No More Austerity: The Search for a United and Historic Left in Portugal.

by João Albuquerque

In a period of great economic depression the Portuguese people were called upon to cast their vote on what was expected to be another bi-polarized race between the Socialist Party (PS) and the right wing coalition that led the government over the last four years. The result, however, came as a surprise to almost everyone and has set the country on a still unclear path about what to do next.

After four years of harsh economic and social restrictions imposed upon the Portuguese people by the most liberal government of its history, the two ruling parties, running together in a coalition called “Portugal Ahead” (Portugal à Frente – PaF) have yet again been the single most voted force, gaining more seats in the Parliament than any other party alone.

However, compared to the previous parliamentary framework, they lost the overall majority held until last Sunday, losing 25 MPs, a direct consequence of having lost 14% of the votes from 2011 to today. The very important nuance, this time, is that all in all the left in the parliament has more votes and more seats combined than the right wing coalition.

Has the youth given up?

In the aftermath of these elections, several results stroke as surprising. The main was the extremely high abstention rate, especially among the young people. Several reasons have contributed to this: a) the real rate of youth unemployment is estimated to be over 30%, with many long-term unemployed people; b) tremendous emigration rates, with numbers set on over 300.000 people leaving the country (110.000/year in two consecutive years set the record in Portuguese history, beating even the darkest years of the Colonial War in the 1960’s), most of these being young people; c) from a sociological point of view, the emigration is currently very different from that  of the 1960’s, consisting more of a brain drain than a less qualified one, mostly composed of educated young people (researchers, doctors and nurses are among those who have left the country in the recent years).

Huge cuts on the health system, on education and research, especially in reducing grants and scholarships, led to this big flee of the country. Official numbers estimate that for two consecutive years, 110k people per year left the country, allowing to point at an estimate of around 400k people leaving the country over the last 4 years. This translates into a higher abstention rate among the young people and a higher disappointment with politics and government than 4 years ago.

Which government now?

In his first statement after the elections, the PR has appealed for an agreement between the right and PS, something that has been declined by the Socialists. In the meantime, António Costa, PS Secretary-general, has started conversations with left wing parties. As talks are still going this can become a turning point in the Portuguese political framework, for success in setting up a left coalition would be an historic event, never before made possible at this level. So, what would this mean for Portugal and what kind of legitimacy would there be in a post-electoral left coalition?

The most western country in Europe has been one of the most harshly affected countries by the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. After calling for international financial assistance from the Troika – IMF, ECB and the European Commission –, which eventually led the right wing coalition to power, austerity measures were rigorously and vehemently implemented. The PM vigorously stated that his government was willing to go even further on imposing austerity in order to put Portugal’s fragile economy back on track.

A high increase on income and consumption taxes, reducing on wages and cutting on pensions, cuts on social welfare, such as unemployment benefit or the social supplement for the elderly, budget cuts on the healthcare system and public schools have set the agenda for what resulted in a clear loss of purchase power, a decrease of quality in medical assistance and education, public and foreign debt have both sky rocketed, over 200k jobs were lost and deficit remains the same as it was in 2011. On the event of these elections, the right ran again on the same premise: continue the austerity path, this time without the presence of the troika.

On the other hand, and despite the differences between the left wing parties, the main message was very clear: no more austerity, light or heavy, imposed slowly or fast. Interesting as it is, the Portuguese people clearly expressed an intention of change and voted largely for parties that rejected austerity; by giving them a clear majority in Parliament voters have put a tremendous pressure on the left parties to find a stable government solution.

An unclear future

At the time of writing, there is still no clear indication whether this possibility will become a reality, with conversations still going on. Nonetheless, the situation as it is, configures a golden opportunity to establish a broad base alliance to set a government on the basis of a policy change towards building a fairer society. Naturally, negotiations will bring out several differences among the parties; but the compromise to defend welfare, equality and social justice would need to prevail in the compromise solution eventually found. A strong, rational and balanced agreement between the three left parties, based on settling for a greater good and finding the common points, is essential to guarantee a stable government, assuring that the majority of voters’ aspirations are met.

The decisions that may emerge on the next few days will be determinant to understand what kind of society will be built in Portugal over the next few years. The success of inaction can result in the come back of the right wing coalition, giving way to more austerity measures and social impoverishment; the triumph of a left wing coalition can, on the other hand, contribute to a change of course in social and economical policies not only in Portugal but also in Europe. Let us not be in doubt: it is the model of state that was at stake in the elections of 4 October, and the Portuguese people were clear on their choice. Will there be a real correspondence to these aspirations?


Image by Carsten ten Brink, taken from Flickr.


  • Interesting article. Too bad there is not so much in covered in nothern Europe on Portugal. I still have questions that remain and I had my troubles with reading portuguese newspapers.

    How are the left wing parties in Portugal? Do they call for measures comparable to the left parties in Greece? Because I think there one can see very well that even when a radical elft party is in power, austerity remains. Does the a frente colatition argue that in the long term (after the crisis) there will be jobs and a public spendig increase?

  • Mark, a timely and pvcooiarvte article, and I think mainly correct. But I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that the government is attracted to austerity even if it causes economic contraction. I chart Swan’s conversion to austerity politics back to the G20 in Toronto last year. Since then we have seen the Treasury Red Book and subsequently Gillard has ramped up the message that pain must be borne by workers and the poor (especially if they don’t kowtow to the inclusion agenda).I think there are three logics at play here. One is the desire to join the bandwagon of austerity politics being played out elsewhere, although this is not just ideological or fashionable. It also reflects the way that widespread economic crisis renders international competition more acute as other ruling elites use crisis conditions to cut jobs, drive down wages, increase productivity, etc and often while their currencies are cheapened, giving them export advantages. I don’t mean this in a Shock Doctrine sense, although that is operating in some places, but in a more banal sense around how capitalism operates in such times.A second logic is that of a domestic agenda to break what is seen as the last bastion of significant trade unionism in Australia, in the public sector. The use of public sector cuts as a stick to gain productivity advances, fragment workforces through restructuring and even directly challenge union organisation through outright sackings (perhaps even provoking and winning some confrontations along the way) has been a holy grail for governments for some time. On the ALP side this has mainly taken the form of introducing market-like mechanisms (e.g. MySchool, the efficient price , etc) but Iemma & Costa attempted a more head-on confrontation by selling off power and got themselves in the shit instead. Gillard seems the ALP leader most likely to try something like that on.The third logic is that of establishing the outcomes of the economic crisis more generally in an ideological sense. For a brief minute it looked to some that the huge state interventions in 2008/9 would end the neoliberal era and we might go back to a (largely mythical) world of benevolent welfare states. But now we are being told that it’s not bankers and big business who must pay (they will get another tax cut) but ordinary folk. In this sense, a disciplining-through-austerity of the working class may be worth a quarter (or four) of negative growth. Certainly the Irish and UK political elites seem to think so.All this will only deepen the crisis of political representation for the working class (understood here in both its blue and white collar versions). The Greens, if they distance themselves from this enough, may get some of the benefit. But the weakness of the Greens’ politics related to class issues ( us v them ) will also hamper their ability to fill the gap. Sadly, Abbott awaits on the other side.Anyhow, this is the subject of an upcoming Left Flank post.

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