The good student of Europe at a dead-end

Article @ Open Democracy, published 4 October 2015

“So you’re not fed up with the elections yet?”, asked the cab driver speeding through the streets of Lisbon. I explain I just arrived, that I live abroad. He says I am lucky – I haven’t been subjected to the last three months of propaganda, skewed polls, punditry, false promises.

Portugal, the much talked about “good student of Europe”, goes to the ballot box today according to the ill-famed polls, to grant the governing conservative coalition a lukewarm victory.

Despite Portugal’s €280 billion sovereign debt (the equivalent of 134 per cent of the country’s GDP) political movements – on the ballot as on the streets – have not shown signs of being anything like the other debt-afflicted countries of Europe, namely Greece and Spain. Portugal does not have a Syriza or a Podemos party to talk of. The reasons for it are multifold, but if we had to boil it down to three main points these would be: the cohesion of the Portuguese Establishment, which has stuck together throughout the many scandals to which they have exposed themselves in the last few years; the strength of the traditional left, particularly the Communist Party, which still galvanises the majority of the labouring masses; and the inability of the left to articulate alternative strategies inside and outside parliament which resonate with younger generations.

The latter features have ensured that, when the Portuguese state is in crisis, Portuguese society nevertheless maintains itself as relatively stable. Demonstrations larger than some of those in Greece did take place. On September 15 2012 a million people marched across 30 of Portugal’s biggest cities against the bailout agreements. Thousands took to the streets in the previous and preceding months, in orderly fashion, with the appropriate stewarding. And even despite their violent policing – not too rare in a country like Portugal – temperaments cooled off, discontentment boiled down to muffled complaints, uttered daily, like a prayer.

The cab driver started swearing when I asked what he thought of it all, of the Portugal À Frente (Portugal Ahead) coalition between the duplicitously named Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Christian Democratic CDS-PP. Did he like the Socialist Party in opposition, led by former Lisbon Mayor António Costa? Did he like any of the new coming left-leaning parties? He mumbles that he is a PSD supporter, always has been. There is an unspoken “but” in his statement. I dig a little further – he is disillusioned with all the parties: he doesn’t trust politicians anymore. “They are all children”, he says of 51 year-old prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho and his 53 year-old deputy Paulo Portas. “What do they know of working life? Of struggling to make a living?” He rambles on even as I pay and exit the car. This is Portuguese dissent – a pent-up feeling of ill-at-ease that suddenly bursts into uncontrollable rage. Maybe that’s why Portugal has the highest number of road traffic accidents in Europe, west of the one-time Iron Curtain.

According to a well-regarded Portuguese historian friend of mine, society doesn’t throw itself into the midst of violent dissent unless there are structures that make such a step rational. The seeming political placidity of the Portuguese is not cowardice but wise caution, she argues. And the civil organisations that could provide such structures – parties, trade unions, local and national social campaigns – have not come forward.

The far right, perhaps thankfully, has no real mobilising power in Portugal. Yes, racism is rife, as is homophobia, sexism and plenty of other prejudices. But when it comes to organised efforts to wind Portuguese society back in time, groups such as the ultra-nationalist National Renovating Party (PNR) have had little success. Their best ever result in 2011 amounted to just over 17,500 votes (0,3 per cent).

The governing coalition – which is running for the first time under the Portugal À Frente (PaF) brand – is formed of two tired political entities. The Portuguese ruling families keep their strategical unity more out of necessity than sheer willingness – there are simply not enough of them for a split to occur and new things to arrive. Traditional neo-liberal minded entrepreneurs have had to hold hands with Catholic conservatives in order to get a predicted 38 per cent of the vote. That’s a lot of poker-faces for a mere 3,700,000 votes.

Mr Passos Coelho and Mr Portas have had to endure abuse at almost every single street event or rally they attended during the campaign. Pictures of the prime minister holding his hands up, as if surrendering to popular will, as he was mobbed by heckling residents of Braga city went viral. The coalition, for all its well-doing in the polls, got egged and cursed on the streets. In a recent controversial sketch, a reporter is seen asking prospective voters if they would elect PaF as government, to which most say yes. But seconds later he asks the same group of people if they’d vote for a PSD/CDS-PP coalition and everyone screeches “no way in hell.” In sum, many within the Portuguese electorate have not quite got around the fact that the new name is a rebranding strategy, brought on specifically to give a tainted group of politicians a chance. Their potential victory won’t be exclusively due to this little old trick, but it surely hasn’t harmed them.

