Left Bloc: 'Portugal’s left must respond to a rising tide of rebellion' (updated March 14)

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According to rally coordinators, some 500,000 protesters filled the Lisbon boulevard leading to the Finance Ministry on March 2. Many chanting "It's time for the government to go!" and "Screw the Troika, we want our lives back", referring to the lenders from the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Introduction by Dick Nichols, European correspondent, Green Left Weekly, based in Barcelona

March 12, 2013 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Whenever there’s a protest in Portugal you are almost certain to hear the haunting song, "Grandola, Vila Morena" (“Grandola, sunburnt town”), with its line “who most rules within you, O city, is the people”. On Saturday, March 2, at massive protests across Portugal, "Grandola, Vila Morena" was sung by more voices than ever before.

That day up to one and a half million Portuguese responded to the call “Screw the Troika, who most rules is the people!” by filling the squares of 40 cities and towns to demand the immediate resignation of the government, a right-wing coalition of the Social-Democratic Party (PSD) and Democratic and Social Centre-People’s Party (CDS-PP), headed by prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho.

"Grandola, Vila Morena", which was broadcast early on April 25, 1974, as the signal to launch the “Revolution of the Carnations” is again becoming the freedom hymn of the biggest Portuguese protest movement since that time. This is the expanding movement against the austerity policies being imposed by the Troika—the European Central Bank, European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF)—as condition for the country receiving a €78 billion bailout.

March 2, which coincided with the seventh Troika inspection of its Portuguese protectorate, was organised by the “Screw the Troika” coalition of more than 100 social and community groups. The coalition had previously called the first massive demonstration against Coelho’s implementation of austerity—a million-strong Lisbon demonstration on September 15 last year.

September 15 showed the depth of popular anger against a specific government measure, a proposed increase in social security contributions that was later dropped—a success for the movement. March 2 was much more: a protest against the entire gamut of Troika austerity policies and one that had a precise demand—government resignation and fresh elections.

As the “people’s censure motion”, voted by the 800,000 in Lisbon’s vast waterfront square Terreiro do Paço said: “This government does not represent us. This government is illegitimate. It was elected on the basis of promises it did not fulfill. It promised that it would not increases taxes, but has increased them to unbearable levels. It guaranteed that it would not rob pensions nor cut financial support to workers, but not a day passes when it doesn’t rob more money from workers and retirees. It swore that it would not sack public servants nor increase unemployment, but every hour that passes there are more people without work…

“This people’s censure motion is the cry of a people that wants to participate. It is the public affirmation of the growing desire of the people to take the leadership of the country into their own hands, overthrowing a corrupt power…let the people rule!”

On the day

Compared to September 15, March 2 was more organised, with greater participation and support from trade union and left political forces, including the Left Bloc (BE), the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (CGTP). The Socialist Party, which in government had invited the Troika into the country in the first place, had to express its “sympathy” with the movement.

The various sectors of the population most affected by government policy—education workers, health workers, retirees and pensioners, the LGBTI community, culture workers and the unemployed—took part in the protests in various-coloured “tides”. This is a concept taken from the Spanish protest movements against public sector cuts, where categories of affected workers wear the same-coloured t-shirt on demonstrations.

March 2 also brought out new sections of the community, included people attending their first demonstration. Notable was the increased presence of retirees who face cuts to already miserable pensions as part of the IMF’s latest proposal to cut Portugal’s spending by €4 billion in 2013.

Another increased presence was that of the lower ranks of the armed forces, not wearing uniform but grouped behind the banners of the three armed forces associations.

Popular chants of the day (rhyming in Portuguese) included “With Passos at the helm, the country goes on sinking”, “It’s time for the government to exit”, “Your sacrifices are in their wallets”, “Passos, thief, you’re not worth a cent” and “One more push and the government bites the dust”.

The anger of the day was summed up by protestor Fabio Carvalho in an interview for Reuters: “The government has left the people on bread and water and flogged off state assets at bargain-basement prices so as to pay the debts run up by corrupt politicians to benefit the banks.”

