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Portugal: Left Bloc in struggle to regain unity after convention

For more on Portugal, click HERE.

By Dick Nichols

December 13, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- After its ninth national convention, held in Lisbon on November 22-23, 2014, it really looked as if Portugal’s Left Bloc were in serious trouble—split right down the middle. And split not over insuperable differences of political perspective but over its leadership model and who, as national coordinator, should be its public face.

This was the first time in its 15-year existence that a Left Bloc convention had not produced a solid majority (usually around 80%). But this time Motion U (called “Unitary Motion under Construction—For a Citizen Revolt Against Austerity”, with outgoing co-coordinators Catarina Martins and João Semedo as lead signatories) was being challenged by Motion E. This motion was called “A Plural Bloc, Force for Turnaround” and was supported by the Bloc’s national parliamentary caucus leader Pedro Filipe Soares and founding member and MP Luis Fazenda.

Motion E put up Soares to replace Semedo and Martins as the Bloc’s national coordinator.

In the vote for the 80-seat National Board, the Bloc’s leadership body between conventions, Motions U and E both won 259 votes. As a result both obtained 34 seats, with the remaining positions being shared between two of the three other motions that had been submitted to the convention. These were Motion B (51 votes, 7 seats) and Motion R (32 votes and 4 seats).

In the vote on the motions themselves, Motion U won by a hair’s breadth from Motion E, by 266 votes to 258. Motions A (“A Left Response—For a Bloc that attends to the needs of people now!”), B (“Re-found the Bloc in the fight against austerity”) and R (“Reinvent the Bloc”) won 7, 34 and 30 votes respectively.

This overall result, due to some delegates switching from Motion B to Motion U for vote on the political line, raised the possibility that the incoming National Board, which elects the Left Bloc’s Political Committee and National Coordinator(s), would be deadlocked. The headlines read “Bloc ends convention without leaders” and “Left Bloc: leadership coming soon”.

Nonetheless, at the first meeting of the National Board, on November 30, a compromise was reached that won 90% backing and which no-one opposed: the 16-person Political Committee would reflect the proportions of support received at the convention (as required by a change to the statutes) and there would be a six-person Standing Committee (also with proportional representation) and a single national coordinator instead of the gender-balanced two-person coordination formula adopted at the previous National Convention (2012).

Catarina Martins was elected to this last position after fellow outgoing national coordinator João Semedo stepped down to allow the new leadership model to be set in place.

In a statement after the election of the new leadership bodies Semedo said:

1. Everything has a beginning an end. I contributed with Catarina Martins in a difficult stage in the life of the Left Bloc, the period after the exit of [founding member and long-term national coordinator] Francisco Louçã[i] and a transition phase for the Bloc, without any of its founders[ii] in its leadership, a Bloc led by another generation of leaders. This convention, the biggest and with the greatest participation ever, concludes this transition. They were difficult years but not lost years.

2. At the end of the Convention I invited the leaders of the new National Board to reflect upon the results and find a solid solution that would guarantee the unity of the leadership and of the party. That invitation, that appeal of mine, was heard and received a positive, a favorable response. Today we can say that that appeal has had an echo and has given the Bloc a solid leadership and management solution…I am very satisfied with this result, very calm as to the future of this solution: the Bloc has emerged stronger and more united from this Convention.

3. During the week [between the Convention and the incoming National Board meeting] I worked with other Bloc leaders from the various Motions in building this model. We filed away many rough edges, brought our positions closer together, and succeeded in innovating and renewing. This sort of work has never been done before in the Bloc. It is done, it will work and I know that my participation is no longer necessary for it to work well…The Bloc is more united, the Bloc is ready for every struggle.

Leadership struggle

What gave rise to the Left Bloc’s sharp, even acrimonious, differences, expressed in the unprecedented five separate motions, a turbulent Convention debate and a fierce battle for the numbers that would decide the position(s) of national coordinator?

A difficult outcome already looked likely in pre-convention discussion. The result of the delegate elections in the Bloc’s branches was that Motion U won fewer delegates than Motion E (256 to 262) while Motion A elected eight delegates, Motion B 44 delegates and Motion R 38 delegates. Nine delegates were elected on the basis of local platforms, making a total of 617, representing a membership of 9254 at a delegate ratio of 15 to 1. In the end 603 delegates were actually credentialed for the convention.

The heart of the fight was that supporters of platform E had identified the Bloc’s leadership model and personnel as a central (but not exclusive) reason for the Bloc’s setbacks since 2011, culminating in its disappointing result in this year’s May 25 European election.

In that poll the Bloc had maintained only one of the three Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) it had won in 2009, with its vote falling from 10.72% to 4.56% (from 382,667 to 147,580). At the same time support for the Democratic Unity Coalition (CDU), the electoral alliance of the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and the Ecologist Party “The Greens” (PEV), had risen to 12.68% from 10.64% (from 379,787 to 416,151) while the social-democratic Socialist Party (PS) had also increased its support, from 26.53% to 31,45% (946,818 to 1,032,252). Effectively, the PCP and the PS had both won an extra MEP from the Bloc.

The centre-of-the-road Earth Party (MPT) won two seats as its vote surged to 7.15% from 0.67%, while LIVRE, the creation of former Left Bloc MEP Rui Tavares—who in July 2011deserted as an independent to the Greens-European Free Alliance caucus—scored 2.18%, but won no seat.

In a pre-convention discussion contribution Vítor Cavalinhos voiced Motion E’s view of the Bloc’s leadership difficulties:

Let’s now look at leadership. In this time of fairy stories, on this question Motion U offers us this one: ‘The Bloc paid the price of being the first Portuguese party to establish gender parity in its public representation.’ The issue is not whether the solution is good or bad. The issue is that the people don’t get the meaning of the thing. Maybe we should have Bertolt Brecht’s sense of irony—‘if the people don’t pay attention, change the people.’

Another variant of the fairy tale is that this solution resulted from a normal debate in the Bloc. Yet the truth is that this solution was ‘imposed’ by comrade Francisco Louçã who in full pre-convention debate posted on Facebook that he supported a man and a woman for leadership and named names. That opinion affected the debate because the opinion of the previous national coordinator isn’t just any opinion. This attitude was a reason for social networks regarding the Left Bloc as a monarchy where the king appoints his successors. We need to have the humility to recognise that this solution hasn’t worked, at least with these leading figures, and excites no-one, neither inside nor outside the Bloc. In measures of political popularity they invariably come last.

And why is it that [in the Spanish state] Podemos, the most innovative party-movement of recent times, at its founding assembly rejected having a tripartite leadership and overwhelmingly chose Pablo Iglesias as its leader? Iglesias told the same assembly: ‘I would like not to have this responsibility, but I believe that have three general secretaries will not win elections against [Spanish prime minister] Mariano Rajoy and [opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party leader] Pedro Sánchez, while having one can.’

Two years ago, when Pedro Filipe Soares was elected leader of the Left Bloc’s parliamentary caucus, Francisco Louçã considered it ‘simply the best choice’ and João Semedo praised his experience and personal and political qualities. Times change, attitudes change…

Since I want, and have always wanted, the best for the Bloc, I simply support the best person for the position of coordinator.

