Socialist coalition hands right-wing Portuguese government defeat

On Tuesday November 10, the right wing Portuguese government headed by Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho of the Social Democratic Party (which in Portugal is a right wing party in spite of its name) was defeated in a vote of confidence moved by the opposition Socialist, Communist, Ecological (Green) and Left Bloc parties.

In elections on October 4, the coalition headed by Passos Coelho, of the Social Democrats and the right wing People’s Party had lost heavily in relation to the last election, in 2011, and even lost their parliamentary majority. The evident reason was the Portuguese people’s dissatisfaction with an austerity program imposed by the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund in exchange for an $83 billion bailout. The conditions for the bailout and also those imposed under the stringent “Stability and Growth Pact” which was imposed on all members of the Euro currency group, led to declining wages and pensions, slashed public services and sharply increased unemployment, especially among young workers, who have been leaving the country in large numbers in search of work. Although the spokespeople of finance capital and their allies in the media have praised Portugal’s “progress”, the voters thought otherwise.

The Socialist, Communist, Ecological and Left-Bloc opposition, who had won 122 parliamentary seats to the government coalition’s 107, a clear majority in the 230 seat chamber, then announced that they were ready to form a government with the Socialist Party’s General Secretary, former Lisbon Mayor Antonio Costa, at its head as the new Prime Minister. But the country’s president, Anibal Cavaco Silva, who also belongs to the right-wing Social Democratic Party, reacted angrily with an intemperate red-baiting speech focusing on the inclusion of the Communist Party in Costa’s proposed coalition. Cavaco Silva issued dire warnings that Portugal would be heavily punished by the European institutions if it took that path and abandoned austerity.

Cavaco Silva also made a heavy-handed attempt to get members of the Socialist Party’s parliamentary caucus to break with their leadership and support the continuation of the right wing government, playing on past disagreements between Socialists and Communists, but this fell far short when they succeeded in electing a Socialist to chair the chamber. Cavaco appointed a government headed by Passos Coelho anyway, in spite of threats by Costa that he and his allies would call for a vote of no confidence on its program and thus bring the government down, forcing new elections.

During the weekend of November 7 and 8, the Socialist and Communist leaders met to create a more detailed joint programmatic agreement on the basis of which they could bring down the Passos Coelho government and form a new one headed by the Socialist Party. The Communists agreed to defer their demand that Portugal leave NATO, the Euro currency and the European Union, and the Socialists agreed that the policy of a new coalition would focus on rolling back the anti-worker austerity program imposed by the outgoing government (evidently the Ecological and Left Bloc parties also agreed to this).

Among other things that were agreed to in the document signed by Communist and Socialist leaders were an end to the freeze on pensions, a “decisive fight” against job precariousness, protections against home foreclosures, boosting support for health care and schools (including reducing class size), lowering of regressive taxes, revocation of anti-abortion legislation, no more privatizations and much more.

Now what happens? President Cavaco Silva can either lower his banner and agree to appoint Mr. Costa as Prime Minister in charge of a Socialist-Communist-Green-Left Bloc government, or he can continue Passos Coelho as prime minister in a “caretaker” capacity with full knowledge that almost no new legislation can be passed in that case. This will trigger a new election, but not until April. First, there is an election for President in January, which the right is likely to lose. In that case, the Socialist-left coalition is likely to end up in power anyway.

What remains to be seen, also, is what finance capital, the European Central Bank, the European Commission (governing body of the European Union) and the International Monetary Fund, as well as the government of Germany and other wealthy conservative countries will do in the face of Portuguese defiance of their “rules.” Even under Passos Coelho’s government Portugal was being threatened because they were late presenting a budget for the approval of Brussels. So a repeat of what happened in Greece, in which the European financial elites bludgeoned the government of Prime Minister Tsipras into agreeing to an even more onerous fiscal package in exchange for financial relief, will certainly be repeated.

There are differences. One is that Portugal is not in such immediate need of further bailouts as Greece was (and still is). Another is that the left and center are united in Portugal (and the left itself has achieved tactical unity), whereas they were not, and are not, in Greece, where the Communist Party (KKE) and the ruling SYRIZA have not been able to work together. The Unity in Portugal has been made possible by the practical stance of the left, and a very evident left turn on the part of the Socialist Party under Antonio Costa’s leadership.

Yet it is certain that this country of 11 million is in for a wild ride in the coming months. That the Portuguese working class and people will have to fight hard is well understood by the leaders of the opposition to austerity. Jeronimo de Silva, the Secretary General of the Communist Party, in his speech in parliament calling for the no-confidence vote, said “this is a time for participation, for action, for the construction of a better future!”

Photo: Socialist Party leader, Antonio Costa, interviewed by journalists after casting his ballot in Portugal’s general elections Oct. 4, outside Lisbon.  |   Steven Governo/AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.