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Portugal: a case study in the politics of austerity

Portuguese workers face a bleak future but the country's weak, fragmented left has empowered the neo

A worker holds the Portuguese flag during a protest against government austerity measures last week
Source: Getty Images

Portugal had certainly geared itself up for last Thursday's general strike against the IMF/EU-imposed austerity package. Not long after landing in Lisbon a few days before, I noticed that the city was plastered with colourful banners and posters. "Reject the Pact of Aggression!" bellowed hundreds of Portuguese Communist Party posters; others called for people to "Fight the Austerity Regime." In their preparations for the greve geral, Portugal's trade unions could certainly teach their British counterparts a thing or two.

But - then again - workers in Portugal face an even bleaker future than they do here. Pedro Passos Coelho's right-wing government has extended the working day by half an hour, driven through deep cuts in health and welfare, and is cutting Christmas bonuses for civil servants. That's essentially the thirteenth payment of their annual salaries and, in a country where the minimum wage is just €450 (£386) a month, it makes a big difference. Social gains won over decades are being stripped in weeks and months.

Portugal was the third EU country to be bailed out after Greece and Ireland, and the austerity measures are justified by the terms of the €78bn package. But, as elsewhere, the policies have sucked growth out of the economy. When credit-rating agency Fitch downgraded Portugal's debt to junk status on the same day of the strike, they estimated the economy would contract by 3 per cent next year.

The thousands of strikers who gathered outside the National Assembly on Thursday certainly feel that austerity has gone too far. 'Basta' - 'Enough' - was the most common slogan inscribed on banners. Enraged workers expressed that familiar frustration of the post-Lehman era - why are we being made to pay the bill for someone else's mess? "The poor class and the middle class are being made to pay for this crisis," Maria, a media assistant, told me. "We are spending our money to give to the banks. It's not fair - they're putting it in their pockets." Protesters had a strong sense that they were facing a similar onslaught - differing only in scale - as other Europeans. But there was also deep anger expressed at the Troika enforcing austerity - the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Across the political spectrum, there's a realisation that Portugal has lost much of its sovereignty.

Portugal will be an interesting case study as to just how possible radical neo-liberal policies are in modern democracies. Economists close to the government privately express impatience that "reforms" are not fast or far enough. But their real fear is that the democratic system is on a collision course with what they regard as necessary policies, which - they believe - will prove to be short-term pain for long-term gain.

Maria certainly doesn't expect resistance on the scale of Greece. "We're not such a radical country," she argues. "We're very, very peaceful." While Communists dominate the main trade union federation (the CGTP), union membership is even lower than Britain - running at less than a fifth of workers and, as here, overwhelmingly concentrated in the public sector. There have only been two other national strikes in the 37-year history of Portuguese democracy.

But Portugal also has a recent revolutionary tradition. When left-wing army officers toppled António Salazar's authoritarian right-wing 'New State' regime in the 1974 Carnation Revolution, radical politics flourished. "Socialism" was inserted into the constitution, and the first post-Salazar Prime Minister Vasco Gonçalves pledged a "fight to the death against capitalism." Time magazine even fretted that the revolutionary government would "transform Portugal into Western Europe's first Communist nation." It didn't pan out that way, but constitutional clauses forbidding privatisation remained in place as late as 1989.

Many of Thursday's strikers drew on this tradition. "The 25th April forever, liberation from fascism!" was one of the chants, referring to the day that left-wing officers toppled the Salazar regime.

But, as in most other European countries, the left has failed to benefit from the biggest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s. In fact, quite the reverse. The June general election was certainly marred by low turnout, suggesting widespread disengagement from the political process. But the right-of-centre social democrats won over half the vote, while the even more right-wing People's Party achieved their best result since 1983. The Socialists were kicked out of office with their worst showing since 1987; though, in any case, they were also committed to radical austerity measures. Meanwhile, the Communist vote stagnated, and the radical Left Bloc lost half their MPs.

It is this weak, fragmented left that offers the best chance of success for radical neo-liberalism in Portugal. Frustration and anger will inevitably escalate further but - unless a coherent alternative emerges to give it political focus - it is unlikely to present a real challenge to austerity. And if that's the case in Portugal, it's just as true everywhere else.