Leftwing unity, a Portoeugese example
jbm7 at SPAMtutor.open.ac.uk
jbm7 at SPAMtutor.open.ac.uk
Mon Dec 6 00:59:17 MST 1999
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Hopeful Beginnings for a renewal of the left
THREE ARTICLES ON THE LEFT BLOCK (Bloco de Esquerda)
The parliamentary elections in Portugal on 10 October inflicted a
double defeat on the establishment parties. The conservative
parties only won 40%, and the Socialist Party failed to win the
absolute majority it was hoping for.
The real good news of these elections were the two seats won by
the Left Block, a new, innovative movement of the alternative
João Carlos Louçã
After four years of minority government, the Socialist Party
seemed to have every chance of finally winning an absolute
majority in parliament. The economy was going well and it had
succeeded in meeting the convergence criteria for Europe's single
currency. And it could ride on the back of a wave of national
pride that followed the holding of Expo 98 in Lisbon, Saramago's
Nobel prize in the same year, and the outstanding mobilisation of
Portuguese society in solidarity with East Timor and in demand of
a rapid military intervention by the UN in September.
On the right there is no credible leadership. The alliance
between the PSD (Social Democratic Party) and the PP (Popular
Party) fell apart after only two months. The PSD elected a new
leader just three months ahead of the polls in a desperate
attempt to hold onto its voters who were fleeing to the centre
ground, represented by the Socialist Party (PS).
Although the PS had governed for four years without an absolute
majority, on the questions which really mattered, it could count
on a huge majority in parliament?including the votes of the PSD
deputies, and often those of the PP as well. "Key" votes included
its policies for a more flexible labour market, imposing
globalisation at the expense of workers' rights, privatising key
sectors of the economy; its foreign policies, including relations
with the European Commission and the EU treaties; and its social
policies, promoting private sector involvement in the fields of
education, health and social security.
Portugal has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the European
Union, but almost half the workforce is in insecure employment.
Average wages are the lowest in the European community, and the
minimum wage is far below subsistence level.
The PS governed for four years without any substantial
differences with the right which had been in government for the
previous ten years. There were the same privileges for the same
economic groups which today control most of the domestic economy,
the same use of the state apparatus by party structures to
strengthen their influence at various levels, and the same
corrupt and bureaucratic system of justice. The few voices raised
in favour of reform, including some within the PS, soon found
themselves sidelined and silenced.
The PS government gave prompt support for NATO's bombing of
Serbia and Kosovo. Just as the United States felt no need for a
mandate from the UN, so the Portuguese government preferred not
to wait for parliament to implement its political and military
support. Not that it had any doubts about the very broad
parliamentary support for such measures, but out of natural
arrogance and operational convenience. Later, as it become clear
that a majority of public opinion was against the military
intervention, the government started to downplay down the
country's military role.
But the decisive break between the PS and any expectations which
its government might have encouraged on the left came on the
question of abortion. At the beginning of the year a group of
deputies from the Socialist Youth and the PCP (Portuguese
Communist Party) proposed legislation liberalising access to
abortion. It was approved in parliament by a small majority. The
following day the socialist leaders announced a deal with the
right to hold a referendum on the question. The referendum was
held on 28 June and was lost by less than 2%, with a level of
abstention of about 70%.
The main responsibility for this disaster lay with the PS. A
majority of members, leaders and probably voters initially
supported liberalising access to abortion. But not Prime Minister
Antonio Guterres. He ignored the party's long-standing secular
and republican traditions, surrounding his administration with
representatives and thinkers of the catholic church. Although PS
leaders repeatedly insisted this was a matter of "individual
conscience", the prime minister's clear indication that he would
vote in line with the church led to the paralysis of the PS
membership and its leaders. The victory achieved by the demagogy
and murky methods of the right, embodied in the catholic church,
was also a victory for the prime minister over the left
traditions of his own party. It marked out once and for all the
terrain he had chosen for his government.