In the Left Bloc, representation on the National Board, the main leadership body between conventions, reflects the degree of support for competing motions to convention. Given the National Board’s tradition of electing the national coordinator(s) as the lead signatory or signatories of the motion winning a convention majority, Motion E supporters seem to have calculated that Soares could not be gotten up as national coordinator except as by-product of his heading a motion different to that supported by the outgoing incumbents.

They may well have been reinforced in this stance by motion U’s insistence on the twin-coordinator model and its position that “in the name of the political unity of Bloc representation, those elected on this list will not take part in any coordination arising from different political motions”.

Motion E emerged despite the fact that the supporters of motion U had invited its eventual supporters to participate in a process of formulating a single inclusive position, and that they did not make support for Martins and Semedo as national coordinators a precondition for this collaboration (although these had expressed their willingness to continue in the job).

The result of the formation of Motion E as vehicle for the Soares’ candidacy was that the Bloc was thrown into a fraught and confusing debate between two positions that had not expressed any major differences over the eight previous National Conventions. They had, indeed, been at one in opposing criticism from various minority motions in past national gatherings (such as Motion B at the Eighth National Convention).[iii]

Matters were further exacerbated because supporters of Motion U came to a large degree (but not exclusively) from the internal Bloc tendency “Socialism” while the supporters of Motion E were largely from the People’s Democratic Union (UDP), the only one of the Bloc’s three founding organisations still continuing in the form of an association within the party-movement.[iv]

Discussions begun…

As the pre-convention debate unfolded it became clear that having the direct link between national coordinator election and majority political line actually risked distorting discussion about the roots of the Bloc’s problems and the treatments needed to tackle them.

For example, there was a lot of diagnosis in the pre-convention discussion—in most detail in Motions B and R– about possible mixes of real conditions and political mistakes that might explain the Bloc’s predicament. These needed careful consideration.

Motion R’s analysis combined recognition of the underlying impact of the last eighteen months of social retreat after the last immense Portugal-wide “Screw the Troika” protest (March 2, 2013)[v] with an analysis of the long-run effect inside the Bloc of its main public focus of work to date—on giving parliamentary voice to social revolt, to the Bloc’s own anti-austerity proposals and to the proposal for a left government when this last was effectively ruled out by the real balance of forces between the PS, the PCP and the Bloc itself.

Motion R added: “The successive and unclear messages about a ‘government of the left’ also had the added effect of restraining the Bloc’s radical culture and identity.” Accordingly, “the search to construct an image of the party with ability to govern shaped the Left Bloc. Media and institutional presence became the centre of its political activity.”

According to motion R, this choice had produced a “crisis of excessive centralisation”, where the Political Committee acted as substitute to the National Board and the professionalisation of the Bloc’s functioning put the focus on its parliamentary caucus.

The end result was that after 15 years the Bloc “is seen as being too far outside the political system to be trusted by those inside it, and too far inside the system to be trusted by those who feel they are outside it.” At the same time, “many of those who dreamed of being involved in building a mass anti-capitalist party ended up feeling they were living in a party of onlookers.”

Motion R avoided specifying what different combination of work “in the institutions and in the streets”, the Bloc should have been following over the years.

Motion B’s take was that “the political line that emerged from the last Convention was very influenced by events in Greece and by the rapid growth of Syriza…[But] Portuguese political life never reached that degree of radicalisation and that meant much less polarisation in social conflicts. On the other hand, the fact that the PS [which had called in the Troika in 2011] was not in government and excluded itself—because of inside pressure from figures associated with left positions—from a formal agreement sponsored by [president] Cavaco Silva, or from suggestions of constitutional revision made by the PSD, meant it avoided any serious internal splits.”

Largely supported by members from the far northern coastal town of Viana do Castelo, Motion A analysed that the four other motions all suffered from “resignation” in the face of the prospect of a low Bloc vote in the 2015 Portuguese national elections.

It stated: “We don’t accept this resignation since we are convinced that the Bloc still enjoys the objective conditions to try for—without any kind of sectarianism and with the goal of contributing to an electoral platform that stands in the 2015 elections—a broad convergence to the left of the PS that includes all those who want that to happen.”

Motion A said that the Bloc has to stipulate minimum conditions for supporting or taking part in a project for government, showing greater concern for people’s real lives than for the projection of its defence perimeter as a party.”

It proposed a seven-point minimum program as the basis for a left government, covering defence of the welfare state, public education, wages and working hours, an end to privatisations, tax relief for small business and regional redevelopment.

An important discussion that couldn’t be developed at the Convention was whether the Bloc had missed a critical boat—as supporters of different motions had written in pre-convention discussion—when it failed to champion the need for the “Screw the Troika” movement to develop a political expression. That is, when the time was ripe had the Bloc failed to promote some Portuguese anticipation of Podemos? Or was such a possibility ruled out by specifically Portuguese conditions?

And even if such a development had never been feasible, were any of Podemos’s methods and culture—like open candidate primaries and internet voting—in any way applicable to the Bloc itself?

Most of all, the difficult but necessary discussion of what sort of leadership structures and leadership personnel the Bloc most needed—including the pros and cons of having a charismatic central figure like Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras or Podemos’s Pablo Iglesias—proved almost impossible.

The motions had different positions on this question, ranging from Motion R’s “collective system of spokespeople [with] day to-day intervention and communication shared between members of the Political Committee” (a proposal similar to Motion B’s), to Motion U’s persistence with the twin-coordinator formula, to Motion E’s bet on Pedro Filipe Soares.

Finally, the leadership struggle, led to exaggeration of the differences between Motions E and U, provisional confirmation of which coming immediately after the convention when the incoming National Board was forced by the tied vote to bring together positions that had been presented as counterposed.

Indeed, grounds for workable consensus may well have existed all along. In February, before the European election result, a special Bloc national conference had adopted resolutions on “Disobeying the Europe of austerity” and building “A more participatory and socially implanted Bloc” that anticipated much of the analysis and many of the proposals contained in the motions to the convention. For example, this last document covered the need to attack shortfalls in the Bloc’s internal democracy, social implantation and degree of member participation.

Four years of electoral decline

The background reality haunting debate was the continuing decline in Bloc electoral support since 2011. This has taken place while the living standards of Portugal’s working people and poor has been viciously degraded by the austerity programs imposed by the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund (the “Troika”), and enforced in the country by the conservative coalition government of Social Democratic Party (SDS) prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho and his foreign minister Paulo Portas, leader of the Democratic and Social Centre—People’s Party (CDS-PP).

Shouldn’t that state of affairs have seen the Bloc grow, like Syriza in Greece and the United Left (IU) and then Podemos in the Spanish state? The success of these organisations was a repeated point of reference in convention debate.

However, an embattled Left Bloc, which has fought consistently and forcefully against austerity imposed by PS and right-wing governments, now confronts a PS that, under its new leader[vi], Lisbon mayor António Costa, is beginning to enjoy a clear majority of its own over the ruling right-wing coalition. See Chart 1.