Hardening mood

Writing in the March 5 Expresso, political commentator Daniel Oliveira noted the hardening mood among the protesters, especially the older generation. “One of the things talked about most on Saturday was the children who emigrate, who are unemployed, who are desperate. And the lack of prospects for their grandchildren. In a society such as Portugal, where the family is a kind of complementary welfare state (or even the main one), the old gather the suffering of all generations under their roof. And they are, themselves, the most sacrificed.”

“Some of the retirees who took to the streets on Saturday were participating in a demonstration for the first time in their lives … and it is only now, at more than 60 years of age and after almost 40 years of democracy, that they feel propelled into the street.”

The anger has been intensified by the growing realisation that the government and Troika’s Thatcherite claim that “there is no alternative” is bunkum. In a February survey by Diário de Noticias on where interviewees thought the government could cut to save and restore spending on health, education and pensions, 36% nominated interested payments on the public debt, 33% military spending and 57% spending on private public partnerships.

On March 3, Left Bloc MP Jorge Costa made this assessment (full article below): “Saturday’s massive demonstrations have changed the immediate future of social struggle in our country ... that large scale popular mobilisation is not an isolated phenomenon or an occasional cry of the soul. It is the expression of concrete social struggle, a permanent fact of the national situation, of a majority that is speaking out against the cuts that are crushing our society.”

That “permanent fact of the national situation” is being reinforced by Portugal’s disastrous economic plight. Growth in the year to December 2012 shrank 3.8% and, in the year to September 2012, consumption by 5.9% and investment by 14.2%. Official unemployment rose from 14.8% to 17.6% in the year to January.

During the crisis government consumption has fallen, from 22.1% of GDP in 2008 to 17.5% last year. A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development states that the spending cuts in the health sector in Portugal have been two times larger than those agreed by the Troika. The Portuguese Ministry of Health denies this but the report adds that Portugal’s spending in the health sector is expected to fall to 5.1% of GDP in 2013, down from over 10% in 2010, and much lower than the average of 7% of GDP for the Eurozone.

In Portugal’s poorest neighbourhoods, children increasingly come to school on Monday dizzy with hunger because school meals are the only ones they have. Without the country’s remaining social safety net the percentage of the population below the official poverty line would more than double to 43.6%.

Yet, despite the country being sunk in depression and with unemployment on the rise, union struggles have not disappeared. In February alone there was a week of struggle for public education and teachers’ wages, big demonstrations against the planned privatisation of state shipyards as well as strikes in the hospital sector. State rail workers were on strike for a week in early March and March 15 will be a national day of action for public servants. Further bitter labour struggles in private and public sectors are in the pipeline.

Can Passos survive?

All the signs are that Portugal is entering a critical phase. The call for the government to resign grows louder and louder as tensions rise within the governing coalition between those, like Passos, committed to “staying the course” and “not governing according to demonstrations” and those, like increasingly nervous MPs of the CDS-PP, who see their parliamentary careers vaporised unless Passos at least pretends to heed the people’s voice.

However, with all signs showing that Passos is determined to see out his parliamentary term, the pressure remains on the protest movement to build even stronger action.

Even more critical is giving concrete and feasible form to the alternative to Passos, the alternative of a left government, as explained by Jorge Costa below.

On March 7, Left Bloc national co-coordinator Joao Semedo carried the mood of March 2 into the national parliament: “[The prime minister] must understand that the people are sick of him, his policies and his government...Prime minister, resign! Don’t be afraid of elections. Let democracy solve the country’s problems to which your government has been unable to respond.”

The same message had come in parliament a fortnight earlier, in musical form. As Passos was preparing to speak, a packed public gallery started to sing "Grandola, Vila Morena", forcing the prime minister to stop. Will that moment symbolise Portugal’s future?