Antonio Guterres was recently chosen as president of the
Socialist International. He is clearly on the same wavelength as
the "third way" of Anthony Giddens, Tony Blair and Gerhardt
"The arena of conformity and conservatism now belongs to the
social democracy," Ignacio Ramonet wrote in the April issue of Le
Monde Diplomatique. "It is the modern right". Despite a few
relics of its socialist past, Portugal's PS is no exception
within European social democracy. It has accepted the "historic
mission of naturalising neo-liberalism". It governs like the
right because it represents a new expression for the modern
Timor?an exemplary mobilisation
After the May agreements in New York between Portugal, Indonesia
and the UN, the holding of the referendum on autonomy for the
territory of East Timor opened the door to increasing
manipulation and violence.
In Portugal, this agreement was presented as a great victory for
Portuguese diplomacy, the end of an epoch, with Indonesia finally
recognising the Timorese people's right to self-determination and
Lisbon winning the fight for human rights in its former colony.
The Left Block was the only political current to criticise the
agreement for not including the release of political prisoners
and for trusting the Indonesian army of occupation to guarantee
security during the referendum. It was obviously a bad agreement.
But despite these criticisms the Block expressed solidarity with
the CNRT (National Council of Timorese Resistance) which saw
hoped the agreement could provide a way out of the impasse.
In the first week of September, after the release of the
referendum results showed a huge victory for the cause of
independence, the violence of the pro-integration militias
(paramilitary groups trained by the Indonesian military) turned
into barbarous genocide and mass deportation. Independence
activists and supporters of the resistance were persecuted
without mercy in a war of total destruction.
The presence of journalists transformed the massacre into news
stories that quickly spread around the world, with a profound
impression on the Portuguese public. Portugal's pre-electoral
period saw intense solidarity mobilisations, cutting across all
ages, social classes and areas of the country.
In Lisbon and Oporto, the first street demonstrations were called
by the Left Block. Later broader coalitions came together to back
the demonstrations, but it was above all spontaneously that this
presence on the streets became a daily occurrence. In Lisbon two
locations became the prime targets: the offices of the UN in
Portugal and the American embassy. But the embassies of all the
countries on the Security Council also had vigils, human chains
and demonstrations on their doorsteps?day and night.
In this highly charged atmosphere of extraordinary mobilisation,
the Left Block and its leaders were the first to take to the
streets and set out a plan of activity, launching proposals and
fixing the next day's meeting points. Without waving its own
flag, without trying to manipulate a sentiment of solidarity
which was obviously averse to being 'exploited' in any way, the
Block was able to assert its presence and make a decisive
contribution to the mobilisations on the streets of Portugal's
cities. These were two weeks of intense activity, leading up to
the decision by the UN to back military intervention.
But of course it was the PS which gained most from this
mobilisation, firstly because it could claim a diplomatic
victory, and secondly because the whole question of humanitarian
aid made the government's initiative a central concern for the
The Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) is an exception among
European Communist parties. It existed in clandestinity until
April 1974, and consolidated itself as a major force of
opposition during the dictatorship. Through a history of
contradictions, purges and silencing any internal
opposition?processes which were made more intense by the
conditions of clandestinity and political repression imposed by
the regime?the party stuck to a line of total orthodoxy. Not even
the fall of the Berlin wall seemed to have an effect.
After the revolution of 1974 it was a key force in consolidating
the new constitutional legislature - even when that parliament
opposed the aspirations of the masses and the demands for popular
democracy which were beginning to emerge. In the middle of the
cold war the prevailing division of international politics could
not allow a triumphant socialist revolution in Portugal; it was
up to the PCP to take on this "realistic" view of politics and
renounce any attempt at revolution in the country. Nonetheless it
did retain its organisational capacity and leading role amongst
Portuguese workers, especially in the rural zones of agrarian
reform in the south (Alentejo), and in the industrial belts of
Lisbon and Setúbal.
