On Tuesday the Portuguese left struck a landmark compromise with the center-left Socialist Party that prompted the fall of the conservative PSD-CDS coalition government. The compromise is landmark not for its ambitions, but for representing an unexpected truce with a Socialist Party to achieve the immediate objective of toppling a government that implemented the Troika’s austerity program since 2011.
It’s a difficult compromise for the Portuguese left. Both the Communist Party and Left Bloc campaigned fiercely against the austerity-lite program the Socialist Party ran on in general elections just over a month ago. It’s also a compromise over substantial historical and ideological divisions. These divisions go back to the 1974-1975 revolutionary period during which Portugal’s international alignment, economic model, and state form were fiercely contested in the streets, army barracks, the constituent assembly and in six provisional governments. Through long stretches of the revolution, the Socialists and the center-right were allied on these matters and opposed to the Communist Party and other left-wing forces.
While historical and ideological differences between the Socialist Party and forces to its left still maintain relevance today, the political imperative of toppling the most right-wing government since the revolution motivated the entire parliamentary left to reach an accord to find an alternative government solution. Outgoing prime minister Passos Coelho and his deputy Paulo Portas provoke a revulsion on the Portuguese left comparable to that caused by Thatcher in British left politics. To contrast his government with PASOK in Greece, Passos Coelho sought to win over creditors and investors with the idea of being a willful reformer. The “good student” of austerity was in large part branding for foreign consumption, but at home it nonetheless earned him the designation of being “more troika than the troika.”
It would take a month of negotiations between the Socialist Party and forces to its left to ensure the defeat of Passos Coelho. Going in, the Socialist Party leader Antonio Costa made it clear he would not contribute to a so-called “negative majority”. This meant his party would abstain in parliament and permit the conservatives to form a minority government, absent an alternative government solution. This was a difficult moment for the party, potentially facing its second leadership contest in two years, a sharp contrast to the expectations months earlier of an election victory.
The Left After Elections
The Communist Party and Left Bloc had to navigate a difficult political scenario. They could have understandably identified the Socialist Party as too centrist to work with, or they could have intervened to extract the maximum economic concessions. There were persuasive arguments to be made for either option, which adds to the significance to their ultimate decisions to intervene.
After winning a surprising 10% of the vote in October 4th elections, Left Bloc may have been forgiven for sitting back and watching the Socialist Party bleed support from internal divisions and the stigma of propping up a conservative government, but the benefits to such a strategy aren’t as obvious on closer examination. Left Bloc’s support has been volatile over the past six years. In 2009 it won a breakthrough 10%, making it one of the standout, emerging left parties in Europe. But despite being in opposition to a minority Socialist government carrying out unpopular austerity measures, Left Bloc saw its support nearly halve in 2011 general elections. Its support in opinion polls would again rebound during the height of anti-austerity protests in late 2012, only to then suffer genuinely poor results in 2013 local elections and 2014 European elections.
Left Bloc’s unquestionable asset is their spokeswoman Catarina Martins. During the elections she carried the party from an expected mediocre performance to its best result ever in seats and percentage of votes. By inserting itself into the government formation process and negotiating economic policy, Left Bloc is putting Catarina Martins and its other promising, charismatic MPs in the position where they can be most effective to maintaining and growing the party’s support. The question is whether this personal protagonism produces the same political moderation that has characterized Syriza and Podemos.
The Communist Party’s place in Portuguese politics is different from that of Left Bloc. It’s a broader party organization with a long history and deep ties to the trade union movement; CGTP, its allied trade union confederation, is the largest in the country. Its working class ties can also be seen in its central committee and the working class professions of its members, including its secretary-general Jerónimo de Sousa. This gives the party a stable base of support that has modestly grown in each of the last four general elections, though distant from its best days in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when the Communist led coalition United People Alliance won between 15% and 19% of the vote.
The Communist Party’s objectives in its dealings with the Socialist Party aren’t that different from Left Bloc’s. The goal for both is to put a line under the austerity of the last government and neutralize the austerity proposals of the Socialist Party. Left Bloc was more public in negotiations and worked off the preliminary demands for the Socialists to drop their proposed four year pension freeze, labor reform, and debasement of the social security system’s revenue stream. The Socialist Party’s revised program reflects these concessions, but more negotiations undoubtedly lay ahead as the compromise must be turned into budgets and government policy.
The Post-Compromise Horizon
The Communist Party and Left Bloc now find themselves as decisive players in Portuguese politics. The Portuguese right, who consider themselves the winners of October’s elections, are furious at being driven from power by a left alliance virtually no one expected. They have made clear that a Socialist minority government can’t count on their votes in parliament to survive. They are promising a bitter, reactionary opposition that adds to the importance of this moment in Portuguese politics. The so-called “arch of governance” between the center-left and center-right is broken, at least for now.
This notionally will give Left Bloc and the Communist Party great leverage over the Socialists, but this leverage runs into the political limits of the Socialist Party and the country’s European economic integration. While a higher deficit itself is not the objective of the left, they’d prefer a higher rate of spending to a budgetary consolidation done at the expense of pensions, wages and services. Depending on the economic situation in the months and years ahead, this preference may clash with the Socialist Party’s commitment to international agreements, including Europe’s Fiscal Compact.
These differences on structural questions as well as others like NATO and debt restructuring made it difficult for these parties to form a government together. While the Communist Party and Left Bloc will still find themselves voting for policies and measures they find insufficient or disagree with, they can better maintain themselves as independent forces with their own political projects outside the discipline of government. Left Bloc MPs like Jorge Costa and Catarina Martins continue speaking of the importance of debt restructuring for “more profound changes” and you can still find the Communist Party promoting and attending recent mobilizations against NATO military exercises in Portugal. These are causes they haven’t abandoned, but which the Socialists do not share and can’t be forced to share.
Portugal, like the rest of the Euro Zone, will ultimately need a far more ambitious political program than the one found in this compromise. The spectrum of this deal is modest, but it does permit the Communist Party and Left Bloc to frame themselves as defenders of the class interests of pensioners and workers, negotiating a greater share of income for these groups. Apart from meaningful concessions that can be won, the success of this deal for the Portuguese left will depend on whether it proves to be a quicker path to a more ambitious socialist project than by having chosen opposition to another conservative coalition government.