What Can the Left Learn From Portugal’s Elections?

The poor showing for the radical left wasn’t totally unexpected.

by Joana Ramiro

4 February 2022

Leader of Portugal’s centre-left Socialist Party Antonio Costa campaigns ahead of the country’s general elections, Lisbon, January 2022. Pedro Fiuza/Reuters

Last weekend’s general election in Portugal signals what might be to come as we move into a world acclimated to the pandemic, but still dealing with its consequences. The historic win for the centre-left Socialist Party (PS), which scooped an outright majority in parliament, announces the beginning of a new political cycle: one where the polarisation of the last five years has now congealed into a few camps. 

On the one side, there’s a convergence around centre-left parties that have somewhat shunned their neoliberal, early-2000s tendencies and embraced (with varying levels of enthusiasm and conviction) their socialist legacies. On the other, there’s a right divided between a classic globalised capitalist-individualist offer and a growing national-populist movement with something to say about collective identity. These political desires disclose some fairly obvious needs of the electorate, including a yearning for political accountability, calls for social improvement, and an eagerness for some sort of paradigmatic shift. 

For progressives across Europe, Portugal is also a cautionary tale. The collective seats held by left-of-social-democracy parties went from 36 in 2015 to less than half of that last weekend. Organisations like the Communist Party (PCP) and the Left Bloc (BE) were de facto in government between 2015 and 2019. Today, they make up (with the help of a single MP from ecosocialist party LIVRE) the same number of lawmakers in parliament as the far-right party Chega. 

They say hindsight is 20/20, and perhaps this is a piece easier to write now that the disaster has happened than during the course of the last few years, when the left’s proximity to power gave people, in Portugal and beyond, the hope of better things to come. But the results, no matter how dismal they may seem, were not totally unexpected. 

This time last year, Portugal turned to the ballot box for the first time since Covid-19 reached the most-Western coast of Europe to re-elect President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa – a soft conservative turned TV pundit-celebrity – with nearly 61% of the vote. In third place came André Ventura, the chauvinist megalomaniac leading Chega, with nearly half a million votes. By contrast, the combined vote for PCP and BE was under 350,000. As I wrote for Novara Media at the time, the left was “demure” when faced with these results. Instead of vowing to bring about a better tomorrow, “no one spoke of what the future holds. No one made pledges to take on Chega. No one mentioned the fight to come.” 

In the history of political alliances, radical forces rarely come out winning when they align themselves with reformist parties. Examples are as infamous as Léon Blum’s Popular Front government in France just before the break of WWII, or as little-known as the Greek left coalition Synaspismos and its participation in the 1989 ‘Universal Government’ that put in power a technocrat with the support of the centre right. To be sure, things didn’t end well for the representatives of the working class. That isn’t to say the radical left shouldn’t at times cooperate with the centre, especially in moments of crisis or when faced with the threat of fascism. It just means that if these experiments have been done before, many of their lessons seem to have been forgotten in time.  

To succeed during and after a coalition with the centre, the left has to use its time in collaboration to carve out its own political identity. This isn’t a contradiction in terms. When the Communist Party and the Left Bloc forced PS to enter a supply-and-demand governmental agreement in 2015, they did so because without their votes in parliament the Socialists couldn’t rule. The same couldn’t be said after 2019, when PS’s minority government left a lot more room for manoeuvre. Portugal’s economic recovery and the government’s approval rates came thanks to the radical left and its valiant efforts to protect public services and invest in the welfare state. In fact, at times Portugal’s success story came in spite of certain Socialist policies that encouraged foreign capital to ransack the nation’s resources and exploit Portuguese and migrant workers for juicy profit margins.

The opportunities to divorce from the ruling party were there. The left, however, was often distracted by the narrative preached by the centre and abetted by the media that to oppose the Socialist government was to enable a conservative agenda, possibly opening doors to the far right. This fear became particularly acute when in 2020 the centre-right PSD formed a coalition with Chega in the autonomous region of Azores in order to bring down the minority PS government. While the relationship proved tempestuous, PSD’s assurances that such agreements wouldn’t take place in national elections seemed questionable. As the years went on, the left felt like a backseat driver to an increasingly confident Socialist Party. 

For the Communist Party, the rehabilitation process should and will be easier. It can rely on its ideological conviction, rank-and-file loyalties and tradition while exploring what it means to be a Marxist-Leninist in the 2020s. Indeed, the PCP is in a period of renewal, with a wave of young members pushing the party in new directions. They have at least three very competent candidates – including a very telegenic former member of the European Parliament – to lead the party once 74-year-old metalworker Jerónimo de Sousa retires. And their new batch of campaigners includes a wide and rich mix of ages and regional origins, as well as gender and ethnic identities. For a party with a programme often stuck in time, in both rhetoric and strategy, this could mean a fresh approach. And for a party that has lost many of its voters to the far right, this can only and undoubtedly be a good thing. 

For the Left Bloc, there is now an uphill battle to rebuild its constituency. Many of its voters gravitated towards the Socialists because they fear the rise of the far right and are happy enough with the deft leadership of Prime Minister António Costa. Neither of those things is likely to change in the near future. What’s more, the Left Bloc, as an anticapitalist party, now has another pernicious political force to contend with: the (neo)liberal Inciativa Liberal. In the immediate sense, this is the Left Bloc’s number one target, because, as writer Luhuna de Carvalho put it recently: “Today, the greatest political threat is not the return of fascism, it is the birth of a radical centre that fulfils the purpose previously assumed by fascism, legitimised precisely because it is not fascism.” It is the responsibility of the left at large to fight, hopefully together, the threat of fascism and the politics of hate. But for the Bloc, the answer to its revival is to become a force that will vociferously oppose the politics of privatisation and profiteering. It must be alert, organise and denounce every time the Socialist government co-opts the politics of Iniciativa Liberal, masking precarity and racketeering with buzzwords like entrepreneurism and “global investment”. 

Portuguese people are crying out for a change to their material conditions and the system more widely. Their cries are echoed throughout Europe, where elections are reshaping countries’ political landscapes. The left in these countries must learn from the Portuguese left’s failure and create an offer that credibly answers these demands, either by controlling the forces in power, or positively distancing itself from them until further notice.

Joana Ramiro is a journalist, writer, broadcaster and political commentator.

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