On Wednesday June 2, the Portuguese parliament voted by a thin margin to accept the austerity package presented by Socialist (PS) Party Prime Minister Jose Socrates. The "victory" for Mr. Socrates, who heads a minority government, was made possible by the support of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), which in spite of its name, is neither socialist nor democratic, but rather is a right-wing party dedicated to scaling back the rights of working people.
The move by the government and legislature parallels measures that are being undertaken in those European Union member countries that have been most heavily impacted by the financial and economic crisis that started in the United States in 2008 but has become greatly intensified in Europe since the start of the massive debt crisis in Greece. Portugal and Greece are two of the insultingly designated "PIGS," EU countries whose finances are considered most shaky. The others are Italy, Ireland and Spain. All these countries are under intense pressure by international monopoly capital, wealthier EU countries such as Germany, and the International Monetary Fund, to balance their budgets by dismantling social welfare programs. In fact, they are finding out what it is like for the poor countries of Asia, Africa and America.
The vote in parliament approves the general outlines of a series of regressive tax increases (value added and on income) and cuts in public services, especially in health care, education and unemployment benefits. The legislature now has to get into detail on each of these items, and the left, headed by the Communist Party-Greens alliance, is going to make a fight over every one of them.
The Portuguese left fears that the deal worked out by the centrist government and the right-wing PSD may have constitutional implications, as the latter party, with other sectors of the Portuguese right, opposes the existing guarantees of economic and social rights entrenched in the Constitution as a result of the events that followed the overthrow of the Caetano dictatorship in the 1970s.
And in Portugal, the left is able to mobilize large numbers of both public and private sector workers, as well as small farmers and others who will be negatively impacted by the austerity measures. On Saturday, May 29, an estimated 300,000 marched in Lisbon to denounce the Socrates government's austerity plan. The entire population of Portugal is only 10.6 million. The impressive mobilization was spearheaded by the CGPT-IN trade union federation, closely linked to the Portuguese Communist Party.
On Monday, May 31, Jeronimo de Sousa, secretary-general of the Portuguese Communist Party, speaking at a Party meeting in Setubal, laid out in stark terms what is at stake:
The PS and PSD speak in the name of the national interest, but the national interest is not to be defended against the interests of the majority of the people, nor is it compatible with a policy of capitulation before the big economic interests, the big powers and the neo-liberal objectives and orientations of the Central Bank of Europe, of Brussels, of [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, or the International Monetary Fund.
Rather, de Sousa called for "a policy of defense and promotion of national production, valuing our national resources, investing in the industrialization of our country, in our agriculture and fisheries, oriented toward creating jobs and fighting against unemployment, and helping our small and medium sized enterprises" as well as defending the rights of workers and the people. The entire statement can be read in Portuguese at http://www.pcp.pt.
The call of the Portuguese left and labor movement for the defense of the interests of workers and ordinary people against the demands for more and more sacrifices, demands coming from those who created the crisis and who are themselves willing to sacrifice nothing, closely parallel those heard around the world, including in the United States.