Portugal: landslide victory for the ruling PS, dramatic losses for the left parties

Portugal’s snap election, held on Sunday 30 January, saw a sweeping victory for the Socialist Party (PS), which won an outright majority on the highest turnout since 2011. Voters mainly punished the Left Bloc (BE) and the alliance between the Communist Party and the Greens (PCP-PEV), which had supported the minority government of the social-democratic PS under Prime Minister António Costa since 2015. The minority government, known as “geringonça” (contraption), had already collapsed last October after their budget had failed to garner the support of the BE or the PCP-PEV. While it was correct to break with the PS, the way it was done, without any political explanation, following years of more-or-less uncritical support for the ruling party, disoriented the left parties’ supporters and contributed to electorally strengthening the PS, as we predicted.

For a long time, Portugal was considered one of the most stable southern European countries. After the government’s draft budget was voted down by parliament last October, this apparent political stability became a thing of the past. Portugal's much-proclaimed immunity to far-right parties is also starting to falter. The third-strongest political force, with almost 7 percent of the vote, is now the far-right party Chega ("Enough"), which was only founded in 2019. However, it is no coincidence that the rise of Chega coincides with the deep crisis of the left and the traditional right-wing parties. The conservative PPD/PSD, which implemented unpopular austerity measures as the ruling party from 2011 to 2016, got 27 percent of the vote, far behind the PS, with 41 percent. The national-conservative CDS-PP has left parliament after 47 years.

So what we are seeing is not a clear shift to the right. We are looking at a country that is deeply polarised and also faced with a profound economic crisis. However, the political vacuum and radicalised mood has not been filled by the left parties. The lack of alternatives and fears of a right/far-right coalition gave a temporary electoral boost to the PS. But while this might look like a return to ‘stability’ on the surface, the triumphant victory of the PS must not obscure the fact that the incoming government will have to manage an increasingly severe economic and political crisis.

At the expense of the working class

The application of harsh austerity measures and the deregulation of the labour market since the outbreak of the sovereign debt crisis of 2009 has put the Portuguese working class in an increasingly precarious position. The PS likes to boast of a comparatively low unemployment rate at 6 percent, but more than half of workers earn less than a thousand euros a month. At 741 euros, Portugal’s minimum wage is almost half of Germany’s. Compared with its Iberian neighbour Spain, the average Portuguese monthly salary is almost 800 euros lower. Monthly pensions are often less than 300 euros. In Portugal, too, the housing situation is deteriorating drastically, especially in the metropolitan regions. More than a fifth of the population is at risk of poverty, with a poverty rate of 22.4 percent in 2021.

Low wages mean that young, well-educated people in particular emigrate in droves, with almost a tenth of the Portuguese living in other EU countries. In light of the increasingly deteriorating living and working conditions, strikes break out again and again. For example, bus drivers in the capital Lisbon are on strike for higher wages and better working conditions. Currently, they receive little more than 700 euros per month, with the cost of living at Central European levels.

Public debt reached a record 135 percent of GDP in 2020. The credit bubble could also burst soon. The state has granted moratoriums to many companies and citizens during the COVID-19 crisis. The repayment of these loans could be very difficult due to the harsh economic situation.

Under pressure from the “Troika” (an unholy alliance between the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF), the conservative PSD government attracted Chinese investors between 2011 and 2015. They have invested in strategically important companies, such as the largest Portuguese energy company (EDP - Energias de Portugal), grid operators, and the country's state-owned bank (Caixa Geral de Depósitos). During President Xi Jinping's visit to Lisbon in 2018, agreements were reached on infrastructure, water, 5G technology, space research, and agriculture, among others.

The real problem, however, is the deep organic crisis of capitalism, which is a crisis of overproduction. High debt and credit bubbles are just symptomatic of this. Capitalism is in a phase of economic stagnation and decline, and debt is increasingly burdening the world economy and, more specifically, the Portuguese economy. The only solution offered by the ruling class to reduce the debt burden is harsh austerity measures at the expense of the working class. The attempt to restore economic stability will inevitably end in ever-greater political instability and a sharpening of the class struggle.

Crisis of the left parties

As expected, the institutions of the ruling class reacted very positively to the downfall of the left-wing minority government. For example, the President of the Portuguese Central Bank, Mário Centeno, called for “the efficient implementation of projects within the framework of the economic recovery plan and the implementation of the associated reforms”. These are the “key to sustainable growth”. In concrete terms, this means nothing more than shifting the crisis onto the shoulders of the working class. The coming period will be a period of harsh austerity and the ruling class has found in the PS a willing enforcer of this policy. Praise also comes from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD), who sees in Costa “a tireless advocate of social justice”. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez also hails Costa's victory as a “socialist response” to Europe's challenges.

