Portugal's Left Bloc: 'We are competing for left hegemony'

By Dick Nichols August 2, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal a much shorter version of this article first appeared in Green Left Weekly — It is hard to imagine a sharper contrast than that between the 10th National Convention of Portugal's Left Bloc, held in Lisbon from June 24 to 26, and its predecessor, held in the same city 18 months ago. In 2014, the 9th National Convention of the radical left force — formed in 1999 to unite several left currents and attract unaffiliated progressives — had brought the organisation to the brink of a 50–50 split. The convention was dominated by a virulent fight between the two main platforms presented to the convention. The debate centred over the group's leadership, tactics towards the Socialist Party (PS, Portugal's main social democratic party) and the relative importance of the struggle for debt restructuring as against defence of Portugal's progressive 1975 constitution. Gains Disaster was only avoided when a compromise leadership formula was adopted by the incoming national council. But once it stepped back from this abyss, the Left Bloc went from success to success:
• In April last year, the Bloc re-entered the regional parliament of the tax-haven and holiday island of Madeira with two MPs;
• Last October, the Bloc scored its best ever result in a Portuguese general election (10.2%, 19 seats in the 230-seat Portuguese national assembly). Its success was largely due to its stance that it would support a PS-led government if it raised welfare payments and the minimum wage, and stopped privatisations.
• After the elections, the Bloc, the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and the Ecologist Party-Greens (PEV) separately negotiated to support a minority PS government. Blocking the formation of the right-wing government proposed by then-president Cavaco Silva, it led to the formation of the PS government of Prime Minister Antonio Costa.
• In January, the Left Bloc's candidate for president, Marisa Matias, came third with 10.1% of the vote after being under 5% in early polling. Her result was double that attained by the last Bloc presidential candidate in 2006.
As a result of these gains, the Left Bloc went to its 10th National Convention in a confident mood, with all major indicators showing growth. Since 2014, its membership has grown from 9240 to 11,734; daily visits to its websites had risen by between 16% and 25%; and its social media presence had increased by up to 78%. These advances reflected the increased weight of the Left Bloc in Portuguese politics, forcefully articulated in the media by national coordinator Catarina Martins. Without the Bloc's initiative towards the PS, the previously governing right-wing parties — the Social-Democratic Party (PSD) and the Democratic and Social Centre-Peoples Party (CDS-PP) — would likely have continued in government with PS abstention. Also, the existence of a parliamentary majority opposed to European Union-driven austerity sends a strong message to the Costa government that it should not waver in standing up to “Brussels”. The advantages of such boldness were reconfirmed on July 27 when the European Commission announced that it would not fine Portugal or Spain for failing to reach EU-decreed deficit reduction targets. That fact that Catarina Martins had previously told the Left Bloc convention that such a fine would be a “declaration of war” and should be a trigger for a referendum “to take a position against the blackmail” may well have helped the European Commission to make up its mind to be nice just this once. Martins said: “The EU is not going to continue to trample on us. At the next Council of Europe, the Portuguese government must have a priority—rejection of the sanctions with which the European Commission is threatening Portugal.” Little wonder, then, that the tone of the cynical mainstream political commentator towards the Left Bloc is now like this (from a June 28 comment piece in Público by Joâo Miguel Tavares):
“One of the painful results of the Left Bloc being part of the governmental solution invented by Antonio Costa is finding ourselves obliged to take what Catarina Martins proposes seriously. Previously, if the Bloc had threatened a referendum on Portugal remaining in the European Union, the longest commentary would have been …‘huh’. Now we are sadly condemned to having to articulate words.”
