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The Left Can Win in Portugal

Today, Portugal votes on whether to reelect a government influenced by the radical left — or else turn back toward the failed austerity policies of the neoliberal center.

Portuguese prime minister António Costa speaks during a press conference on October 9, 2016 in Beijing, China. (Naohiko Hatta / Getty Images)

On November 6, 1975, Portugal’s public broadcaster RTP hosted an unprecedented debate between the leaders of the two main parties of the Left, the Socialists (PS) and the Communists (PCP). Eighteen months into the revolutionary process that had begun on April 25, 1974, PS general secretary Mário Soares and his Marxist-Leninist counterpart Álvaro Cunhal spent almost four hours debating the nature of socialism and its applicability — and limitations — in Portugal. Their televised discussion is remarkable not only for the dexterity of the two participants’ arguments, but for the relevance of their theme today.

This Sunday’s election is not only a matter of debates within the Left — there is, after all, a variety of center- to far-right parties on offer. After the conservative PSD implemented one of the most brutal austerity programs in Portuguese history from 2011 to 2015, it has undergone a sort of Pasokification, seeing its base wither much like the center-left party that helped impose austerity in Greece in this same period. But for those who don’t think socialism is some sort of goblin lurking around in the hope of eating Portugal’s children, the question is what comes next for the so-called geringonça.

Geringonça — literally, “contraption” — refers to the governmental agreement struck between the PS, the PCP, and the anticapitalist Left Bloc (BE) following the 2015 general election. That vote originally handed victory to a coalition between the PSD and the Christian-Democratic CDS-PP, but their minority government failed at the first hurdle. This prompted the second largest force, the PS, to meet with the leaderships of the PCP and the BE, in the name of cobbling together a program that could guarantee Portugal stable government. In return for these parties’ external support in parliament, the PS would introduce a series of anti-austerity measures long pushed by both the BE and the Communists.

Mocked at the time by pundits from all sides, the geringonça nonetheless bumbled along, surviving the bumps on the road and delivering many of its promises — to the surprise and delight of some, as well as the annoyance, anger, and skepticism of others. As Portuguese voters pass their verdict on the PS-led government this Sunday, they are taking stock of what has been achieved over the last four years, and what could have been done but wasn’t. But for this reason, it is also worth asking if the geringonça was merely the midwife for the rehabilitation of neoliberalism in Portugal — and looking at what the radical left really has achieved.

The “Socialism” in the Socialist Party

This particularly concerns the character of the government’s leading party, the Socialists. Indeed, arguably no party in Portugal has gone through so much scandal and public humiliation as the PS. In the mid-1970s a pillar of Portugal’s young democracy, it however barely survived the post-2008 crisis.

These troubles particularly owed to infamous former prime minister José Sócrates — a Tony Blair–type figure, who promised both party members and the broader mass of voters a new and improved PS, based not on socialism but on the gospel of public relations.

Sócrates was all about big funding for tech, incentivizing private investment, and being photographed shaking hands with any celebrity within reach. Yet he was unable to deal with the financial crisis that sent Portuguese debt out of control, and as he implemented austerity measures from 2010, he was also caught up in a series of corruption, fraud, and money-laundering scandals. In March 2011 he was forced to resign, as parliament voted down his austerity budget. The prodigy was no more — indeed, after much criticism and confrontation, in May 2018 he finally left the party he had joined almost four decades previously.

The now-discredited PS leader epitomizes a way of doing politics that has now stopped working for electorates across the Western world. Yet while Sócrates met his demise in 2011 — following in the footsteps of Blair or Bill Clinton — his party has not yet seen any tendency toward a radicalization of its politics or a rejuvenation of its vote. The mark that he left on the party has, however, begun to be washed out, with a wider shift in the political mood — a product of chance, but also the course taken under the geringonça.

Campaign Trail

In the last week of campaigning, I followed a hodgepodge group of Socialists around Cascais, a coastal town near Lisbon, as they spoke to people in the local market, shook hands with supporters, and argued with critics. The group included a variety of young people, ready to engage in debate with the populace on topics from racism to public services.

One enthusiastic young Socialist called Frederico Martins wore a T-shirt reading along the lines of “turn left.” He was full of praise for the victories of the geringonça, like the introduction of free school books across primary and secondary education. For him, the PS “is the party that can best defend the interests of the Portuguese people and fight for a more progressive society.” When I ask what his party can offer young people, he answers with the word “hope.”

