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.)
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Q&A: Would Brexit really move “the Jungle” to Dover?

The 2003 Le Touquet treaty was negotiated outside the EU.

What is David Cameron’s most recent claim about Britain leaving the EU?

The Prime Minister is claiming that Brexit could result in France ending the agreement by which British immigration officials carry out checks on those seeking to enter the UK in France.  

More specifically, Cameron thinks that a vote to leave the EU would give the French government an excuse to revoke the Le Touquet treaty of 2003, and that this would cause refugee camps akin to the Calais “Jungle” to spring up along the English south coast.

What’s the Le Touquet treaty?

In February 2003, Tony Blair went to the northern French resort of Le Touquet to try and persuade President Jacques Chirac to support British and American military action in Iraq. (He failed). 

Blair and Chirac hogged the headlines, but on the summit’s sidelines, Home Secretary David Blunkett and his French counterpart, an ambitious young politician named Nicolas Sarkozy, negotiated a treaty establishing juxtaposed controls at each country’s sea ports.

This agreement meant that British border police could set up and run immigration checkpoints at Calais – effectively moving the British border there from Dover. The treaty also enabled French border police to carry out checks in Dover.

British border police had already been operating at French Eurostar terminals since 2001, and manning the French entrance to the Eurotunnel since 1994.

What’s all this got to do with the EU?

Technically, nothing. The Le Touquet treaty is a bilateral agreement between the UK and France. Both countries happen to be member states of the EU, but the negotiations took place outside of the EU’s auspices.

That's why eurosceptics have reacted with such fury today. Arron Banks, the co-founder of Leave.EU, said the Prime Minister was “resorting to scaremongering”, while Ukip’s migration spokesperson, in a surprising role-reversal, said that Cameron’s argument was “based on fear, negativity, and a falsehood”.

Cameron’s claim appears to be that Brexit would represent such a profound shift in the UK’s relationship with other European states that it could offer France an excuse to end the agreement reached at Le Touquet. That is debatable, but any suggestion that the treaty would instantly become void in the event of a vote to leave is untrue.

Does France actually want to revoke the treaty?

Local politicians in Calais, and in particular the town’s mayor, have been arguing for months that the treaty should be abandoned. Le Monde has also criticised it. The current French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, hinted today that he agreed, saying that a British vote to leave “will always result in countermeasures”.

On the BBC's Today programme this morning, Rob Whiteman, a former head of the UK Border Agency, said that it was “almost certain” that the treaty would end if the UK left the EU. He said that France has benefited less from the deal than it expected:

“I think at the time the French felt there would be an upside for them, in that if it was clear that people could not easily get to Britain it would stop Sangatte building up again. The camp was closed. But history has shown that not to be the case. The French authorities still have a huge amount of pressure on their side.”

That said, the French government receives money from the British to help police Calais and its camps, and various French officials have acknowledged that their ports would receive even more traffic if refugees and migrants believed that it was easier to travel  to the UK than before.

If the treaty ended, would “the Jungle” just move to Dover?

There’s little doubt that because of linguistic and familial ties, and perhaps the perception that the UK is more welcoming than France, many refugees and migrants would come to the UK as quickly as they could to claim asylum here.

Whiteman also said on Today that since the 2003 agreement, the annual number of asylum claims in the UK had declined from 80,000 to around 30,000. So the UK could expect a significant spike in claims if the treaty were to end.

But the British asylum process makes it unlikely that anything like “the Jungle” would spring up. Instead, those claiming asylum would be dispersed around the country or, if authorities are worried they would flee, held in an immigration detention centre.

Why is Cameron saying this now?

This looks suspiciously like one of the Tories' election strategist Lynton Crosby’s dead cats. That is, in an effort to distract his critics from the detail of the renegotiation, the PM has provoked a row about migrants and refugees. Cameron is clearly keen to move the debate on from the minutiae of different European agreements to bigger questions about security and terrorism. Though getting bogged down in competing interpretations of a treaty from 2003 may not be the best way to move onto that broader terrain.