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A left-wing government in Portugal? Don’t hold your breath

Why there's not going to be a Portuguese "Syriza" any time soon.

Dockers protest outside the Portuguese parliament in Lisbon in 2012.
Dockers protest outside the Portuguese parliament in Lisbon in November 2012. (Photo: Getty.)

A few months ago, the prospect of a new general election in Portugal was remote, but deepening austerity and the mistakes made by the right-wing government are changing public opinion. There is a feeling in the air that this government won't make it until 2015, but although it will probably not be re-elected, there won't be a left-wing government either.

The Socialist Party (PS), which is the biggest one in opposition, is not thriving. Weak leadership and the connection with Troika itself (they were in office when the bailout was requested) put them in a dubious position: they are against austerity, but they want to honour their commitment by paying off the whole debt. As a result, the PS would get only 30 per cent of the votes, according to the polls - not enough for a majority in Parliament.  

There are two other left-wing parties whom the socialists could ally with: the Communist Party (PCP) and the Left Bloc (BE). The PS would have to secure an agreement with both, since they together represent around 20 per cent of the votes, but such a union is very unlikely. 

PCP is one of the most orthodox communist parties in all Europe, with ideas and behaviour very similar to the Greek KKE. In spite of this, it has a very faithful electorate and is slowly rising in the polls, as a result of its straightforward ideas: the European Union and the Euro were a mistake and now it is time to negotiate our way out of it. It proposes "a patriotic leftist government", a definition that, according to the communists, the PS doesn't fit. PCP doesn’t make alliances with any party, as became clear in October, when it refused to participate in the Democratic Assembly for the Alternative, a leftist movement in which BE and PS were present.

BE, the Left Bloc, is a trickier case. Like Syriza in Greece, it is a merger of different leftist ideologies. And former leader Francisco Louçã surely loves being compared to Alex Tsipras, with whom he keeps in contact. BE had a stellar rise, receiving almost 10 per cent of the votes and becoming the third most popular party at the 2009 general election. Two years later, when the country faced new elections after asking for a financial rescue, they lost almost 5 per cent of the votes and half their MPs. This happened for many different reasons. Most people who voted in BE in 2009 were former PS voters. This electorate did not appreciate when Left Bloc didn't meet with representatives of the Troika two years ago, when the European Union and the IMF came to Portugal, as well as other mistakes. 

As if that wasn’t enough, BE is internally divided. It lost Louçã, its leader for the past twelve years, in August. But his shadow has not gone and he keeps surfacing as the main reason for so many militants leaving. Just a month ago, Daniel Oliveira, one of the most charismatic members of the party, left BE saying there was too much "internal sectarianism". He, as well as other dissidents, keep asking for an agreement with PS, so that there may be a chance for a left-wing government in Portugal. No one seems to be listening in both parties. They couldn't even form a coalition for the next local elections, in October.

The problem with the Portuguese left is that PCP and BE see themselves as new Syrizas, capable of rising up and stealing the election. On the other hand, the PS is incapable of making decisions that may cost them a future election or cause a bad relationship with the European Union. At the next election, whether it's sooner or later, PSD, the main party in government, may suffer a defeat, but there won't be any viable left alternative to even things up. And the socialists in the PS will turn to the right, leaving us at the exact same place where we started.

Follow Cátia Bruno on Twitter @catiabruno