Left Bloc: 'Portugal’s left must respond to a rising tide of rebellion'

By Jorge Costa, Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc), translated by Revolting Europe

March 6, 2013 -- Portugal’s left must seize the moment offered by an escalating social struggle and unite around a radical platform of change. The massive demonstrations on March 2 across Portugal have changed the immediate future of social struggle in our country.

Those who want to avenge the Carnation Revolution of April 25, 1974, now know, after the millions who marched on September 15 and March 2, that large-scale popular mobilisation is not an isolated phenomenon or an occasional cry of the soul. It is the expression of concrete social struggle, a permanent fact of the national situation, of a majority that is speaking out against the cuts that are crushing our society.

The immediate demand of this social mobilisation is the overthrow of the government. The motion of popular censure presented by hundreds of thousands in central Lisbon’s Terreiro do Paço could be the movement’s manifesto. In the coming days the truth will be known of new cuts, hidden until the demonstration by the Troika [European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund] and the government. Over the coming weeks, we should aggregate the forces that gathered on March 2 across the Portuguese territory in a decentralised and open fashion. In each city square, in each corner of Portugal, people should come together again, learn and inform, gather support. And continue to popularise the popular motion of censure to banish this government.

The Troika wants a further €4 billion in austerity measures that will cut the welfare state to the bone. However, resistance to this attack on March 2 was unparalleled. A resistance made of protest “tides” in education and health sectors, of pensioners, each preparing in workplaces and the public services, in associations and union branches, coming together as a unitary force of professionals and service users, trade unionists and movement activists, workers and retired, and citizens who are most affected by austerity.

On the eve of bitter labour struggles, these initiatives show a broad signal of willingness to create a united political mobilization in support of public schools, public health service and welfare. The struggles promise to intensify.

Moment of truth

The people who form part of this mass movement require anti-memorandum forces to develop a common response and to take concrete steps for a shared political alternative. First, the Left Bloc and the Portuguese Communist Party should demand new elections and together seek a leftist government to break with the Troika. But this unity should not stop at dialogue between the anti-Troika parties. Rather, the design of a leftist government will be as broad as the program it promotes is clear.

From the Democratic Congress of Alternatives* to the Citizen’s Debt Audit, there are hundreds of opinions and demands that must be central in shaping a political alternative. It is among the many many voices of the people who have "occupied" our cities that the project will draw strength. And among these voices are many socialists who refuse to accept the watered down austerity program [pursued by the pro-capitalist Socialist Party leadership]. They are those who recognise the need for debt renegotiation and a complete change in policies for the real economy. Unity on the left will shred the [Troika bail out] Memorandum.

Our struggle is international

The extent of popular mobilisation in Portugal is an example for the rest of Europe. By its scale and the clarity of his cry, inspired by the 1974 revolution. Moreover, violent and unstable governments are devastating the entire European periphery. In Spain, only a week before March 2, hundreds of thousands descended on the streets with their own "citizens’ tide" flooding more than 80 cities. Building an international agenda against the dictatorship of debt is within the each of people who are rising today.

It’s in the heat of these urgent tasks that the left must now act.

* The Democratic Congress of Alternatives was launched by a group of social and political agents, including many from the trade unions, activists of social movements, with members of the Communist Party, MPs of the Left Bloc and of the Socialist Party, this initiative has a clear starting point and an ambitious goal. The starting point that brings together those that subscribed the call for the congress is the rejection of the Memorandum with the Troika (signed by the parties of the right and the Socialist Party), responsible for the policies of austerity and impoverishment. The goal is to demonstrate that there are concrete and credible alternatives to the political program of the Troika and to the dictate of debt service. The congress aims at creating a process of rapprochement and search for common denominators within the social arena that opposes these policies.

The initiative has already held meetings all over the country, with the main themes of discussion being: how to terminate the Memorandum, how to give work the dignity it deserves, what public policy for the welfare state to fight against discrimination, which place for Portugal in the world and how to build a European alternative.