On the other hand, the centre-left Socialist Party (PS) has been mired in scandals since its one time leader and former prime minister José Socrates was imprisoned for tax evasion. Even under new management, PS doesn’t seem to be able to get rid of the stain. Mr Socrates is a Tony Blair type of character, and much like the British politician, his legacy has been a bitter pill for the party to swallow. PS main strategy has been to call urgently for the “useful vote”, the Portuguese way to say “kick the conservatives out”. It’s a tired slogan and the polls, as well as the reception the party candidates get on the streets proves it. They are alone after years of implementing cuts when in power and supporting the government’s austerity policies when in opposition.

As Communist Party leading figure Bernardino Soares told me less than a week before election day: “PS does not show signs of distancing itself from the right on the five or six fundamental questions: the economic and monetary union (Euro), the public control of strategic sectors of our economy, labour legislation, better wealth distribution and rise in salaries, and a fiscal policy that penalises those who earn most and relieves those who have less. Even when PS had an absolute majority and thus did not need to ally itself to the right, it made countless agreements with the right from choice, there were no other pressures to do so.”

His own party, much like the anti-capitalist Left Bloc, will fare well this Sunday. Friday’s Eurosondagem poll predicted a 9,4 per cent share of the votes for the Communist-Greens coalition CDU, which would grant the group a total of 21 seats in parliament. As for the Left Bloc there’s also an expected rise from eight to up to 15 seats. It’s good news for the anti-austerity movement, but a far cry from the Syriza and Podemos mobilisations.

It’s almost unfair to explain the differences in political success of these forces in a mere paragraph, but invariably it boils down to old forms of doing politics which inspire neither the electorate nor the activist. The Communist Party holds the reins of the bulk of the unions, often stopping short of organising outside their boundaries. During the electoral campaign trail, during a street event, a left-wing activist told me: “Look at the history of the trade union struggles in Portugal. Where you see successes is where the Communist Party didn’t have a presence.”The same campaigner, supporting a Podemos-inspired left-wing group called AGIR (literally, “to act”), complained that the two main left parties in the country cared little more than about how many seats in parliament they got. There was little connection to the struggles of average Portuguese people – things like evictions, fuel poverty, underemployment, delayed salaries, unemployment, forced migration, debt, hunger and homelessness.

Neither communists nor Bloc-ists are willing to make a government with PS if the socialists stretch out a hand in the hope of a majority government. A united left parliamentary block is out of the question. “They keep themselves cosy in the role of opposition”, quips the malcontent activist.

Yet, for all the something or other the Portuguese left might lack, it is true that most of the new political initiatives have come from this realm. A cornucopia of progressive liberal, centre-left and far-left parties were formed in the last four years including AGIR, a split from the Left Bloc called Livre (Free) which has garnered the support of much of the left celebrity sphere, the Europeanphile Nós Cidadãos (We Citizens). There’s a hunger for something new, something that comes across as genuine and yet pragmatic, not just the old political blah-blah-blah. This yearning for a change comes from a section of society that is unhappy but which aims for further social equality, which in the view of Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio is the trademark of the political left-winger.

And this is where the cookie crumbles. Portugal feels like a ticking bomb of social dissent. The traditional main political forces have been marred by their associations with, or even direct connections to, some of the biggest corruption scandals the country has ever seen. The traditional far left has come to a dead end and is arguably content with its minor successes. The Portuguese voters, however, seem to need a little more. Abstention has been the great winner in most of the last years’ political scrutinies, fluctuating between 40 and 60 per cent of the votes. This year the result will be no different. AGIR spokeswoman Joana Amaral Dias summarised it to me in this way: “In Portugal people have kept voting in the usual suspects, the so-called central block PS-PSD, because there have not been any credible political alternatives.” According to Ms Amaral Dias, AGIR is that alternative, of course.

Regardless of whether her party has the capacity eventually to become the mobilising force of social and political change in the country, her words point to a very important truth – in Portugal things won’t change out of simple left-wing volition. There has to be an effort from some front, or many of them, to call for radical changes to the system. But these changes will in no uncertain terms unleash political earthquakes that are hard to assess. And scary. Not for the average Portuguese person – the Greek cautionary tale didn’t affect them, the word on the Portuguese street was of utmost respect for the Oxi movement. “At least they kept their pride”, a woman once told me. No, changes are only terrifying for those who dare to lead them. And with such an untapped social power within reach even the more daring political mobilisers are cautious. Lest they go and waken up something akin to revolution.