In 2011 Portugal was at the forefront of Europe’s anti-austerity movement. Yet, four years later, as elections approach in the Autumn, there is no chance of a Left government to ally with Greece’s Syriza or the recent municipal victories in Spain. What went wrong? And can Portugal return to the frontlines?
Village’s Ronan Burtenshaw interviews Bloco de Esquerda’s Catarina Príncipe.
Q. First, can you tell me how Bloco de Esquerda [the Left Bloc] came about?
Several events happened at the end of the 1990s that played into our foundation. The anti-globalisation movement, centred around Seattle in 1999, was important. There was a growing conclusion that we need to find new ways to work together and build projects. Some of these were forums, others were political parties. That was the international moment we were in.
Then there was the Indonesia-East-Timor war and occupation. The Portuguese population had its own anti-war movement and sided with Timor against Indonesia. This managed to bring different sections of the Left together to discuss war and campaigning.
Finally the failure of the abortion referendum in 1998 was also an influence. There was a referendum to overturn laws banning abortion in Portugal but no broad campaign by progressive or left-wing forces; instead every little group ran their own one. Some of these ran against each other or had clashing strategies. The Yes vote lost, so abortion was illegal in Portugal until 2007. This was the last straw for many on the Left.
Q. So how did Bloco form out of these conditions?
The definition of Bloco, in its first statute, is a party-movement. It is a broad party that engages with other movements without substituting for or controlling them. It is built up by this grass-roots strength and given a voice in institutions, with a political programme that unites those two domains. Therefore it manages to build strategy together with people who come from very different perspectives, activist histories and traditions.
We grew steadily from 1999, when the party formed, until 2011. From 2005 Portugal had a liberal government under the Socialist Party [Portugal’s Labour Party] which had been applying austerity measures for some time before the crisis hit. They used the crisis as an excuse to escalate this. In 2009 we had elections and a broad social mobilisation against austerity. The Socialist Party still won these elections but they didn’t achieve a majority and formed a minority government. Bloco de Esquerda had 10%, the Portuguese Communist Party had 8%, so the radical Left was on almost 20%.
Q. What was the result of this growth in support for anti-austerity alternatives?
It didn’t mean anything in terms of the programme of the Socialist Party government. In fact, from 2009 onwards they began to impose what they called the “four pacts”, which were packages of austerity measures. The first one cut public spending, the second cut social security, and so on. In parallel they introduced continual measures liberalising the labour market.
This produced social mobilisations. We had important Euro May Day demonstrations in 2010. Euro May Day parades are structures we inherited from Milan – colourful, anti-union, involving precarious/ zero-hours workers, quite creative and young, talking differently about labour. Some parts have very Negrian theories, others go with Guy Standing’s idea of the precariat.
Our version of this, in contrast to those in Italy, didn’t adopt an anti-union discourse about precarious work but rather tried to ‘add struggles to the struggle’ and forge links with the unions, joining them on the May Day march.
We developed a theoretical framework called “precarity in life”, which was a new form of labour discourse. We weren’t just talking about conditions at the point of production – contracts, wages and so on. We talked about the way labour instability affects different spheres of life, and affects you differently if you are a woman, a migrant, or LGBt. We were exploring the relation between exploitation and oppression, developing the particularities of these, but framing it in a new and accessible way. This allowed us to bring together the feminist, anti-racist and LGBt movements with the anti-precarity movement to form the Euro May Day.
Euro May Day fed into the first really big demonstration occurring on March 12th 2011 called Geração à Rasca, Generation with No Future. It was started by a call on Facebook by four people, all of whom had some previous involvement in politics but had not been particularly active. It grew exponentially. This was the time of the Arab Spring with all the discussions about the role of new media in facilitating protests so the Portuguese media took this up as our own little experience of it. The organisers were on television almost every day.
Soon they realised that they could not organise this phenomenon themselves so they put a call out to social movements and those involved in Euro May Day to help them out. In the end the demonstration had 500,000 people in various places, in a country of around ten million.