At the same time, in the political space to the left of the PS the Left Bloc has been losing out compared to the CDU, even as the abstention rate, indicator of political indifference, continues to climb. See Chart 2.[vii]

The decline in electoral support for the Left Bloc since 2011 has also triggered a series of desertions, with most locating the Bloc’s problem in its supposed sectarian refusal to offer the PS a reasonable and negotiable basis for forming a left government. This was reflected inside the Bloc at its 2012 Eighth National Convention in Motion B, which omitted the call for debt renegotiation—understood as unacceptable to the PS.[viii]

Since 2011, leading ex-Left Bloc members, some of them supporters of Motion B in 2012, have been active in the creation of other political formations. These include Rui Tavares’s LIVRE, Forum Manifesto, initiated by former members of Bloc founding organisation Política XXI who were opposed to its merger into the Socialism Tendency, and 3D, a declaration for left unity initiated in late 2013 by journalist and former Bloc member (and 2012 Motion B supporter) Daniel Oliveira.

In mid-November, just before the Bloc convention, these forces came together to call for a “citizens’ candidacy” at the 2015 elections for the Portuguese parliament. When Ana Drago, former Bloc MP and Forum Manifesto supporter, was asked by the magazine Expresso on November 16 whether “the voter wouldn’t think that it’s Ana Drago who has changed”, she replied:

In the Bloc I myself always advocated building the capacity to create connections making possible examples of positive change in people’s real lives. And I continue to think exactly the same way. What we can’t conjure away today is that there is an emergency situation and a change in historical context. And this is of such an important shape that compromises are emerging. Not agreed opinions because that’s not what’s of concern. We are not here to all think the same way. If I thought the PS was the solution for the government of the country, I would vote for and join the PS. I don’t think so. I do believe that the PS is a determining element but not the single solution.

Nonetheless, despite these departures and the practical disappearance from within the Bloc of the position they express (basically reflected at this Convention by Motion A, with least support), the party-movement’s membership has been growing—from 8025 in September 2012 to 9264 two years later. This was the Bloc’s largest convention ever, with many interested observers, especially young people, following the debate. When the end-of-convention votes on the five competing motions and the National Board and Control Commission were due it was impossible to find a seat in Lisbon’s vast Casal Vistoso community hall.

Pablo Iglesias speech

That hall was also packed for the Convention’s opening “United Against Austerity” public meeting, which featured international guests Trevor Ó Clochartaigh from Sinn Fein and Giorgios Karatsoubanis from Syriza, as well as Pablo Iglesias, recently elected general-secretary of Podemos.

Yet when Iglesias “revealed amongst friends, because no-one is listening” (joke—nearly all of the Portuguese media were there) the five ingredients of Podemos’s Asterix-like “secret potion” of success, it might have caused delegates to reflect on the differences between Spanish and Portuguese political landscapes.

Was the Left Bloc really suffering from any of the deadly sins of the traditional left fingered in the Iglesias diagnosis? And if it was, would some Podemos treatment help it back to health?

The Bloc hadn’t, for example, lacked the political will to win, nor indulged in pseudo-scientific justification of its setbacks, nor made a cult of Marxist jargon, nor a religion of itself. It had certainly always had the same intransigent attitude to the German-dominated European Union as Podemos and understood the extraordinary political challenge and opportunity provided by the economic crisis.

This created, in Iglesias’s words, the “moment of boldness, a moment in which we can distinguish the bureaucrats from the revolutionaries…who can look people in the eyes and say ‘see those people there, they are your enemy’.”

The Bloc certainly understood the need for empathy, for not talking in left jargon and just being like “ordinary” people, as Iglesias himself acknowledged in recognising the empathy of Bloc MEP Marisa Matias (“just like someone from Podemos”).

The Bloc has probably not appealed to Portuguese national pride in the way suggested by the Podemos general-secretary, who stressed that anti-austerity politics in southern Europe had to appeal to popular resentment about becoming an economic colony of Germany.

For Iglesias mass radical politics required transforming the people’s roar when Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo scores a goal against Germany (“that shout of healthy revenge”) into the feeling that “it is our country’s right to have a decent health system, decent education, civil rights, carers for our old people” and that “no financial power, no bank, no ratings agency, is going to rob me of these because I am proud to be of the South, to be Portuguese, to be Spanish, to be Greek.” (stormy applause)

Again, how, in the Portuguese context, to apply Iglesias’s conviction that “the political chessboard [of left versus right] has to be broken”? The Podemos leader stressed that “the basic division is between the majority who are on the side of democracy and defending social, civil and democratic rights and those who stand on the side of the elites”, adding that “doing politics is about exploiting the contradictions in the enemy camp, envisaging the possibility of victory. We are obliged to win, not occupy a space to the left of anyone.”

But here Podemos has the advantage of being a fresh, irreverent new force in political honeymoon phase and is only now starting to meet many key political tests—not completely unlike like the Left Bloc itself after its 1999 founding—whereas the Portuguese party-movement is increasingly seen as “a party like the rest”, with its own accumulated history. Would Podemos-like messaging of “neither right nor left, but people versus the oligarchy” type help the Bloc at this time in its political life?

Iglesias concluded: “I know that you are in a difficult situation, and that your last results are not what you deserve, but at times the difficult situations are the ideal situations. There’s a very cruel Castilian expression that says ‘There’s no evil from which some good doesn’t come.’ At times the bad situations are those for trying things that the others don’t dare to try.”

Iglesias ended by appealing for an effort of liberation from “left-wing conservatism” (“our symbols, our language, our hymns, our positions always subordinated to the social-democracy”) in order to meet the challenge of the time.

“The battlefield of political struggle in Europe is open…we are at the moment of Danton, of audacity. These spaces of peoples’ indignation with the elites can be occupied by whoever has the greatest political talent. You don’t have to read Antonio Gramsci to know that a political party is a thinking machine for exploiting the divisions in enemy ranks, for winning, and for boldness in imagining an alternative at the European level—which is going to start with a victory for Syriza.”

Main themes—role of constitution defence, alliance policy, leadership model

The convention was opened by João Semedo with a speech stressing that “those who have been predicting the demise of the Left Bloc for 15 years will again be disappointed”. Semedo said that the party-movement was more necessary than ever in Portugal’s worsening economic” and social crisis, in which the stench from the country’s sewers of corruption was becoming more intolerable by the day, “work does not mean citizenship, but slavery” and “each succeeding government is worse than the last”.

As an example of the Bloc’s value Semedo pointed to the previous week’s success of its parliamentarians in exposing a sneaky attempt of the government—not opposed by the PS—to restore life-time pensions for MPs via the small print of the national budget. The persistent questioning of Bloc MP Mariana Mortágua had brought the scam to light and forced the government to back off.

Semedo ended his presentation by calling for a sense of proportion (“it’s impossible to fight in politics without making mistakes”) and for a sense of the value of the Left Bloc (“no-one can do what we do together”) and with a commitment to fight for a stronger Bloc “by including not excluding”.

However, the Portuguese media’s appetite for the drama of outgoing national coordinators being possibly defeated was whetted in the following session, on amendments to the Bloc’s statutes. Here Motion E narrowly won its proposal allowing internal referenda on any issue “relevant to the political intervention of the Left Bloc” as opposed to Motion U’s proposal to restrict referenda to presidential candidacies, electoral agreements, constitutional matters and international treaties. Motion E also carried its proposal on requirements needed before non-financial members could be lapsed

Debate at the convention was overwhelmingly a replay of the written pre-convention discussion, and began with presentations from representatives of the five motions. Behind the fight for leadership the main contested issues were: the role that defence of the Portuguese Constitution should have in the Bloc’s work; whether or not the Bloc’s supposedly “zig-zagging” political line—now supporting a dissident PS candidate for president, now moving a motion of no-confidence in a PS government, now proposing a government of the left with the PS—was responsible for its loss of support; the need to improve its implantation in the social movements and regions; and lack of membership participation.