This sneering superiority of Tavares is not generally shared. A July Portuguese Aximage poll found that the PS-PCP-PEV-Left Bloc parliamentary majority that supports Costa (known colloquially in Portugal as “the contraption”) had the support of 55.8% of those polled as against 35.4% for the parties of the right. A June Eurosondagem poll had 68.8% rating for the Costa government's performance as either very good (10.6%), good (22.7%) or reasonable (35.5%). Costa is Portugal’s most popular politician and Martins the second most popular. Majority platform Such was the atmosphere in which the 639 delegates met to decide the Bloc's next steps. This time, convention debate focussed around three resolutions instead of the previous convention's five. The majority resolution (A) had won 82% support in delegate elections. The two minority resolutions (R and B) had won 9.4% and 5.2% respectively, with the remaining vote going to local platforms. The overwhelming support for the majority resolution, jointly supported by the two tendencies that had been at loggerheads in 2014, was partly due to the gains of the past 18 months. But it is also due to the ambitious perspective it set the organisation — that of winning hegemony within the whole left. MP Jorge Costa, who summarised resolution A's perspectives at the end of convention debate, told the June 25 Publico: “We are working so that our contribution in this majority gains greater weight … The Bloc actually wants to compete for a majority on the left. And to actually become the pole of reference for a left majority… “Nowhere is it written that in Portugal the PS will always be the leading force on the left … A left agreement tomorrow could be developed on another basis and on a completely different relationship of political forces.” Nonetheless, as matters stand, the Bloc cannot get many of its own positions implemented. As Catarina Martins said in her opening address: “We determined the government but did not have sufficient strength to enter government. “If the Bloc were stronger, [Portuguese bank] Banif would not have been handed over to [Spanish multinational] Santander. If the Bloc were stronger, the governor of the [Central] Bank of Portugal would not continue to frighten the country day after day with threats of bank collapse. If the Bloc were stronger, Portugal would not have signed with Turkey the shame of an anti-humanitarian agreement [on refugees] which is the opposite of what Europe should be doing.” Other Bloc areas of “agreement to disagree” with the PS include: unilateral debt restructuring (the government´s position on Portuguese public debt is restricted to support for the Greek government call for a European debt conference); introduction of the 35-hour week in the private sector (to be handled through discussion between the “social actors”, according to planning and infrastructure minister Pedro Marques in the June 25 Expresso); and reversal of the privatisation of the state airline TAP (decided by the previous conservative government and accepted by the PS). Changing the balance of forces For resolution A, two processes were needed to create a balance of forces so the shortcomings of the PS government could be overcome: the revival of mass struggle, especially against the policies imposed by European institutions, and a “spreading social intervention of the Left Bloc itself”. The resolution stated: “The agreement [with the PS] to stop impoverishment was and is critical for protecting the population, but it is not enough to respond properly on jobs, social justice and economic development. “Without a new strategy for the country it is not possible to defeat austerity and maintain commitment to the income recovery on which the parliamentary majority is based.” In presenting the resolution to the convention, parliamentary leader Pedro Filipe Soares said that further advance was possible only through “consolidating a left social majority in the country”. The resolution put forward three strategic approaches for defeating austerity: “1) Control of the finance sector and the fight against corruption and economic crime in order to protect state resources and guarantee fiscal justice; 2) Investment in decarbonising the economy, in food sovereignty and in regional territorial cohesion in order to create jobs and fight the trade deficit; and 3) Reviving worker rights and fighting casualisation so as to guarantee the redistribution of wealth and social justice.” For resolution A, the Bloc's immediate challenges were this year's regional elections and next year's local government elections — contests in which it has traditionally fared worse than in general elections. To make its mark at these levels “the Bloc has a lot of work ahead to create a system of organisation that is up to our responsibilities”. “It is a matter of urgency to have the organisation that can create the political and social action that the Bloc needs to lead or stimulate as a decisive contribution to deepening change in the country.” Part of strengthening social action would be increasing cooperation between the organisations of the left. Resolution A said that “the Left Bloc values the contribution that the PCP has made towards a policy of recovering incomes, democratic rights and public services and is prepared to seek out new forms of dialogue and cooperation with the PCP with a view to solving the problems affecting workers. The Bloc maintains this constructive attitude in spite of the occurrence of episodic expressions of sectarianism. Left dialogue is an important element in promoting social mobilisation. “ Minority platforms Resolution R was a continuation of a platform from the previous convention, and in November its supporters had voted against the Bloc’s agreement with the PS. Their reason, as stated in a pre-conference discussion contribution, was that “we considered that, for the future, the Bloc needed to preserve its autonomy given the inadequate nature of the agreement as guarantee of a policy to confront the challenges of the debt, of the [EU] Fiscal Compact and of the permanent blackmail of the European institutions.” Resolution R emphasised that the PS government continued to be “the same as ever, despite having done what it has never done before”. It said: “Coherently social liberal, but under pressure from the correlation of forces that emerged from the last general elections, [the PS] succeeded in taking advantage of the momentary 'relief' in the financial crisis to overturn for the time being some of the most burdensome policies of the reign of the Troika and the right wing.” However, given that the PS remains a faithful servant of European capital, the Bloc, “alert to the lessons of the crushing of the possibility of a political alternative in Greece, will not fail to choose the field of social rights, disobeying the European institutions, confronting financial capitalism and leaving the euro, if that is necessary”. Resolution R expressed distrust over the capacity of the Bloc's leaders to resist the pressure to trail behind the Costa government. It also criticised the supposedly excessive centralisation of power in the Bloc's leadership and alleged decision-making via deals between its major currents and a growing passivity of members. Resolution R’s proposed treatment was “a high-intensity democracy [requiring] horizontality in its decision-making and the existence of multiple actors who embody our social project. The best way to build the Bloc inside and out is collective organisation at all levels, from the grassroots to the leadership.” For its part, Resolution B was focused on what it said were organisational moves the Bloc had to make to achieve greater social influence. While not contesting the basic political perspectives expressed in Resolution A, its proposals included 10 immediate measures to strengthen the Bloc's presence “on the ground”. These included redirecting the present body of full-timers to strengthening branch and regional structures, creating regional coordinating committees, developing a plan for branch expansion, reforming the Bloc website and creating a school for political training. Platform B also shared some of Platform R's criticism of the Bloc's supposedly excessive centralism. In the final votes on the platforms, as well as for the incoming 80-member National Board, the proportions of support for the three platforms remained basically unchanged. Platforms B and R both won one more seat on the National Board than might have been expected (seven and nine respectively, with 64 for Platform A). European perspective In her welcoming address to the convention, Catarina Martins, who was subsequently re-elected as the party's national coordinator, had outlined the Bloc's perspective for Portugal and Europe — made even more relevant by the British vote to leave the EU the day before. “We knew — and we said — that this European Union did not serve us,” Martins said. “That it was a space not of solidarity between states, but of domination of the periphery by the centre. That the question was not whether we could democratically endorse European decisions, but that the institutional design of the EU was fed by the emptying of democracy wherever it had support and vitality. But we never stopped affirming — nor shall we ever — that the European space is a space for the struggle of the left. We find people, movements, parties that are our people, and it is with these forces that we want to conquer the power of Brussels and Berlin.” In her closing address Martins said that the Left Bloc would propose to host a European Alternatives Assembly in Lisbon within a year. But what about the possibility of a Portuguese referendum on EU membership? Would the Bloc call for that after Brexit? The Bloc national coordinator told the convention’s final session: “I know that we are asking ourselves whether we want this referendum now. So let’s have a clear answer here. We never stick any democratic right away in a drawer. That day for a referendum will come.” However, “seven months after reaching the agreement for government, today, tomorrow and in the days to come, we want to continue to put the house in order” — continuing the struggle for public investment and for increased social spending to help Portugal’s poorest and most marginalised. The convention roundly endorsed this perspective — of continuing to struggle to reverse austerity in Portugal as an integral part of overturning it across Europe. And the actions of the Left Bloc as it navigates through those tricky waters will continue to be full of lessons for the entire European left. Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's European correspondent, based in Barcelona. He attended the Left Bloc's 10th National Convention on behalf of the Australian Socialist Alliance.