Q. Was it mostly young people?
We were expecting that it would be but in the end it was intergenerational. This proved our thesis in the anti-precarity movement that the issue couldn’t be dealt with in generational terms. There is a particularity to how young people experience insecurity but almost half of the Portuguese working population is precarious right now so you can’t talk about it as generational.
The movement was very broad so it was quite apolitical. At the time it was correct to do this but it had limitations. there were no demands, which was necessary because it would not have brought out many people if it was too concrete, but the right-wing also used this space. Two months after the big demonstration they won the snap elections.
This was then followed by the arrival of the Troika and the signing of its memorandum by the two right-wing parties who were in coalition [the PSD and People’s Party] and the Socialist Party, who had lost the election.
So this movement opened a political space that, in the end, we on the Left were not able to take advantage of.
Q. How did a movement against insecurity and the lack of a future open up space for the signing of a memorandum whose purpose was the worsening of these situations?
First, because of the concrete political conditions. You have a biparliamentarian system. So if the Socialist Party loses the right tends to win, and vice versa. This is the situation across most parts of Europe and disproportionately advantages established parties.
There was also a discourse of inevitability. It was really hard in the first two years to counter the narrative that we lived beyond our means, we have been spending too much, our state is inefficient, there will have to be sacrifices and so on. These ideas did not just show up but had been present in society for many years. It was easy to grab them and turn them into a powerful ideological tool in the implementation of austerity. In Greece it was the same.
The parties who were outside this narrative and challenged it in the elections of 2011, Bloco and the Communist Party, the only parties that refused to sign the memorandum with the Troika, had difficulties. The Communist Party less because they have existed for a hundred years and have a very deep base but Bloco significantly because we only exist for fifteen or sixteen, and have a much more unstable membership. We dropped to five percent in the 2011 elections.
Q. Why wasn’t Bloco de Esquerda able to respond better to these conditions?
I think it was a problem of strategy. You need to define your priorities, primary and secondary. Like most broad Left parties in Europe, Bloco appears to occupy the space between liberalised social democracy and the orthodox Communist parties. This is the political space of the radical Left, shared with the civil society movements, bringing up a range of topics rather than just labour issues.
We attempted to excavate the social base of liberalised social democracy, to attract people who are members of the Socialist Party in Portugal who are left-wing and socialist. These people have been there for so many years that they remain associated after the liberal shift. There was no alternative for them, the Communist Party was not a possibility and there was nothing else.
Broad Left reformist parties in Europe tend to try to fill this space. In politics there aren’t empty spaces for long, someone comes to fill them, so Bloco attempted to move into the popular bases of the Socialist Party.
In a way, it is a correct strategy. I think you do need to attract these people. But although the radical Left can succeed in exposing the rightward turn of social democracy it is hard to excavate their social base of support. In fact I think the more successful strategy is to let them do it themselves, like what happened with Pasok in Greece, where these parties discredit their own politics, and then we can be there to provide an alternative. This can also be said to be happening to the PSOE in Spain and the Irish Labour Party.
This can be a secondary strategy but our primary strategy should be to engage the forty percent of the population that are outside of politics and have been for many years. People who don’t vote. A lot of them are young, a lot of them are precarious, and they are disillusioned with the political system.
We tried to do both but it was not clear which came first. So, after 2009, we had an institutional shift where we started to have more problems relating to the social movements, talking about their subjects, organising our politics outside of parliament. For the people who are outside of the political system, we became a party just like the others. And for the people who are inside the political system, we became not enough like the others. We created this dilemma where we lost support from both spheres of society that we were trying to win, at the same time. That is the strategic problem.
But we also see a crucial weakness at a local electoral level, where Bloco consistently fared badly because it isn’t rooted. We need to grow roots and bring new experiences to the workers’ and the social movements: re-energising the rank and file, organising the unemployed and building networks of solidarity. Ultimately it comes down to being able to turn a feeling of generalised discontent into organised action and collective experiences.
