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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Locals without borders: governments are using diasporas to shape the migration crisis

Governments of countries key to the migration crisis are tapping diaspora influence more than ever before.

Last month, on 21 June, thousands of Eritreans descended on Geneva and marched across the city, finally stopping at the Place des Nations in front of the UN. The demonstrators had come from across Europe: Italy, Germany, London, and a young man who looked blankly at my French and English questions before exclaiming “Svenska!” (“Swedish!”).

They were here to denounce a recent report by the UN Human Rights Council condemning widespread violations of basic rights in Eritrea. According to the protesters, the report was based on shoddy research and is biased and politically-motivated: “Stop regime change agendas!” said one banner.

Two days later, a similarly sized group of Eritreans marched in the same direction, for the opposite reason. This contingent, 10,000-strong according to the organisers, wanted to show their backing for the report, which highlights many of the problems that led them to leave the Horn of Africa in the first place. Forced conscription, extrajudicial killings, and official impunity, all pinpointed by the UN inquiry, have driven a mass exodus to the surrounding region and beyond. In 2015 alone, 47,025 Eritreans crossed the Mediterranean to request asylum in Europe.

Two things stood out. First was the sharp polarisation of the Eritrean diaspora community in Europe, which muddies the waters for outsiders trying to make sense of the situation: how can one side say everything is fine while the other claims massive abuses of rights?

Second was the sheer engagement of this diaspora, some of whom may never have set foot in Eritrea. They had come from across Europe, with or without the help of funding, to stand on a rainy square and fight for the narrative of their nation.

As an Irishman abroad, would I have the commitment to jump on a plane for a political protest with no certain outcome? I probably wouldn’t, but then again my country is not just 25 years old and still struggling to define itself on the international stage.

Individual stakes are also much higher for people like Abraham, an Eritrean in Switzerland who told me how he was forced into the army for seven years before managing to escape via Sudan two years ago. With two children still in Asmara, he has significant skin in the game.

As for the naysayers, they are also under certain pressure. Some reports suggest that the government in Asmara exercises extensive power in certain diaspora circles, threatening to cancel the citizenship of those who denounce the regime or refuse to pay 2 per cent income tax each year.

Ultimately, such a situation can only lead to a committed kind of polarisation where pro-government supporters need to publicly demonstrate their backing, and the anti-government kind have nothing left to lose.

But on a more benign level, the idea of states systematically harnessing the power of the diaspora for domestic gains has also been growing elsewhere – including in Ireland. Historically a nation of emigrants, Ireland has seen its diaspora swell even further following the economic downturn: OECD figures estimate that one in six Irish-born people now live abroad.

In an age of networks and soft power, this represents a sizeable demographic, and a well-educated and well-off one to boot. The government has clearly recognized this. In 2009, the first Global Irish Economic Forum was held to tap into the business know-how of expats, and has since taken place biannually.

More importantly, two years ago the first Minister for the Diaspora was appointed, tasked with taking overall charge of engagement efforts: no longer simply cultural ambassadors operating Irish bars abroad, emigrants are economic and political seeds to be cultivated. A referendum is planned next year on whether to grant them the right to vote from abroad in presidential elections.

Elsewhere, in Germany, the 3m-strong Turkish population has attracted renewed interest from the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent years. According to a 2014 paper by think tank SWP, Ankara now explicitly designates these Turks abroad as a “diaspora” rather than a scattered group, and adopts clear public diplomacy efforts, channelled through cultural centres, to tap their influence.

This has sometimes rankled in Berlin: although Ankara’s diaspora policy encourages citizens to learn German and integrate into German society, the underlying motivation is one of Turkish self-interest rather than benign assimilation. In a battle for the front-foot, German immigration policy clashes with Turkish emigration policy.

Intra-EU movements, largely unhampered by visa questions, have also become substantial enough to warrant attention. For example, hit hard by the economic downturn and austerity measures, many educated Spaniards and Portuguese have flocked to Northern European cities to seek employment.

London, a melting pot of diasporas from all over the world, is reportedly home to more French people than Bordeaux: together they would make up the sixth largest city in France. As countries continue to rebuild following the financial crisis, forging a connection to the skills and political power of such emigrants is a policy imperative.

And if no other EU country, aside from Ireland, has introduced a dedicated minister for this, the growing economic potentials may spur them to do so.

Diasporas have been around for millennia. Why are governments getting so interested now? And what does it mean for the future of citizenship, nationality, and identity?

Technology is one obvious game-changer. Diasporas not only have more options to keep in touch with their home country, but with so much of daily life now happening on virtual platforms, they also have less reason to integrate in their host society.

It is now almost feasible to ignore the surrounding communities and live quite comfortably in a bubble of media and connections from back home. This then works both ways, with governments increasingly willing to use such communications to maintain links. The “imagined spaces” of nations are morphing into “virtual spaces”, with unpredictable consequences for traditional models of integration.

Marco Funk, a researcher at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Brussels, says that the growing ease of mobility compounds the idea of “people moving from one country to another and staying there” as simply out-of-date.

The coming years, he says, will be marked by patterns of “circular migration”, where citizens hop from one country to another as whim and economic opportunity arise. Governments, especially in an increasingly stagnant Europe, will likely try to beef up links with this mobile generation, especially since it is often pulled from the more educated classes.

Fearing a “brain drain”, yet unable to keep the talent at home, they may foster a more fluid system of “brain exchange”: the diaspora as a mobile resource rather than physical loss.

Of course, none of this will be straightforward, especially at a time when a major fault-line around the world is the future of globalisation and migration. An uptick in nationalist tendencies may mean that diasporas will find themselves (once again) unwilling pawns on a political chessboard, protected or manipulated by governments back home while scapegoated by segments of their host societies.

But one thing is sure: even as walls are rebuilt, diasporas will not disappear, and governments are recognising their power. All politics may remain local, but the local now knows no bounds.