feminist working class agenda that articulates gender inequality in the context of the rights of productive and reproductive work, as well as the struggle against inequality as a result of capitalist patriarchal society. The feminist movement has mounted some local protests but also large national demonstrations occurring simultaneously in various cities, such as marches against Trump and misogyny and demonstrations on 8 March. These movements are now preparing the 8 March 2019 Women’s Strike.
       The same could be said of other movements, such as that of tenants against evictions from their homes and against gentrification of the cities or the informal care-workers’ associations that are now emerging. In all these cases, Bloco is part of the movements. They represent the actual state of the social struggle – moving sometimes slowly, sometimes explosively, linking up with each other – but, most importantly, bigger and more organised than it was when there were no alternatives.
       We insist that we are not presenting Bloco or the Portuguese experience as a model. When mass politics is at stake, there are no models: only a well-rooted capacity of learning and struggling alongside one’s own people prepares a party for its strategic choices. Furthermore, we are aware that Bloco still has immense tasks before it. It must change and be more open to representing the social left. It must help create new expressions of the workers’ and the popular movement. It must fight tendencies to adapt to institutions and routine. It must organise the education of rank-and-file members and their involvement in social organisations. It must fight sectarian views inside and outside the party. Still, Bloco is the most important experience and transformation of the Portuguese left in all the four decades of democracy in the country.

    An agenda for social justice

    During this short period of the PS government, social movements fuelled political debate and generated new ideas. They also influenced the political framework. One of the consequences is the debate between the two wings of the PS, one pushing for the continuation of social policies and the alliance with the left, the other advocating a style of party and political programme that is Blairite neoliberal and austerity-oriented.
       The very contradiction inside the PS proves that there is a political implication for the agreement established with Bloco and the PCP. Feeling threatened by many Socialist voters who favour the alliance with the left – to the point of wanting their own party to be constrained by the left parties – some members of the leadership of the PS decided to challenge the pact with the left at the recent PS congress in June 2018. Some of them went so far as to invoke the example of the neoliberal Third Way, while others stated that the PS should not abandon the pacts with the left. This is indeed a relevant debate over ideas, but we think it is more relevant to understand it in terms of political action since it is the consequence of the left’s initiative in toppling the right-wing government. The fact that being or not being allied with the left has become a major divisive issue within the PS congress is proof of the partial success achieved by the left parties. The neoliberals in the PS and the peddlers of the European Union fear the influence of the left and they are right to do so – they know better than anyone that the left constitutes a political alternative with popular support.
       As far as Bloco goes, it signed an agreement with the PS in 2015. This imposed a new framework on its activity but did not change the party’s goal – to create a large class movement for socialism. Steps in that direction are taken at different levels, such as favouring the recovery of the standard of living of workers and pensioners, creating better conditions for trade unions in collective bargaining, promoting the self-organisation of precarious workers, and taking the fight to the core of the economic and social system.
       In this sense, the debate on the future of the National Health Service is nowadays the most heated, since it is a central target of financiers in their battle to whittle away the welfare state, and it involves crucial decisions on budgeting.
       This is an area in which the impact of neoliberal views is quite obvious, as what is being advocated is a combination of privatisation of services and extraction of rents to be paid by the public to the private sector. Bloco responded to neoliberalism by proposing a deep restructuring of the health system and did so in the most effective way: António Arnaut – Minister of Health in the late 1970s, founder of the modern national health system as it emerged from the April 1974 Revolution, and honorary president of the PS – prepared a new law together with João Semedo – an ex-MP for Bloco and once its coordinator and a distinguished spokesperson for the party on healthcare questions – for the organisation of the health system, opposing the neoliberal solutions. They published this proposal in a book entitled To Protect the National Health Service in December 2017, with huge impact.[7] It was an expression of a political initiative seeking convergences in order to change the landscape of the debates and choices. Bloco presented it in parliament, and while many PS members support it the government opposes it.
       In this case as in others, Bloco has challenged and confronted the politics of the centre. In reality, our views on the National Health Service currently do not have majority support in parliament, but we are not defeated. We keep insisting on them. And this is how left politics will win: talking to people who share the same ideas, including in other parties, creating social movement, standing for concrete proposals, and being able to deliver an alternative and not just protest. That is our strategy – we are fighting for the majority on every front.


    1. <https://www.esquerda.net/dossier/democracia-contra-o-colonialismo-financeiro/37973> (includes link to the English Version)
    2. Matias Marisa and José Gusmão,‘The European Union – History, Tragedy, and Farce’, transform!2018 <https://www.transform-network.net/en/publications/yearbook/overview/article/yearbook-2018/the-european-union-history-tragedy-and-farce/>.
    3. Alda Sousa, Francisco Louca, and Jorge Costa, ‘The Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda) in Portugal’, in New Parties of the Left. Experiences from Europe, International Institute of Research and Education, London: Resistance Books, 2011; José Soeiro, ‘The “Bloco de Esquerda” and the founding of a new Left in Portugal’, in Cornelia Hildebrandt and Birgit Daiber (eds), The Left in Europe: Political Parties and Party Alliances Between Norway and Turkey, Brussels: Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, 2009.
    4. This section is an abbreviated adaptation of a text published in 2018 in <http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article5593>.
    5. <https://www.esquerda.net/en/artigo/full-agreement-between-socialist-party-and-left-bloc/39543>.
    6. See note 5 for the text of the agreement with Bloco.
    7. Sadly, both António Arnaut and João Semedo died in 2018.