The opening moves shaping these discussions were made by Motion E, whose analysis of Portuguese politics, spoken to by Pedro Filipe Soares, focused on the Constitution as barrier to the application of austerity. The key parts of Motion E’s document were:

The Left Bloc understands that austerity is not constitutional. After the discussion of the 2012 state budget, where the government proposed for the first time to cut wages, the Bloc joined forces to demand a ruling from the Constitutional Court. The victory was clear: the Constitutional Court declared the cuts illegal, even though it had allowed them in 2012.

The Constitution is the centre of the bourgeoisie’s attack. Constitutional revision is the next point in the plan of the Portuguese elite. The Bloc must strive to make the struggle against constitutional revision central to the defence of people’s rights, increasing the strength and breadth of support for this struggle.

The ‘Screw the Troika’ demonstrations showed that it is possible to mobilise millions in struggle. Given this learning experience, the Left Bloc must work alongside the social movements, consolidating mobilisation and participation, bringing forces together and creating a social majority in defence of constitutional rights.

Motions E’s analysis of the Bloc’s own problems was as follows:

The Left Bloc lost part of the people’s confidence that it once enjoyed. The last presidential elections [2011] were the beginning of this process. The perception was that the support given to [dissident PS member] Manuel Alegre was unwarranted. When he supported the 2011 state budget it placed the Left Bloc in a situation of indirect support to [then PS prime minister José] Socrates. The fake censure motion, in which the right was asked not to bring down the government, was the second moment that led to the loss of confidence.

Its incoherent and erratic political line alienated many people from the Left Bloc. Many who had voted for us because we carried out the fight against injustices and austerity did not come back to vote for us. And we have still not managed to win back the confidence lost.

The leadership faltered on fundamental questions that formed the axis of discussion at the [Eighth National] Convention. On the issue of ‘left government’ the Left Bloc knocked on all doors, including that of the PS, ‘without conditions’, after this had signed up to the [European Union’s] Fiscal Compact[ix]. On the euro the popular perception is that the BE has gone back on its position.

The initial premise of the Left Bloc was that of ‘hoping for nothing from the PS and not waiting for the PCP’. Radical change went through the Left Bloc and gave it the identity of mobiliser of whoever wanted to join forces in order to win hegemony and change the political landscape. That is the identity we have to recover!...

The Left Bloc must return to having a program and road-map of its own. To begin the discussion with the question ‘with whom should we be forming alliances’ is to relinquish our identity. Only discussing alliances is the choice of someone who already doesn’t believe in this movement.

The Bloc has to have a project directed towards socialism and hostile to two-partyism and party turnover without alternative. More than discussing alternatives we have to discuss political line in order to bring forces together.

Our alliance policy cannot be on the basis of the sum total from adding up parties, but lies rather in a challenge to citizens and to those who have now ceased believing in politics. Only by breaking with the tactical niceties of the party-political game will we manage to re-win people’s confidence.

Motion E called for an urgently needed “return to origins”, with the recovery of the Bloc’s founding “combativity, irreverence, credibility and creativity”. In the pre-convention televised debate between the motions, Pedro Filipe Soares had called for no illusions in the PS, an “offensive towards society” and pride in the Left Bloc as “the centre of resistance that all respect, especially in its defence of the Constitution”.

Catarina Martins and João Semedo had outlined the essence of Motion U’s differences with Motion E in a pre-convention discussion contribution:

The great challenge facing the Bloc is to contribute to building an alternative to alternation among the PS, PSD and CDS. This breakthrough requires a program of disobedience towards the European Union, centred on the restructuring of debt and the recovery of what was lost and destroyed over the years.

We must be clear: to set this anti-austerity alternative in place a moderate coming together in defence of the Constitution is not enough. We must attack the debt, this barrier that separates austerity from its alternative. It was the debt that provided the pretext for and has created the blackmail in support of permanent austerity.

It’s worth remembering that even with this Constitution almost everything was privatised and that the right wing tore up labour rights and public services. And that no process of [progressive] constitutional reform is on the horizon. The PS, even with the Constitution under its arm, is no champion of the end of austerity, nor of any of the breakthroughs that the country needs.

Contrary to what we want and what we fight for, the crisis and the lack of perspectives for many citizens has reduced the level of resistance. To re-discover the countless numbers who have lost almost everything, the left has to rebuild itself as a political pole capable of restoring hope in the future and in the country…

If the times have been hard, those that are approaching will be even harder. With a government of the central bloc or of the PS little will change, as always becomes clear when things go beyond rhetoric. For our part, we don’t give up. We don’t surrender to the doctrine of the ‘lesser evil’, to being an adornment on the PS’s lapel, but neither do we agree with the self-sufficiency that turns ‘the Bloc’s own line-of-march’ into a sectarian watchword for a Bloc shut up in itself.

Let’s be clear: there is no left alternative without the Bloc, but the Bloc alone cannot constitute that alternative. We want a political pole of the forces fighting austerity, a union of left forces that, as the voice of the citizens’ revolt, can be a governmental alternative to the centre bloc and the PS….

Appendix A contains short summaries from the Esquerda website of the opening presentations of Motions A, B and R.

Appendix B contains further discussion on the importance of defending the Portuguese Constitution.

The July 2013 proposal for a ‘government of the left’

The discussion of events surrounding the Bloc’s July 2013 proposal for a “government of the left” was largely about what had really happened at the time, and didn’t manage a thorough weighing of the concrete tactical options facing the Bloc when the future of the Passos Coelho government was in the balance.

If the Bloc hadn’t made its proposal around a “government of the left”, what should it have done? In the televised pre-convention debate between representatives of the five motions, Catarina Martins said that as the crisis unfolded the entire country was waiting to see if there would be an alternative to Passos Coelho, and that the Bloc was duty bound to call on the PS to commit to a left alternative based on the essential questions of debt renegotiation and defence of the welfare state.

Pedro Felipe Soares replied that the idea that the Left Bloc could force a clarifications from the PS was fundamentally mistaken and that calling for a left government on such a minimum program compromised the Left Bloc and the very idea of a left government.

In a pre-convention contribution, Fernando Rosas, Mariana Mortágua and José Gusmão, the Bloc’s delegation in negotiations with the PS, described Motion E’s statement that the Bloc leadership had “knocked on the door of the PS with a view to a left government without conditions” as “a fantasy without any basis in fact”.

While [PS leader António José] Seguro and the right wing were negotiating an agreement under the supervision of an envoy of the President of the Republic, the Left Bloc addressed itself by letter to the PS and the PCP—parties with whom it had achieved parliamentary agreements in the appeal to the Constitutional Court against the government’s budget measures—proposing a meeting to discuss the crisis and the alternatives. In the communiqué from its Political Committee, the Bloc made an appeal ‘for these conversations to take place without any prior condition’: nothing should get in the way of talks between the opposition parties, which needed to take place at that exact moment.

