Chapter @ What’s Left? (report), published 11 December 2018

It was one of those autumn nights when it starts getting chilly outside, streets go from green to auburn, and the rain leaves behind a smell of childhood comforts. I was in a rush, running late to where I needed to be, which on 4th October 2015 was the electoral results party of the Portuguese Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc), at Lisbon’s São Jorge cinema. So I took a cab.

Cabs, I find, are the best way to know what is going through Portuguese consciousness. And even what is going on in Portuguese parliament. Which policies are having the biggest impact, which parties and politicians are leaving a mark. Because cab drivers in Lisbon drive all sorts of people around and are always up for a chat. And because, like cab drivers everywhere, they are not shy of sharing their opinion and that of those they have driven. Cab drivers, hairdressers and cafe waiters are the barometers of Portuguese society. And when in doubt, it is this holy trinity I consult. But more on this later.

What I did not know on 4th October 2015, even after seeing Bloco surge in the exit polls against all odds, even after watching friends become members of parliament and the conservative coalition lose its majority, was that the Portuguese paradigm was to become a riddle and a pharos to political analysts for years to come.

And even if I had foreseen that the harshest round of austerity measures was to end with the rise of the so-called geringonça (the contraption – a derogative moniker for the governmental agreement between the Socialist Party and the far-left in the form of Bloco, the Portuguese Communist Party – PCP, and the Greens), I would never have guessed that this new government would pose so many questions on the nature of social democracy in the 21st century.

All I knew in October 2015 was that Portugal, like many of its southern European brethren nations, was afflicted by austerity, unemployment, crumbling social infrastructures, social unrest, mass emigration, widespread discontent and a slight taste of panic. The Socialist Party (PS), which is part of the Socialist International, was floundering – both on members on the ground, as on political rhetoric. The infamous demise of its Greek counterpart, PASOK, still fresh. Conservative Catholics seemed to be doing just fine, piggybacking on the centre-right (and inaptly named) Social Democratic Party (PSD).

So what turned the Socialists’ fate around? And what does it mean to international social democracy? And does it really hail the dawn of a new, prosperous era for the nations of Europe?

“In the post-crisis context that affected Portugal, Europe, and the world, where cuts were imposed on wages and public services, where household incomes and investment fell, where half a million people – in their majority qualified young people – emigrated, we had a huge and challenging path to take,” PS national director Mariana Vieira da Silva told me recently. “The path was to build an alternative to the austerity policy defended by the right.”

She added that “it was therefore necessary to give people back their social rights, reverse the cuts imposed by the years of austerity, and also give them back their trust in a future of growth and sustainable development.” To reverse this “negative cycle”, she added, “it was possible to find common ground with the other parties of the parliamentary left, and we established our joint positions in three historic agreements.”

That’s the inception of geringonça. And the agreements Vieira da Silva refers to could be seen as both the three budgets agreed by the Portuguese parliament this far, but also, in short, the PS’ three promises to its far-left partners: to unfreeze pensions, reform a series of taxes which burdened families far more than corporations, and to stop the rampant privatisation of public services that took place in the preceding years.

And to the naked eye, these agreements were, overall, respected. The Portuguese economy seems, at a first glance, to be doing better than it was before, and the pace of its recovery is, allegedly, faster than that of Greece or Spain. But walking through the streets of the Portuguese capital one would not exactly think of this country as a shiny example of European affluence. Rather, it strikes you as the new “hot tourist destination”. And, indeed, that is one of the things that helped create the mirage that is the Portuguese economic recovery. Last year, a record 20 million foreigners visited the 10 billion-strong country. And according to recent figures by the Bank of Portugal, they left behind a whopping €41.5 million a day. Yes, you read that correctly – a day.

For the average Portuguese person, however, not much has changed. There are more jobs around, but few under stable contracts. Under European diktats many public companies continue to reduce their senior and higher paid staff (through early retirement or volunteer redundancy packages), precarious and seasonal employment is on a high, and, as I known first hand, vital sectors such a journalism are a dying breed.

And it was fellow journalist and Lisbon resident Ricardo Cabral Fernandes, who explained to me how the PS government left turn was nothing but a coup of political genius.

