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.

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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