In the very same communiqué the Political Committee advanced that ‘the Left Bloc’s agenda for these rounds of negotiation was clear: the Bloc is committed to building a left government that ends austerity and the [Troika] memorandum, that achieves a restructuring of the debt by mobilising the necessary banking, financial and budget resources and that restores people’s lost earnings.’ To say, therefore, that at that moment the Bloc was proposing a ‘government without conditions’ isn’t a question of viewpoint or a matter of opinion. It is simply false.

Rosas, Mortágua and Gusmão ended by asking:

If the imaginary proposal of a ‘government without conditions’ and ‘presided over by Seguro’ had ever existed, a matter so serious that it would a year later justify a candidacy for party leadership, why is it that the present candidate [Pedro Filipe Soares] never then found even one opportunity to censure the initiative at the various meetings of the National Board that were taking place at the same time? Why did he hide his criticism from the bulk of the party for a whole year? How come he felt able to represent a Bloc that was ‘knocking on the PS’s door’ to propose ‘a government without conditions’?

The contribution suggested no answer, but ended with the claim that:

The Bloc showed its capacity for initiative, presenting its terms for the creation of an alternative. The violence of the PS’s reaction to that alternative clearly revealed the intentions of its leadership. On the other hand, our initiative underlined where a solution could be found, which is always through a consistent struggle against the debt, the Fiscal Compact and austerity.

Luis Fazenda wrote in answer for Motion E:

The core of the criticism of the political line followed by the Bloc majority is rooted in its zigzagging of positions. In recent times, and in the context of the exit of the Forum Manifesto Association, the boundary lines with the PS have been established. We understand that this seesawing derives from the lack of a line of self-affirmation, with all its achievements and mistakes, such as the Bloc followed up until 2011. The issue is rooted in struggling to acquire a social majority and not a parliamentary alliance. Assertions of an intent to govern with the actual PS—or more recently to suggest, in reply to [PCP general secretary] Jerónimo de Sousa’s insistence that the PCP and Left Bloc should each ride their own bicycle, that there are two-seater bicycles—are not of a type to generate confidence in the project.

The fact that neither Pedro Filipe Soares nor many others of us have made a song-and-dance of our differences of opinion is due to an attitude that is well-known. Unlike others we did not carry out a polemic in the media, nor did we prejudice the Left Bloc in the local or European elections with disagreements that would have got out of hand, and we discretely maintained our position. When I was asked by the coordinators to head the delegation that went to that meeting with the PS, I said what I thought about the issue and declined. The discrepancies were clear. But perhaps there was some hardness of hearing.

José Manuel Pureza, former leader of Política XXI and Motion U supporter, made an implicit defence of the Bloc’s tactical moves over the years, by stating in a pre-convention discussion contribution that creating anti-capitalist unity that can challenge the hold of the social-democracy requires:

a permanent work of critical exchange with socialists, communists and all people of the left, neither renouncing the formation of joint platforms of demands…nor shrinking from making a complete break with compromised positions. The strategic horizon for such a left is programmatically clear unity, which it ceaselessly tries to make emerge from the possibilities of every struggle, every denunciation, every proposal.

See Appendix C for more of Pureza’s and Fazenda’s contributions, as well as that of UDP president Joana Mortágua, explaining how she came to support Motion E.

Leadership model

The most detailed contribution to the fraught debate of leadership model came from Carlos Carujo and Ricardo Sá Ferreira of Motion R in a written pre-convention discussion that questioned Motion E’s proposal to replace Semedo and Martins with Soares:

The problem with this debate is not the discussion of model and who should be the leading figures. The problem is that it is focused on the issue of the Bloc’s media profile, relegating important political questions to a secondary level. We recognise the importance of this topic, but a debate that focusses only on [the issue of coordination] brings about the eclipse of political discussion in the Bloc.

Noting that the Bloc had worked with four spokespeople from 1999 before switching to a single national coordinator in 2005 so as to meet the growing media attention it was receiving, Carujo and Sá Ferreira said that “beginning with this concession to the mainstream [in English in original], the figure of national coordinator gained an importance in the life of the Bloc and in its perception of what it was.”

We do not agree that it is the model of double-headed coordination that has brought us to the crisis through which the Bloc is presently passing. Even less do we consider it the fault of the two leading figures.

These are not problems of communication. The problems of communication that the Bloc is facing come from the difficulties created by the economic crisis, from its political vocabulary and its strategy, from its desire/need to play catch-up with the media.

These are not problems of charisma. We already knew beforehand that the charisma issue would be an assault weapon against any new spokesperson after the experience of having a coordinator with great public and media presence [Francisco Louçã]. The Bloc could never be dependent on charisma for doing politics because the prominence of a person doesn’t fit with the left and our political culture.

The problem is not due to the ‘daring’ of the gender-balanced coordination model. This media narrative— that the daring of the model, unheard of in our country, would encounter strong popular rejection—constituted a self-fulfilling prophecy. The offensive began on the very day it was proposed and has been aimed at defeating the leadership of the Bloc via the argument of popular conservatism.

Unfortunately, this contribution, which might be disagreed with for underestimating the huge political plus that having an articulate and forceful media presence can represent for radical politics (one thinks of Pablo Iglesias’s impact on Spanish television), got no proper consideration in the written discussion or in convention contributions.

The debate

After the five motions had been presented, over sixty speakers took part in an often heated debate that revisited all the themes of the pre-convention discussion and tested the energy and concentration of delegates by extending to midnight on the Saturday and lunchtime on the Sunday.

Contributions fell into two broad categories—rehearsals of the arguments already presented in the written pre-convention discussion and calls—in some cases from delegates from Portugal’s economically devastated inland regions—for the Bloc to do its work better in specific areas of work. These included organised labour, young people, casual workers, Portuguese economic exiles, immigrants, LGBTI collectives, environment, agriculture and regional redevelopment, and local council work.

These interventions were a strong reminder of just how much good work the Left Bloc does.

Many motion U speakers were strong in their support of the gender-balanced, twin-coordinator model as proof of the seriouness of the Bloc’s commitment to gender equity (gender equity also applies for the National Board). Another theme was the impossibility of the Left Bloc simply returning to its “irreverent” past, as if it were a political Peter Pan—the honeymoon was over and only consistent work could recover lost support.

The debate also revealed the intensity of emotional impact the discussion was having, with delegates cheering and clapping “their” champions while greeting other presentations with silence.

One of the most keenly awaited interventions was that of former national coordinator Francisco Louçã, a supporter of Motion U. He was blunt: “There had never been in the history of the Left Bloc, in these 15 years, a bigger mistake than the irresponsibility of dividing the leadership…it is a proof of immaturity and is just not done.

“That’s why I have gotten up to speak to you about the strength of the Left Bloc, because it’s up to all of us together to correct this mistake. That’s why my reply is that the central issue here is what we are prepared to do together for the Portugal of working people. This Left Bloc has done a lot but it has still not done enough.”

Louçã’s view was that the Bloc’s difficulties were not due to this or that tactical error or leadership shortcoming, but to the growing feeling in the country that there were no political solutions to its predicament. “Portugal does not believe in politics because it does not believe in itself”, he said. The Left Bloc was more needed than ever to help overturn the mood of resignation, but only a united Left Bloc would have any chance of helping do that.