In 1991 it was one of the few communist parties to support the
(unsuccessful) coup against Soviet leader Mikhael Gorbachev and
his perestroika policies. The party was immune to the powerful
winds of change blowing through the international communist
movement in the early nineties. Whilst the communist parties of
France and Italy were turning into social democrats, and the
Spanish party was experimenting with an alliance to the left of
social democracy, the PCP didn't think twice about expelling
There was no visible sign of self-criticism. No attempt to
understand its own errors or the world which was fast changing
around it. On the contrary, the PCP relentlessly repressed all
expressions of renewal or debate which timidly began to emerge
amongst the membership. As a result, the PCP electoral strength
declined year after year?it lost about half a million vote
between 1989 and 1999. These were the years? difficult to
comprehend for many of its own members?of new international
alliances with the People's Republic of China, in the wake of the
Tianamen massacre, with North Korea, and with the Serbian regime
The party's institutional strength was drastically reduced. Above
all it let slip the opportunity of renewing and breathing fresh
life into the left.
The replacement of Álvaro Cunhal as the PCP's leader in 1992
marked the beginning of a new phase in the party in which,
slowly, differences, tensions and new sensibilities could begin
to emerge. This discussion is still unclear, but it could throw
up personalities and currents of opinion that would justify a new
hope of renewal in the PCP.
In 1995, after the Socialist Party's victory in the parliamentary
elections, the Communist Party underwent a notable change. It
began to talk of the need for an "alternative administration".
This was still too vague for anyone to accuse it of wanting to
govern with the PS, but did show that the party was clearly
reaching out to the government, and that it would expect
something in return. The was a clear influence of the French
model, where Communists and Greens participate in a "plural left"
government . But this orientation has its difficulties. On the
one hand the membership was still schooled in sectarian
opposition to the PS. On the other hand, the PS preferred to
consolidate its rule by making parliamentary alliances to its
right, rather than reach any agreement with the PCP.
Set up as a purely artificial creation by the PCP apparatus in
the early 80s, the Greens served to justify the United Democratic
Coalition, or CDU, in whose name the PCP has since then stood for
election. With no independent voice, it is in fact a PCP front
for work in the environmental movement. For all practical
purposes the two Green seats in parliament are subject to PCP
Lisbon's municipal socialism
Until 1989 the capital city was governed by a coalition of the
two right-wing parties. But PS leader, now President of the
Republic, Jorge Sampaio, decided to take an unprecedented risk,
and unite the left in Lisbon in an effort to win the city council
back from the right. The coalition between the PS and PCP later
drew in other left organisations and their supporters Jorge
Sampaio headed the coalition slate and won a resounding victory
in all the city's neighbourhoods.
The capital's city council became the alternative which showed
that a right wing majority was not inevitable. When it was
reelected for a second term the left coalition was joined by the
PSR (revolutionary Marxist), the UDR (ex Maoist) and the Greens,
who had already won some council seats in the previous coalition.
The unity of the left was strengthened and its principles became
clearer. Both in Lisbon and across the country there was a very
widespread sentiment of opposition to the government.
This situation changed substantially when the PS won the
parliamentary elections in 1995 and when Jorge Sampaio won the
presidency in 1996. The leadership of the Lisbon council fell to
João Soares, Mario Soares' son and a representative of the one of
the most opportunistic and reactionary wings of the Socialist
Party. The city council's loss of credibility, and the arrogance
of this new leadership, led the PSR to break with the left front
in Lisbon in 1997. The organisation had at that time three
elected members of the Municipal Assembly.
In December 1997 the coalition?PS/PCP/Greens/UDP?faced a
challenge from a new United Left coalition, formed in Lisbon and
Oporto between the PSR and a small group of ex-PCP intellectuals,
Politica XXI. In spite of the difficulties and a media boycott
this coalition won 3% of the votes in the capital and elected one
city councillor. This strengthened an alternative pole of the
non-institutional left ?standing together in elections for the
For the PCP, which had already come close to winning the largest
share of the vote in the capital, co-management of the city with
the PS could prove electorally disastrous, with growing loss of
its electoral support. At the same time its subordinate position
in the city government, forever tied to supporting its senior
partners, makes it a hostage to anti-popular policies, confuses
its supporters and trades basic left-wing principles for a
handful of positions on the city council and a few hundred civil
service jobs in the city administration.
