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

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

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

Dockers protest outside the Portuguese parliament in Lisbon in November 2012. (Photo: Getty.)
Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Photo: Getty
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The Polish government is seeking $1trn in war reparations from Germany

“Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

The “Warsaw Uprising Run”, held each summer to remember the 1944 insurrection against Nazi occupation that left as many as 200,000 civilians dead, is no ordinary fun run. Besides negotiating a five- or ten-kilometre course, the thousands of participants must contend with Nazi checkpoints, clouds of smoke and a soundtrack of bombs and machine-gun fire.

“People can’t seem to see that this is not a normal way of commemorating a tragedy,” says Beata Tomczyk, 25, who had signed up for this year’s race but withdrew after learning that she would have to run to the sound of shooting and experience “the feeling of being an insurgent”. “We need to commemorate war without making it banal, without making it fun,” she tells me.

The race’s organisers are not the only ones causing offence by focusing on Poland’s difficult past. The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has revived the issue of German reparations for crimes committed in Poland during the Second World War.

The move followed large street protests against the government’s divisive proposals for legal reform. The plans also added to the country’s diplomatic isolation in Europe. The EU warned that Poland’s funding could be cut in response to the government’s attempts to erode the rule of law and its refusal to honour commitments to take in refugees under an EU quota system. In response, the PiS leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, argued that Poland’s funding from the EU is not linked to respect for common European standards. Instead, he claimed in July, it was tied to Poland’s wartime suffering.

PiS lawmakers then asked parliament to analyse the feasibility of a claim for reparations from Germany. “We are talking here about huge sums,” said Kaczynski, who co-founded the right-wing party in 2001, “and also about the fact that Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

Soon after the government announced that it was considering reopening the reparations issue, posters appeared in Warsaw in support of the initiative. “GERMANS murdered millions of Poles and destroyed Poland! GERMANS, you have to pay for that!” read one.

Reparationen machen frei” read another poster promoted by the right-wing television station Telewizja Republika, in a grotesque parody of the “Work sets you free” sign above the gates of Nazi concentration camps. Poland’s interior minister said in early September that the reparations claim could total $1trn.

The legal dispute over reparations goes back to a decision by the postwar Polish People’s Republic, a Soviet satellite, to follow the USSR in waiving its rights to German reparations in 1953. Reparations agreed at the 1945 Potsdam Conference were paid directly to the Soviet Union.

Advocates of the cause argue that the 1953 decision was illegitimate and that Poland has never given up its claim. Germany strongly disputes this, saying that Polish governments have repeatedly confirmed the 1953 deal.

Since the reparations announcement, Angela Merkel has signalled that she won’t be cowed by the claim and has continued to criticise the Polish government for its policies. “However much I want to have very good relations with Poland… we cannot simply hold our tongues and not say anything for the sake of peace and quiet,” she told a press conference in August.

The PiS’s willingness to broach a subject widely regarded as taboo across Europe has angered many Poles who regard the achievements of a decades-long process of Polish-German reconciliation as sacrosanct. A recent survey showed that a majority of Poles oppose the reparations claim.

“This policy is not only primitive and unwise but also deeply immoral,” says Piotr Buras, the head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “To blame and punish the second and third generations of Germans for atrocities committed over 70 years ago threatens what should be our ultimate goal – that of peace and reconciliation between nations.”

Karolina Zbytniewska, a journalist and member of a Polish-German network of young professionals, says: “It’s true that Poland didn’t receive proper compensation, but times have changed and Germany has changed, and that matters a lot more than money.”

Government propaganda about contemporary Germany is curiously contradictory. On one hand, Germany is portrayed as a threat because it hasn’t changed enough – Kaczynski has implied that Merkel was brought to power by the Stasi and that Germany may be planning to reclaim part of western Poland. On the other, Germany is presented as dangerous because it has changed too much, into an exporter of liberal values that could flood Poland with transsexuals and Muslim migrants.

The government’s supporters also denounce the “pro-German” sentiments of Poland’s liberal opposition, whose members are portrayed as German agents of influence. This paranoia came to a head during protests in cities across Poland in July, when tens of thousands took to the streets to oppose a government attempt to pass legislation giving the ruling party control over judicial appointments and the power to dismiss the country’s supreme court judges. PiS leaders accused foreign-owned – and, in particular, German-owned – media outlets of stirring unrest as part of a wider campaign to deny the Polish people their sovereignty.

But if the government’s fears of a German-engineered putsch are exaggerated, so are fears that its German-bashing will poison the attitudes of Poles towards their neighbours. Too many have visited, lived and worked there for anyone beyond a cranky minority to believe that Merkel’s Germany is the Third Reich in disguise.

“I have German friends, and I don’t think of them as the grandchildren of Nazis or people in Warsaw in 1944. They are not responsible for it on a personal level,” says the runner Beata Tomczyk. 

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem