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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.

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