Although the social-democratic current within the PCP holds up
the example of Lisbon in its efforts to win a greater role in
national government under the socialists, internally the party
knows it is in a difficult situation. The left-wing character of
the city administration is far from clear, and the radical left
is competing for its space? there are 37,000 votes for the
PCP/Greens, and 21,000 for the new Left Block.
Discussions on the formation of a Left Block began in mid-1998.
of the previous summer. Discreetly the leaderships of the PSR,
the UDP and Politica XX1 took the first steps towards reaching a
basic political agreement and setting the basis of the new
movement, without rushing into a fusion, without dissolving the
existing organisations, and without requiring unity in all areas
The presence from the beginning of independents who supported the
project was a crucial aspect of the Block and gave it a much
broader appeal than that of a simple electoral alliance of the
three organisations. At the same time a political and
organisational agreement between the organisations committed them
to make the Block a space for the convergence of positions and
practices, not an arena for political disputes, thereby enabling
rapid progress in building the structures needed for the
electoral campaigns that followed.
The results of the European parliament elections in June 1999
bolstered the current's confidence and public profile?it had
clearly established itself as the fifth main political force in
the country with a real chance of winning seats in the national
Subjects which had long been campaigning issues for the PSR?like
the legalisation of all drugs and their distribution under
medical supervision by the state, or the recognition of civil
rights for gay and lesbian couples and opposition to the burning
of solid industrial waste, were immediately taken up by the Block
and became central arguments in the European campaign. On the
other hand the UDP's deep roots in the popular and trade union
movements added a new dimension to the Block's intervention and
increased its ability to develop a discourse based in the
concerns of those sectors.
NATO's intervention in Kosovo and the Block's ability to mobilise
swiftly and develop a clear anti-imperialist position (in
contrast to the PCP which ignored the responsibilities of the the
Milosevic regime) was key for bringing together the membership
and grass-roots organisations of the Block in the social
The drawing up of electoral lists for the 22 national areas and
the development of each of these local campaigns allowed the
Block to draw around it a far greater number of activists than
the sum of each individual organisation. The hopes of a new left
capable of reaching electoral targets and returning members of
parliament gave many ex-members a renewed hope in political
activity and produced an interesting convergence of several
generations of social activists.
The Left Block's Convention at the beginning of 2000 will
certainly be an opportunity for vigorous reaffirmation of a left
organisation which which has made its mark on the country's
political scene with a programme of clear opposition.
Unlike many experiences of left recomposition in Europe in the
1990s, the Block emerges as clear challenge to the political
space occupied by the Communist Party, at a time when this party
is going through a crucial internal debate. Without falling into
the trap of adopting a sectarian attitude, despite the regular
provocations from the PCP leadership, the Block's unitary
approach (now crowned with electoral success), is the best
possible instrument for discussing and intervening in the
internal debate of the PCP?which still dominates the Portuguese
The two Left Block members of parliament prevent the Socialists
from enjoying an absolute majority. This has ensured constant
media and public interest in the Block's proposals.
The message of a "left to the left of government", without
ambiguities, standing in elections so as to renew the opposition,
and not just to win positions of power in order to gain influence
over the PS, is a message which can win many more communist
sectors to this fight. For the organisations of the Block this is
the real strategic objective.
Sooner or later, this means a split in the PCP, with a
(hopefully) significant part of that organisation adopting the
aims and strategies of the Block.
The UDP, an historic organisation of the Portuguese left came out
of a federation of different groups of Maoist persuasion in the
aftermath of 25 April 1974. At one time pro-Albanian, it was the
the far left organisation with the most presence in the workers'
movement, and had one member of parliament up until 1979. They
returned to parliament in 1991 through an electoral alliance with
the PCP which ended in 1995.
In the last ten years the UDP got marginally lower electoral
scores than the PSR, with quite a significant difference in the
capital, where the election of a first member of parliament for
the far left was on the cards. In the last two years the UDP
underwent through a profound internal debate and significant
changes leading to a greater emphasis on intervening in the
anti-racist and women's movements. The convergence with the PSR
was clear in these movements long before the Block was formed.