Speaking for Motion E, Luis Fazenda asked the convention to consider why some 1200 Bloc members, many not associated with the UDP, had signed up to its diagnosis and proposals. Luis Pereira, also for Motion E, denied that the motion was irresponsible or immature and emphasised that the leadership question and the Bloc’s loss of electoral support had to be taken seriously. He commented: “If the Left Bloc were a normal party, heads would have rolled a long time ago.”

Pereira also claimed that Motion E “was not against other motions” and that “all motions have positive aspects”.

As the convention debate progressed, it became clear that it was producing a certain counter-reaction among delegates and observers. This was expressed in two questions heard in the corridors: “How big are these differences, anyway?” and “What good is this doing us?”

Unaligned delegate Carlos Matias spoke for the need to share the experiences of local work and generalise best examples, at the same time questioning the tendency-versus-tendency structure of the convention. Doesn’t the Bloc belong to the members, he asked, indicating that there were some who felt that their concerns weren’t being recognised.

Summarising for Motion R, João Carlos Louçã picked this mood and was applauded when he pointed out that, whatever the final vote, the convention was effectively tied, and all sides would have to come together to work out a practicable compromise. The important thing was to strengthen the Bloc’s grass roots campaigning work, making it relevant in practice to all those suffering from austerity.

After the votes were taken it fell to João Semedo to bring the convention to a close. His first move was to invite all those who had been elected to the incoming National Board and Control Commission to join him on stage. He then said: “The new leadership of the Bloc doesn’t have to bury differences because it respects differences. But let there be no doubt, it certainly has to bury the internal conflict that brought us here.”

Stressing how much the five motions actually had in common and how much the Bloc makes a difference (“our persistence ended debt restructuring being a taboo subject”), he added: “It is from the recovery of popular mobilisation and of the social movements that the force of real change will arise. That’s where we have lost and where we have to get back to winning. We on the left have to stir up the forces of outrage, of the people who don’t accept the gold visas [Portuguese residency for foreigners in exchange for real estate purchases], the financial scams, the putrid elites.

“We know what we want: to break with austerity the debt must be restructured and the Fiscal Compact rejected in the name of the social rights that the Constitution enshrines and, even more, through the struggle for wages and equality.”

He ended with a message for a future government led by the PS: “Let Costa understand that the first day he comes to us to say that there’s no money for job creation or reducing income tax, that we will stand up and say that there are consistent people in this world who do not accept that interest, profit and perks have to be paid for out of the sacrifices of the people.”

Conclusion

Getting a clear view of how objective and subjective factors combine to operate on an anti-capitalist organisation in a phase of social and political retreat is nothing if not difficult, and a more politically disorienting chain of events than those within which the Left Bloc has had to act and think would be hard to imagine.[x] It would have been surprising if a wide range of differing diagnoses of the Left Bloc’s troubles hadn’t emerged.

Nonetheless, if we could bring ourselves to believe in the spirit world, it would be tempting to ascribe the tied vote of the Bloc’s convention not to tactical voting or behind-the-scenes dealing (if this existed), but to some Spiritual Guardian of the Class Struggle, concerned that the actors in this conflict didn’t inadvertently cause irreparable damage to an organisation that has been an important gain not only for Portuguese working people but for the entire European anti-capitalist left.

The tied result dramatised the need for all players to step back, and the compromise developed by João Semedo and ratified by the November 30 National Board meeting meant every motion gained some part of their proposals for the Bloc. In addition, some of the artificial and confusing debate as to the relative weight in the Bloc’s political line of debt restructuring and defence of the Constitution could be put aside.

Key to this result was Semedo’s decision to step down, which did him great credit. This act ended the twin-coordinator model, yet left Catarina Martins as the only woman heading up a party with representation in the Portuguese parliament.

At the same time, with the extension of the principle of proportionality to the Political Committee and the Secretariat, all motions with representatives elected to the National Board will now get input into the day-to-day running of the Bloc, beginning a new phase in its history.

This new stage puts big responsibilities onto the shoulders of all, especially as many of the debates of the convention were unresolved and will inevitably be revisited in the difficult context of a Portuguese social struggle still in decline. That retreat could last well into 2015, if the attitude of waiting to be saved by the PS at the next national elections takes hold.

That scenario would increase pressure on the Left Bloc’s underlying contradiction, reflected in the debate over its July 2013 “left government” proposal. The Bloc is large and politically influential enough—and with a very strong sense of its responsibilities—to propose governmental alternatives to austerity, but not yet large enough to compel other left parties to react to them in other than dismissive, perfunctory or formal ways.

The mood of social resignation also looks to have been the underlying cause of the Bloc’s “poor performance” in the European elections. This was not shaped by any blunders, lack of political imagination or shortfall of commitment from its members, but by a widespread attitude of indifference and “realism”, resulting in increased abstention and “useful voting”.

Even the critical motion E wrote of the European poll: “The Bloc had a good election campaign in the European elections, which was possible because it was developed on a consensus basis through a democratic and participatory process. Despite the election result being far from that desired, the Bloc brought different forces together and its members got involved in the election campaign. That has to be valued.”

If this really is the present Portuguese political mood, the Left Bloc surely won’t worry about not matching Syriza, Podemos or its “irreverent” younger self, but about building further on its 15 years of enormously valuable work on all fronts of the class struggle.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal's European correspondent, based in Barcelona. He attended the ninth national convention of the Left Bloc as a representative of the Australian Socialist Alliance.]

Appendix A: Summary of presentations of Motions B, R and A (translated from www.esquerda.net)

Motion B

João Madeira, for motion B, argued that “the great challenge of this Convention is how to reverse the current state in which the Bloc finds itself” and understand why the dissatisfaction and anger in society has not been translated into movement in the streets”. “We have to know how to build anti-austerity platforms in the name of restructuring the debt and without the sectarianism that made us ineffective on the left,” advocated the motion B representative, proposing greater “tactical flexibility and engagement with other social sectors in the perspective of defeating austerity”, including the PS , so as to “compel those forces to say where they stand”.

For this we need a stronger, more interventionist and democratic Bloc. A refounded, living Bloc where the voice of members is heard”, suggested Madeira, advising the incoming leadership toknow how to view the fragmentation of the former majority and the existence of three minority motions”. For motion B, any leadership solution with one or two coordinators will not give stability”, which could only be achieved by having “an expanded set of spokespeople”.

Motion R

João Carlos Louçã intervened for Motion R, saying that the Bloc was and remains the hope of the left that has not given up. For motion R it is necessary “to bring the Bloc to those who suffer most,” since “solidarity is itself a program of action.” The party of solidaritiesadvocated by this motion means “to turn the Bloc into a movement in action” able todrive all movements”.

João Carlos Louçã argued that “the left that is truly left has no leaders, does not yield to commonplaces nor to the media politics that reduces political debate to a combat between leaders.” Anyone who thinks that the politics we need is that which the media is expecting from us is deluding themselves.” The power of collective leadership that we propose is the power of all of us who are here in this Convention”, he summarised and concluded with the hope thatthe five motions presented here are the most valuable asset for the synthesis that will be required from next week.

Motion A

The last intervention was from Carlos da Torre, for motion A, who presented an overview of the activity of a party which “did a lot of good, but neglected internal democracy”. “We need a dose of humility, to bear in mind the reality of the weaknesses and strengths of this party movement,” he said. For the future, motion A proposed that the Bloc should look all around itself, for where others, like us, defend the position that state should assume the responsibilities essential to defending human dignity. Only if we were blinded by primitive sectarianism would we think that those who defend these values are only to be found in this room.”