“We lived four years [under the PSD, in the crisis period of 2011–15] with a government and a prime minister that told us to emigrate. But PS showed in the last four years that the youth does not need to leave our country, that there are conditions to live, study, and make our life in Portugal.” He listed social policies yet to be implemented — especially around the questions of housing shortages and property speculation.

What he failed to mention is the widespread property speculation instigated by foreign capital. Indeed, through the “golden visa” protocol, those who buy up real estate are granted Portuguese (i.e. European Union) citizenship. A proposal to abolish golden visas was put before the Portuguese parliament this January. The PS voted against it, arguing the Portuguese economy could not live without the €4 billion the scheme brings in.

In the run-up to Sunday’s contest the PS is also advocating for what Frederico calls “measures very advantageous for us young people,” not least given the difficulty of finding a home or making a family. Yet in truth the party’s record is contradictory. In 2016 PS MPs voted down a PCP proposal to invest in a network of free, public nurseries and childcare centers, which would have made the thought of starting a family certainly less daunting. Interestingly, the measure is now part of PS’s electoral manifesto.

Above all, we’re left with the impression that the geringonça has, at least, pushed the PS’s rhetoric to the left. While Prime Minister António Costa has called for a vote for his own PS, his campaigning spiel has also complimented the PS-PCP-BE teamwork of the last four years. And indeed, the geringonça and its success in improving the lives of the average Portuguese citizen, has put the PS in a very comfortable position as far as electoral campaigning is concerned. It can claim successes and even use its failures — such as the lack of investment in the national health service — as an argument for the need for another term in office.

Yet there are clear limits to this shift. Whereas Britain’s Labour Party found a new lease of life under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in 2015 and Bernie Sanders took the Democratic establishment by storm in 2016, the PS remains intrinsically the same party it was fifteen years ago, including in terms of its internal organization and its ties to the more conservative union federation, the UGT. Indeed, between 2013 and 2016 — a period of opposition, then electoral victory — its membership grew by a meager 1,785 people. While the words “democratic socialism” are peppered throughout its statute, the meaning of this remains little-specified.

New Contraption

Polling for Sunday’s vote suggests that the PS will likely beat the PSD by around 36 to 28 percent, with the BE on 10 percent and the Communists and allies at 6. Even such a result would probably not allow the PS to govern alone. But what happens if it does achieve such a majority — thus allowing it to rule without the left-wing parties’ support? Would a party base won to the rhetoric of “socialism” be happy to accept policies less radical than those pushed through by the geringonça? Or is there any prospect of them organizing a more radical wing within the PS, as in the case of its sister party in Britain?

In their own campaign for Sunday’s election, both the BE and the Communists claim that citizens know who was really responsible for the outgoing government’s successes. The Portuguese people, the radical-left parties insist, know the PS alone would not have guaranteed the rise in the minimum wage (up from €530 a month in 2016 to €600 today), an end to wage cuts and the pension freeze, and the shortening of the public-sector working week to thirty-five hours. Their aim in this election is, indeed, precisely to stop the PS from winning an overall majority, thus maintaining their own leverage.

The geringonça has provided a possibility of stability and growth, standing against the rise in right-wing populist sentiment elsewhere in Europe. Yet it has also been taken as proof that anti-austerity policies do not have to cause panic among the European Union’s central bloc. Indeed, unlike Greece, Portugal has in recent years been seen as “the good student” which will strive to meet Brussels’s expectations — a positive “example” also able to divide the potentially powerful opposition from the Southern countries, or PIIGS. Yet what remains unclear is whether this experience has created breathing room for a more radical government or even an emboldened PS.

What the geringonça has done since 2015 is restore faith in the political system, at times even reminding us of the juggling acts of the revolutionary period, when various parties combined in a series of provisional governments. But much like then, we still have to consider the terrain that socialists and the radical left are moving in. Even when Soares and Cunhal discussed socialism on TV for hours on end, the progress for the Left was soon followed by a sharp counteroffensive from the Right. If there is to be another geringonça after Sunday, its success in holding off such a threat will depend on a continued balancing act, holding Brussels’s interventions at bay while keeping living standards on the rise.