1º DE MAIO JERÓNIMO DE SOUSA Image Rui OrnelasThe PS will probably not invite either the PCP or BE to join them in government, despite the latter expressing their willingess / Image: Rui Ornelas

However, the PS (Socialist Party), whose name is a remnant of the radicalised mood after the Carnation Revolution of 1974, is very far from pursuing socialist policies. Nevertheless, the PS won an outright majority of seats in the snap election: an outcome that exceeded expectations. How is this explained?

The fear of a right-wing coalition of PPD-PSD with Chega and the right-wing liberal IL is partly responsible for a strategic vote for the PS. Moreover, the counter-reforms and austerity measures promoted by the PS as part of the “geringonça” were largely supported by the left-wing parties. This has greatly unsettled and partially demoralised many BE and PCP-PEV voters, causing a fatal result on election day, as these parties’ voters shifted to the PS in large numbers. After losing almost three-quarters of their parliamentary seats, the BE got its worst result in 20 years. The PCP halved their number of MPs and thus faced their worst result since 1976. Their coalition partners, the PEV, are no longer represented in parliament.

This lack of both a clear commitment to socialist perspectives and a will to overthrow capitalism cost both the BE and the PCP a lot of votes and seats in the last local elections, in September 2021. As a result, they were forced to insist on higher public spending during the budget negotiations at the end of last year and act tougher. The PS, however, was not deterred and Costa was strongly inclined to take the risk of an early election. As a result, the left were portrayed as saboteurs, causing a political crisis during a pandemic.

Both parties lack a clear perspective: in the BE, there are sections willing to defend a radical left-wing programme. However, they have not been able to assert themselves, with the leadership remaining “ready for dialogue” if the PS were again open to a parliamentary coalition. Likewise, the PCP does not seem to have learned anything. At a meeting of the Central Committee on 2 February, the readiness for dialogue with the PS was reaffirmed.

However, the leader of the PCP, Jerónimo de Sousa, interjected, quoting an old proverb, that “one should not go to weddings or baptisms if one is not invited”. And the PS will probably not invite them, although Costa already announced that he wanted to talk to all parties except Chega.

This vacillation between the pressures of the ruling class and its representatives in the PS on the one hand, and the working class on the other, led to a watering down of the left’s political programme. The fact that the BE and the PCP have agreed to cooperate again has severely discredited both parties and undermined their criticism of the PS.

In the long run, the working class will seek another way to express its radicalisation differently if it is repeatedly disappointed by these two parties. Ultimately, we are witnessing further evidence that the crisis of capitalism is also a crisis of the reformist leadership of the working class. In this instance, the left reformists have been particularly undermined, while the right reformist PS, following the will of the ruling class, will illustrate their lack of solutions in due course.

Perspectives for the left

The starting position for the left in these elections was not particularly favourable, mainly because of the unexpected and hasty way in which the breakup of the “geringonça” by the PCP and the BE was carried out. Costa had been waiting for an opportunity to get rid of his partners and freely assert the interests of the capitalist class. The voting down of the budget under those conditions was therefore fully justified. Breaking with the PS government was absolutely necessary, but it should have been prepared politically. It is the task of the leadership of both left parties to show why the policies of the PS correspond to the interests of the ruling class. It is also their task to patiently explain why, given the organic crisis of capitalism, all bourgeois parties can only pursue a policy of austerity.

The lack of political preparation meant that many workers did not understand the reason for the collapse of the government and eventually believed the lies of the PS that the PCP and the BE were irresponsible, incapable of governing, and sectarian. The openness shown towards the PS by the BE during the campaign left many people perplexed, because it communicated the readiness for a new “geringonça” without drawing a clear and critical lesson from the past years. Many wondered: “Why has the BE withdrawn support for the ruling party when it is seeking a coalition again?”

It would have been possible for these parties to clearly differentiate themselves from the PS with fierce and enthusiastic campaigning. The proposals of the BE and the PCP for the nationalisation of strategic companies, for example, are steps in the right direction. They should go even further and put forward stronger policies, constituting not minimal improvements, but fundamental change. For example, the COVID-19 crisis has hit Portugal particularly hard, exposing the deteriorated state of the National Health Service (SNS). The SNS was a victory of the Carnation Revolution and must be defended against privatisations and cuts. But one thing is clear: as long as the logic of capitalism remains untouched, these goals cannot be achieved.

This raises the question: who should pay for these measures? There is no shortage of funds to solve these problems. The working class is being squeezed day after day to line the pockets of the capitalists. Governments are handing out billion-dollar bailouts in the blink of an eye. It is possible to solve this crisis, but for this to happen, the wealth created by the workers must be expropriated from the bourgeoisie and placed under the democratic control of the working class.

What we are fighting for is not the lukewarm reformism of the PS. Capitalism in its deepest crisis can offer us nothing but austerity and misery. We do not want reforms and minimal improvements, we are fighting for a completely different society, in which the resources of humanity are in harmony with the needs of the workers.