Carlos da Torre also stressed that "it is not enough to denounce, protest, demand and be right. Feasible and workable policy solutions that respond now and not in 20 or 30 year are needed, to help the lives that are being destroyed by these [austerity] policies." "We challenge the Convention to provide a strategy of alliance-building that enables this response", starting with the forces to the left of the PS. "But for all the very good work that is done to the left of the PS in 2015, it is unrealistic to think that we can build a majority alternative without the PS”, Carlos da Torre argued.

Appendix B: On the importance of defending the Portuguese Constitution (from Debates #2)

Motion E supporter Hugo Ferreira defended the centrality of defending the Constitution in these terms:

The Constitution of the Portuguese Republic of 1976, even after seven revisions promoted by the right (PS, PSD, CDS) and almost always underappreciated in the texts produced by the comrades supporting Motion U, is so irrelevant for defining a left party’s future tactical and strategic positions that, in the last three years, it was the only thing responsible, on the institutional level, via the successive shots fired by the Constitutional Court, for the weakening and near downfall of the government. It’s curious, despite this, to note that those who now underrate the importance of the Constitution, are the same people who simultaneously appeal to it as an example of their united work and part of the success of their political mandate in the last two years…

Today, as in the past, the Constitution reflects social dynamics, but despite everything continues to be the last institutional wall—be it still small and fragile—standing in the way of the most perverse temptations of the bourgeoisie. That very same point has been made, and made well, by the leadership of the Bloc over the last three years, such that the progressive undervaluing of the Constitution by the comrades of Motion U can only be seen as a last-minute attempt to dig political trenches over issues in relation to which the Bloc enjoys an enormous consensus.

Motion U supporter João Teixeira Lopes saw putting defence of the Constitution at the centre of the Bloc’s works as potentially conservatising:

The Constitution served as a barrier against some attacks, especially with regards to pensions, and that was an obstacle to the Troika that the Bloc realised in alliance with PS and PCP deputies, but the basic supporting pillars of austerity were set in place with the authorisation of the Constitution…the centre of attack of the bourgeoisie is not the Constitution, but the transfer of income from labour to capital.

…Constitutional revision is not the bourgeoisie’s next step. The PSD can’t do it, the PS doesn’t want to do it, and the EU doesn’t need this revision.…[with this line] the Bloc would stop making the struggle against debt and austerity central, becoming more moderate and friendlier with the centre and the PS. In this way, the ‘turn’ that Motion E proposes is towards a party that is more institutional and less socially irreverent.

’Constitutional revision’ is a wild goose…the idea of running after a wild goose is not a politics of struggle.

A group of Motion E supporters wrote:

We appeal to the memory of a revolutionary process that did not ask for permission to organise workers’ committees and citizens’ committees, to occupy lands and factories, to turn palaces into schools. It was social force that ensured that the gains of popular struggle were written into law.

We can’t get lost in the labyrinths of debt renegotiation, we have to understand our path of advance. Nor can we dig ourselves into the trap of the ‘euro question’, the issue is deeper. In the struggle for social transformation, in understanding the point of attack and the political-social regime we reply to the conservative tide on all fronts—public ownership and social rights, women’s rights and LGTBI rights, defence of the environment and of the right to culture, the anti-racist fight and for the rights of migrants, all freedoms…

Appendix C: On alliance policy and the July 2013 ‘government of the left’ proposal (from Debates #2)

National Board member and UDP president Joana Mortágua explains how she, as a member of the majority at the previous National Convention, had come to support Motion E.

The winding path that the Bloc has been following in recent times had as its starting point the presidential candidacy of Manuel Alegre. I am as willing to say that I voted for the Bloc to support this candidacy as I am now to say that the choice was revealed to be wrong. That’s the value of making balance sheets.

The trajectory of Manuel Alegre and the consequences that this support had for the Bloc teach us a lot about our identity, about the political space we occupy and about who are ‘our people’. If the candidacy of Manuel Alegre was good for anything it was to show us that the Bloc has to keep its two feet firmly to the left, without tactical manoeuvres that get us confused with the parties of austerity.

The path of the Bloc post-Alegre shows that the Bloc leadership failed this lesson, and only that can account for the form in which the strategy of Left Government that came out of the last Convention has been applied. What was a perspective of transformation and accumulation of forces to achieve a left social majority, which I supported, got transformed into a search for partners in government on a minimum program in which the ‘with whom’ trampled on the ‘how’ and the ‘why’. This is the change of line from which I have been progressively taking my distance.

The over-valuing of alliance policy over and above an independent project meant that we went to knock on the door of the PS with this minimum program in hand, or even without it. At that point on the Political Committee I opposed having that meeting, arguing that the PS had already accepted Cavaco’s preconditions and that in our electorate’s eyes the meeting would be incomprehensible. I asked what had become of the conditions set by our Convention.

After that, the Bloc waged two election campaigns, municipal and European, which ended in defeats. In neither of them can we ascribe responsibility to the candidates and the programs, nor to the activists who stood up for them in the street. Despite that, the balance sheet of these elections made by the leadership did not succeed in analysing the reasons for the electoral setback nor in finding in it a fundamental political problem.

Motion U supporter Ricardo Coelho pointed out that the UDP supported the Alegre candidacy at the time and concluded:

’Unjustified’ or not, the support to Alegre was decided more than four years ago and analysed many times after that, in the Bloc and the UDP. Those who now criticise this support should clarify the why, when and how of their change of position. More important still, some suggestion as to what would have been the right choice in that situation is called for. . A Bloc candidacy, following the same line that Fazenda criticised as ‘sectarian’ in the PCP? The reply to this question is certainly a more demanding exercise than a Sibylline ‘self-criticism’, made four years later as a matter of convenience.

Motion U supporter José Manuel Pureza analyses what he saw as the two false readings of “left unity” and “government of the left” with which the Bloc has had to deal, by implication vindicating what Motion E’s supporters were criticising as “zig-zagging”.

The first [approach, of LIVRE, 3D Manifesto, Forum Manifesto] is that the only concrete possibility for the left at the moment is to influence the rotation of governments from within, by trying to make it as alternative as possible. This is the understanding shared by those who—starting from the premise that ‘there’s no left government without the PS’—are prepared to make an in-principle alignment with the PS so as to include left political choices in the government program.

This way of understanding the issue has two problems. One is that of overvaluing one’s own strength, the other is that of undervaluing the influence of political context. In first place, whoever thinks like this attributes to themselves an extraordinary capacity to force the PS to accept left political choices for its government. ….On the other hand, this belief refuses to face reality: which is that, in the concrete context of the relationship of forces within the European Union…there is no real possibility at all of governments adopting policies subversive of the EU order—and that’s what defence of jobs, social rights and the self-determination of each state is.

The second way of understanding the issue is that according to which the left to the left of the PS will only strengthen itself if it gets rid of the serious vice of insistently challenging the PS to provide an alternative for the country. It is the approach shared by those who see in this engagement an expression of weakness, of vacillation, those who fear it as a source of capitulationist infection.