Electoral results of the block
A YOUNG AND URBAN LEFT
The profile of Left Block supporters is very close to the PSR
elector profile identified in previous elections. Our votes are
concentrated in the big cities (Lisbon, Porto and Setúbal) and
among first-time voters. In the October 1999 election the block
won 132,000 votes (2.5%). This is a qualitative improvement on
the 71,000 votes which the PSR and UDP attracted in the 1995
elections.. This was the far left's highest score in almost
twenty years (radical left slates won 168,000 votes in 1979 and
143,000 in 1980).
But Portugal still faces a massive rate of disillusionment with
electoral politics. Despite intensive "cleaning" of the electoral
rolls, an incredible 38% of those registered to vote stayed at
home on polling day.
The Block's electoral campaign concentrated on three key areas:
Lisbon, Porto and Setúbal. The results suggest that this was a
correct strategy. Over 70% of the Block's votes comes from these
core areas. The Block's best score was 6% in the city of Lisbon.
In 1997, the PSR and Politica XXI won 3,1% in the city, electing
two municipal deputies, in the first alternative left campaign in
many years. (In 1991, the PSR won 2% of Lisbon city votes,
failing to elect a member of parliament by only 200 votes).
In Porto, the Block won 4.4%, more than thee times the PSR and
UDP vote in 1995. With only 1200 votes more,Miguel Portas would
have been elected as the third Block MP. In Setúbal the block won
3.5%, with higher local scores in urban districts.
But in the countryside, where voters are older and dispersed
over wide areas, the Block lacked the organisational and militant
capacity to assure a strong political presence. The new name and
symbol didn't help this task. So, in some districts the radical
left vote was smaller than in 1995.
With a combative and irreverent campaign, the Block put youth
concerns, like the legalisation of drugs, at the centre of public
debate.. This plain talking, taboo-breaking approach is a
traditional strong point of the PSR. It explains why the Block
was able to get an enormous young adhesion, in debates, concerts,
and public meetings?and in an urban youth vote of 20% or more.
The Block is now the the third most popular party among young
Left Bloc Member of Parliament Francisco Louçã ("Chico") says his
party will not be a "crutch" for the PS government.
· What do you think about the planned RTP television
Louçã: I'm totally opposed. We need a public television service.
RTP needs a general reform to maintain two public channels
without publicity, and refusing the stupid logic of competing
with commercial stations.
· Your tax proposals will hit many middle income families
Louçã: No they won't. This country needs to slowly introduce some
rules of tax collection that gives us some modernity. We can have
a more efficient system which traces measures that enforces
fiscal justice in a more rigorous way, while still making
allowance for the basic expenses of family life.
· Is it really possible to enlarge companies tax bill AND move
towards full employment?
Louçã: Our proposals are actually about reducing company tax
· Don't you think that the companies could leave to other
Louçã: There is a marginal risk. But companies obtain some
competitive advantages when they set up office in Europe,
particularly in Portugal. And these are what matters to business
leaders. In Europe, the countries with the highest per capita
income are also the most rigorous in their tax collection, and
actually have the highest levels of taxation.
· Communist Party leaders says that they were the first to
propose most of what the Left Block stands for
Louçã: Some leaders of the PCP have a limitless arrogance. They
want to claim copyright for ideas that don't belongs to them! On
some questions, like decriminalisation of drugs,the PCP changed
its position just before the electoral campaign, because they
knew we would be putting forward a daring, honest policy in this
· Your proposal for total decriminalisation could trivialise
Louçã: On the contrary! The current policy of complete
prohibition is creating a trivialisation of drug use, under the
mantle of secrecy. I hear that 800 tons of hashish were recently
confiscated. But we all know what this means. The wars among the
drug dealers allow these "discoveries", for the glory of the
police. For a few weeks the hashish disappears from the market,
and heroine and cocaine flood in¿?to stimulate the passage of one
market to another.
· Isn't the Left Block mainly a movement of intellectuals?
Louçã: We do have some intellectuals among us! So what?
Source: Expresso, 16 October, 1999. Interview by João Garcia and
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