“The geringonça was basically an exclusively tactical turn of the Socialist Party.” We are in a downtown cafe in Lisbon and it’s late on a summer afternoon. I’ve come from the beach, sun-kissed, sandy feet – the stereotype of the healthy, relaxed Mediterranean living. Except that I am a Lisboner who doesn’t live in Lisbon. I live in London. My colleague, who works six days a week for two of Portugal’s biggest publications and manages an entire foreign desk with one other person, looks exhausted. His voice has that bittersweet timbre of someone who was once bitter but who can’t even afford that any longer.

“What happened was that the, so-to-speak, socialist/left wing of PS very quickly learnt the lessons of PASOK in Greece. So it turned its compass. And (Prime Minister) António Costa was that compass. Yes, he broke the governance arc, made a parliamentary alliance with the Bloco and the PCP, but for all else, in policy terms, it keeps the same politics.”

What PS was able to do, he argues, was to radically change the way in which voters understood the Socialist Party. While it was once attacked both by the right as by the far-left, with the geringonça PS created itself some space to grow with the blessing of, or at least a ceasefire from, Bloco and PCP.

As part of that strategy was a strong message from PS arguing that, after all, austerity was not as inevitable as it had once been agreed. “After almost three years, we are in a position to say that our policies worked and that PS knew how to affirm a real alternative to those who said that it did not exist,” said Vieira da Silva. Where that leaves PS’ one-time support for the Troika (read, the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund – IMF) memorandum, no one is quite sure. All water under the bridge, I guess.

“The Socialist Party is an example of the possibility of building an alternative without breaking with European commitments,” she insists. “We have shown that, even under a different policy, it is possible to build a more equal country, with more and better jobs, and enjoy the highest economic growth since joining the Euro. All under the same rules that apply to other countries in the European Union.” She adds: “It was with this policy that we scrapped excessive deficit and reached its historic low levels. That is why Portugal today has a solid economy and public finances.”

And yet, public investment in Portugal is the lowest of all advanced economies, according to the IMF. Promises to improve this record have come to little action on the ground. Public services such as the transport networks and the national health service are in acute crisis, and teachers have declared war on the government over missed salary increases.

The country’s industries too have not changed much between 2015 and the time of writing. Other than tourism, of course, and much of that is controlled by foreign investment, particularly from China. Other grand investments in Portuguese infrastructure have been by Spanish, Brazilian, and US corporations. In other words, little public revenue is to be expected from them in the coming years.

There is, however, an argument to be made about the realpolitik behind the geringonça. While it is not without its contradictions, the geringonça as a government that has not implemented austerity but is not openly antiausterity either, has allowed Portugal to do things the Troika did not allow Greece to do.

Cabral Fernandes is in no doubt that the European Union would have fallen on Portugal – like it did on Greece in the early days of the Syriza government – had the geringonça turned out to be a more radical government, ready to talk debt restructuring or renationalisation of public services.

“The dogmas of the European Union continue, in Greece and everywhere else,” said Cabral Fernandes.

And the strategy of mollifying the “good student of Europe” and use it as prime example of how “austerity doesn’t work, but really, it clearly did” is working.

“It was this policy that allowed a better life for the Portuguese and gave them back the confidence they had lost in the institutions, the European Union and democracy in general,” echoed the national director of the Socialist Party. “According to the latest Eurobarometer, 75% of Portuguese people are satisfied with democracy in Portugal, which contrasts with 15% in 2013. Confidence in the government, parliament, and European institutions has also been on the rise since we formed a government.”

This, she believes, has also thwarted the “populist, nationalist and destabilising projects” that have grown across Europe. “These narratives did not grow in Portugal because we believe that the core of the government’s policies must be trust. The Portuguese feel that they have returned or are returning to normality. By giving them security and hope in the future, we are simultaneously fighting the threat of populism.”

And my trusted barometer agreed with her. On my way back home from meeting Cabral Fernandes I took a cab. And the conversation, by chance, fell again on the topic of geringonça. My driver was a middle-aged man named Tó Vieira, and he promptly tells me that “there are only two real politicians in Portugal”. One is António Costa.

He felt things were slowly turning around, yet not for everyone. Of his two children one is abroad. He’s doing well, but he isn’t home. The other is unsure about the probabilities of finding a job after graduating.

Most importantly, however, he told me he used to be a PS militant. “I was a member of the Socialist Party in the time of Lopes Cardoso and of Salgado Zenha, but when they left, I left,” he said in a kind of jolly resignation. António Lopes Cardoso and Francisco Salgado Zenha were two heroes of the Portuguese revolution, founders of the Socialist Party, and members of its more left-wing ranks. Both abandoned the party when its socialist essence turned into the social democratic nature it has adopted to this day.