This second approach has two problems, symmetrical to those of the first. One is the underestimation of one’s own strengths, the other is the overestimation of the strengths of the PS. First of all, those who think like this don’t have faith in the ability of the activist left to maintain the pressure, and are like those political leaderships who chose the camp of abstention because they start from the fearful principle that in any engagement involving challenges to others pure identity will be lost and an image of retreat projected. On the other hand, this lack of confidence and fear of losing immaculate purity implicitly represents the PS as an internally undifferentiated entity endowed with an irresistible power of self-affirmation and political attraction. The net result of this form of understanding things is an invitation to a small left, without a strategy for self-affirmation and growth…

In their symmetricality, these two approaches become brothers with like impact: both trap the activist left in a tranquil dead-end where no advances happen. The left needs another perspective. This other approach on strategy and tactics for a fighting left is that which takes the creation of a pole of attraction around that left as its tactical priority in the strategy of challenging social-democracy’s hegemony over vast social sectors. It is to be achieved by following up all the paths of collaboration and of criticism that can help that basic struggle.

Whoever thinks like this trusts in their own basic strengths, knowing that these are few and, therefore counts on daring in the job of building a political majority capable of promoting change on all levels. Whoever thinks like this makes it their permanent work to carry on a critical exchange with socialists, communists and all left, neither renouncing the formation of joint platforms of demands and of change nor shrinking from carrying out a complete break with compromised positions. The strategic horizon for such a left is programmatically clear unity, which it ceaselessly tries to make emerge from the possibilities of every struggle, every denunciation, every proposal.

Luis Fazenda explains his view of the events surrounding the Bloc’s left government proposal to the PS.

1. The expression [‘government without preconditions’] comes from the Political Committee communiqué initiating negotiations without preconditions. Astounding, the Bloc didn’t have (?) any preconditions whatsoever, take note, for talking with the PS about ‘government’, no more nor less?! The echo of this is what we had in what Francisco Louçã described (in Público, July 21, 2013). He even used the same expression:

‘The critical originality, nonetheless, was the initiative of the Bloc, expected by many, confirming its disposition for a left government. Without conditions and with a clear agenda: restructuring of the debt and [defence of] the Welfare State. Starting from this point there is no further obstacle on the left for a majority agreement, unless it’s the devotion of the PS to the ritual of agreements with the Troika.’

Obviously, there are conditions in any serious negotiations and in the case under analysis they are not difficult to list. One of these conditions, the position towards the Fiscal Compact, was even correctly adduced some months later by João Semedo to justify why there couldn’t be a convergence with the PS on government. Curiously, by July 2013 a year had already passed since the PS had ratified the Fiscal Compact! Yet the authors of the text still protest that they didn’t propose Seguro as prime minister. Of course not. As is obvious the Left Bloc would not have chosen the leader: that was in the hands of the PS…

2. As to the agenda for discussions on a government program with the PS and PCP, that agenda is definitely open to question. What will not be debatable is that this agenda is very far from the political resolution of the [Eighth National] Convention. It’s enough to compare the Guidelines that were delivered to the other parties for the discussions. The Guidelines propose debt restructuring in terms of quantity, interest rates and payment schedules, reversal of cuts to wages and pensions, restoration of the National Health Service, and that’s it. The Convention included those points for a left government but went much further: restoration of all public services, nationalisation of bailed-out banks, nationalisation of energy, telecommunications and fuel, and tax reform bearing on the income and inheritances of the elites.

On May 13, 2013 Catarina Martins was still telling the newspaper Público: ‘It’s necessary to renegotiate the debt, restore wages and pensions, have public control of credit and a new tax system, because the taxation of labour and capital are clearly out of line. These are the four basic points on which a left government can be built.’ Two months later, the agenda was severely reduced.

3. The ‘irreversible’ crisis will be adduced as having sped up this initiative of the Bloc. On the contrary, with the PS an accomplice in Cavaco’s conditions for attempting a tripartite PSD-PS-CDS agreement, the moment could not have been more inopportune. What did the Bloc have to do with that shambles? We led the TV news programs with our government proposal. To what end? It was a shame to feed confusion about the Bloc’s intentions. Next, after the local elections, and in the light of alarm at the results, the ‘government of the left’ disappeared from the Bloc’s political propaganda. Despite that, before the European elections the Left Bloc still sketched out an eventual alliance with the 3D movement. Its approach approximated that contained in the Guidelines and the process they involved (F. Rosas, Público, January 30, 2014).

Notes

[i] At the Left Bloc’s 2012 eighth national convention. See http://links.org.au/node/3112 for an account.

[ii] For the history of the Left Bloc see this interview with Francisco Louçã, http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1923.

[iii] See http://links.org.au/node/3112 for an English summary of the motions to the Eighth National Convention.

[iv] Of the three parties that formed the Left Bloc—the UDP, Revolutionary Socialist Party (PSR, Portuguese section of the Fourth International) and Politica XXI, later to become Forum Manifesto—only the UDP remains in the form of an association. The PSR association dissolved on the formation of the Socialism Tendency (see https://pt-br.facebook.com/pages/Tend%C3%AAncia-Socialismo/745561078803223), which a number of leaders of Politica XXI also joined.

The intention in forming Socialism was to overcome the political structure of the Bloc as organised around its three founding currents, and create a force for broader unity. However, this move was criticised from the UDP, which saw it as an attempt to create a single Bloc tendency. In response the UDP set up Alternative Left in March 2014 (see http://esquerdaalternativa.bloco.org/) after adopting at its December 2013 Eighth National Conference “Ten Theses on the UDP and the Bloc in the Time of Tendencies” (see http://www.udp.pt/). This document described the formation of the Socialism Tendency as “impoverishing the pluralism essential to the Bloc”. For a basic guide in Portuguese to Left Bloc history and recent internal developments, see http://observador.pt/explicadores/bloco-de-esquerda/.

[v] The beginning of the retreat dates from the July 2013 survival of the Passos Coelho government, which had been shaken by the two huge “Screw the Troika” demonstrations, a November 2012 general strike and a falling out between its two coalition partners following the resignations of foreign minister Paolo Portas and finance minister Vitor Gaspar. However, fearing the collapse of the austerity policies the government had been implementing on behalf of the Troika, President Carvaco Silva refused an early election, effectively giving Portas, leader of junior coalition partner the Democartic and Social Centre—People’s Party (CDS-PP), no choice but to return to the coalition and keep it on the government benches. The PS was involved in discussions over government but refused to enter a government of national unity being canvassed by Cavaco Silva.

[vi] Costas defeated incumbent PS leader António José Seguro in a September 2014 leadership challenge.

[vii] Over the years the voter turnout in elections to the Portuguese parliament has fallen from 91.73% (1975) to 58.03% (2011). Only 33.67% voted in the May European election.

[viii] The only left split from the Left Bloc was the 2011 departure of the current Rupture/FER (Revolutionary Left Front) led by Gil Garcia, which had fought for an electoral Alliance between the Bloc and the PCP. In August 2013, along with some other Bloc dissidents, this group formed the Alternative Socialist Movement (MAS).

[ix] The EU Fiscal Compact sets targets for public deficit reduction, and obliges states to subordinate all other expenditure to debt repayment. In Spain, the PSOE and PP voted together to enshrine this obligation in Section 135 of the Constitution.

[x] These include the severe loss of the 2012 death from cancer of former Política XXI leader and MEP Miguel Portas.

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