Q. Can you tell me how this situation developed after 2011?
Just before the memorandum situation the Socialist Party had a minority government and wanted to present a fourth austerity package. We knew that the right-wing was going to vote against it. For years between 2009 and 2011 they had huge internal conflicts, changing leaders regularly. The moment they stabilised with a structured leadership they would try to bring down the government.
If we voted against the austerity package the government would not be able to present a budget and it would fall. But we could not vote for an austerity package.
Some people, therefore, say that the Left, Bloco and the Communist Party, created the conditions for the right-wing to take power. But they were going to have a moment like this anyway, with a minority government, sooner or later. Still, it had an effect on our vote.
So did Bloco’s refusal to meet with the Troika before the election. The media narrative was that we weren’t “responsible enough”, that we should have gone and stated our position. We replied that we do not negotiate with undemocratic institutions. The inevitability discourse that was strong at the time did not receive this position well.
There was also another confusion for many people. We supported the same presidential candidate as the Socialist Party, Manuel Alegre, a member of the left-wing of that party. He was a historical figure, a leader of the 1974 revolution who had been exiled, a poet and cultural figure too. The presidency is mainly ceremonial but not exclusively, it can disband a government and has power over the armed forces, so this mattered.
Even if his politics were not so bad the people did not understand this. We were fighting the Socialist Party in the parliament about austerity every day, but it was OK to nominate the same candidate for president? It seemed contradictory.
Q. But once the right-wing government was elected, there were huge mobilisations, the last one being in March 2013, when one-and-a-half million people were on the streets. It was the biggest social movement since the 1974 Portuguese Revolution. Why did it fail?
I sometimes provocatively say to people I’ve been working with for years that the Portuguese social movement does not exist, we have the Portuguese social moment. Every movement comes from moments but what distinguishes a movement from a moment is that you build new structures that keep on continuous work, that are able slowly to grow into something. They can be smashed too but the point is the development, there is not simply explosions and then nothing.
That is what happened with the anti-austerity moments in Portugal in recent years. There were big mobilisations but they did not create new organisations, new forms of organising, new experiences of politics, rooted in continuous daily activity.
Also, the effects of austerity on political activism need to be recognised. The migration wave out of Portugal is huge, bigger even than during the dictatorship. A lot of important activists in the movements left.
For those that remained the realities of austerity in their personal lives were very di cult. You don’t have the same time or energy for the cause when you are hopeless.
For Bloco specifically we did not manage to succeed with these mobilisations because there was a bad relationship between the party and the movements.
Some of our activists who were active in the movements started to have a more controlling position where they participated, which broke trust and agreements that had been around for a few years.
Q. The general election is coming up in Portugal in September or October. How will you do?
We will do badly. Maybe we will do a little better than in 2011, depending in some ways on the Syriza effect in Europe because after their election victory we grew a little bit in the polls. Regardless, it won’t be a strong result. We have not managed to assert ourselves in recent years. We have changed public strategy and demands several times, not been clear and damaged our relation with social movements.
In a moment of social and economic crisis a Left party that wants to grow needs to focus on two things. One is the understanding of the party as an instrument for social networking and restructuring of social relations, an arena of social solidarity. It must enhance self-organised experiences, trying to work with them, understanding why they exist, and trying to convince people that problems like unemployment, housing, hunger cannot be solved individually but must be solved collectively.
The party also has to have strong, clear, independent political proposals for the elections and institutional questions. It must rule out being junior partner with the Socialist Party, or administering austerity.
These are our tasks in overcoming the present difficulties. Effective strategy will not be achieved before September. But we either start now or we will disappear. •
Catarina Príncipe is an activist with Bloco de Esquerda and die Linke in Germany and also contributing editor at Jacobin magazine, where she has been covering the newly-elected Syriza government. She is currently fundraising for her participation in international left-wing conferences this summer at gofundme.com/ activistneedsyou.