For many Portuguese like Mr Vieira, certainly for those who supported it in the early years of the new, democratic Portugal, PS went from being a party of transformation and hope to being a party of the status quo and ‘jobs for the boys’. But since the geringonça there’s a new-born hope. Not necessarily hope for a better life, as Vieira da Silva suggested, but hope that things in São Bento (read the Portuguese political establishment) are moving in a different direction.

And that is perhaps the strongest lesson of the geringonça – both to the Socialist Party and to political analysts fascinated with its anachronistic revival in the polls. In a time when its sister parties in Germany and France are polling at 20.5% and 6.4% respectively, PS has consistently polled around 40% since its left turn. The only other case of a social democratic party succeeding in these terms is that of the British Labour Party. There too, albeit under different circumstances, a sharp turn from social democracy to democratic socialism has taken place.

In the past decade social democratic parties, defending minor reforms, often promoting policies such as “austerity light”, or shrouding privatisations in PR language and calling them public-private partnerships, became meaningless to an electorate eager for a new system. New parties with smaller support bases started mushrooming across Europe, calling not for ethical capitalism, but for the end of capitalism. And as the socio-economic situation worsened, so did these movements become bigger – as we saw with the birth of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. Minor reforms were shunned in favour of bolder political promises, including reverting many of the policies implemented by the last generation of social democrats. Indeed, pledges that many critics pointed out to be not revolutionary but regressive in essence. A de facto return to the well-nurtured welfare state of the post-war period.

And like Syriza and Podemos, so too did PS and the Labour Party succeed once more in appealing to the electorate by turning left and offering a socialism that, more than utopic, is ultimately nostalgic. In fact, PS and Labour benefitted from the fact that they had a longer history, a firm structure, and the resources to do more and reach further than the new movements. And by resources I don’t mean just in terms of donations, or volunteer door-knockers and leafleteers, but also in connections and relationships with the rest of their national and the international establishments.

There are however great differences between PS and Labour, the way they’ve revived “social democracy”, the way the establishment reacts to them and how it will influence their respective futures.

For starters, the Portuguese party’s numbers on the ground – its militants, its membership – are nowhere close to swelling like Labour’s. In other words, the support for PS is premised on its performance as a government – it’s parliamentarian. While it navigates the pressures placed by its far-left partners, it must deliver for the electorate and yield palpable results so to guarantee its grip on power. Its left turn is not ideological but tactical. For that reason too, the reaction of mainstream media and financial institutions to its government have ranged from miffed to lenient, rather than violent hostility.

Labour did nearly the exact opposite. It started a shift at its very core for the heart and soul of the party. It is led by people who believe in the political turn as the ideological path to follow, rather than the useful step ahead. And while both are allowed in the political game, it would seem the former is of a long-lasting nature considering the political positions taken by the younger generations, read Millennials and Generation Z.

Indeed, the lesson of the new smaller parties, of Bloco and of Podemos, and even of Syriza, is that political organisations without a serious work of ideological base-building, without institutionalisation, not in terms of parliamentary politics but in terms of crystallising its internal structures, don’t survive the whims of capitalism. Because capital is capable and willing to accommodate for its survival, as long as it needs, until it rears its ugly head again at the nearest opportunity. But this, rather than delivering a new system, perpetuates an existing cycle that won’t end unless we will it so. Yet the future requires we must, if there is to be one at all.

To beat climate change and violent xenophobia, to extend international solidarity and resolve conflict, to eradicate poverty and bring abundance, the Socialist Party, as Mariana Vieira da Silva pointed out, must cooperate internationally. But in a polarised world the choices of whom to work with to achieve these goals are dwindling. So it is undoubtedly essential that the Socialist Party holds hands with and learns from the Labour Party, while encouraging other social democratic parties to open their arms to democratic socialism and its supporters.

Only thus, can the Socialist Party, and Portuguese paradigm by extension, go from being a political conundrum, a geringonça, to being the future of Europe.

NOTE: The original publication of this piece contained an editorial typo whereby the two final paragraphs are one of the answers given by PS national secretary Mariana Vieira da Silva during her interview. The piece is intended to end as republished in this version.