The left(s) in Portugal: Between principles and power

Marisa Matias, member of the European Parliament and candidate from the Bloco de Esquerda to the Portuguese presidential election, was in Luxembourg last week. In an interview with woxx, she talked about the recent legislative elections in Portugal, the perspectives of the anti-austerity left in Europe and the limits of unity.

(Picture: Bloco de Esquerda)

(Picture: Bloco de Esquerda)

woxx: During October 4th legislative elections in Portugal, your party, the Bloco de Esquerda, achieved its best result in history. The left – the Socialist party, the CDU coalition between the Communist party and the Greens, and the Bloco – collected more than 50 per cent of the votes. Nevertheless, president Cavaco Silva nominated Pedro Passos Coelho as prime minister and invited him to form a minority government. A coup?

Marisa Matias: No. I believe that both formally and politically the president was entitled to nominate the party that had more votes. Still, I don’t think this is what he should have done: After the meetings with all parties, he knew already that there wouldn’t be a parliamentary majority to support the right-wing coalition government and Coelho as prime minister. The three left-wing forces have 62 per cent of the parliament seats, which is a broad majority. The president knew that agreements between the three parties had already been made. Inviting to form a government that will fail because the opposition will vote against it is a huge waste of time. The president has become a factor of instability and his decision makes us waste a lot of time; that will have a huge impact on the economy and on democracy.

What could be the reasons for this waste of time?

I think that the president was quite clear: He said loud and clear that he would never give a mandate to a government that includes political forces like the Bloco or the Communist party. Even if he is entitled to do so, what he said was not acceptable. The words that he used were words that cannot be accepted in democracy. What he said was that the votes of the one million people that chose those parties don’t count and that he wouldn’t accept them. That’s beyond any possible democratic scenario. Unfortunately, by doing this, he showed very clearly what his goals had been during the last ten years: He never was the president of all the Portuguese, but the president of his party. That’s not what a president should be.

“The president has become a factor of instability and his decision makes us waste a lot of time.”

Together, the Bloco and the CDU gathered almost 20 per cent of the votes. Why aren’t both parties contesting elections in a coalition?

We have different trajectories and histories. The Communist party is the oldest party in Portugal, our Left bloc is one of the youngest. We have a lot of things in common, but we also have differences. What’s important in this process is not if we run together for the elections or not; it’s that after the election there are conditions that enable us to put aside differences and to work together. I think that’s the most important lesson of this process. And probably – I mean, we will never know, but probably – by running in separate ways, we mobilized more people than we would have done together.

Voter turnout reached a new low, with only 55 per cent of the electorate showing up on election day…

Honestly, I never saw so many people voting in my entire life. But we have two problems in Portugal that justify abstention levels. The first one is that the electoral register is never updated, which means that at least one million voters do not exist. They have passed away but their names were never removed. Even before starting the electoral process, you can count on 20 per cent abstention, which is not real abstention but the result of bureaucratic issues. No one is interested in updating the electoral register because the financing of the regions depends on the number of electors. You cannot find any kind of consensus to change that. In this election, we cannot forget that 500.000 potential voters – especially young people – had to emigrate. The great majority of them were not able to vote, because there were no efforts at all to inform about voting procedures and deadlines. I think the mobilization was not lower than usual, on the contrary.

Unlike Spain or Greece, it seems that no large, popular, anti-austerity movements emerged in Portugal in the last years. Why?

We had the biggest demonstrations since the end of the dictatorship in 2012 and 2013. Two demonstrations gathered more than one million persons in the streets. We’re talking about almost ten per cent of the population… It was huge! Everyone remembered similar days during the revolution and the first of May following the revolution. But again, to be able to demonstrate, people need to have the means. Austerity really killed those means, and made it impossible for lots of people to travel to the big cities where demonstrations are usually held. So, this kind of mobilization was much affected by austerity policies but also by some sort of psychological effect: People are mobilized, there is more than ten per cent of the population on the streets in one city, but then, nothing changes. Well… Next time, people will think twice before going to a demonstration.

After the defeat in Greece of the Syriza government against its creditors, was it hard to convince voters you could do a better job?

There are lots of things in common, but there are also lots of differences between Greece and Portugal. Of course, during the campaign, the right-wing parties used everything that happened in Greece against us. It made it easier for them to say that all of our proposals were utopic, not realistic. But finally, it didn’t have the intended impact. Because what we saw from Greece was not only the huge blackmailing process and the bad agreements, we saw also the dignity of the people fighting for their rights and their independence. I think those pictures were much more powerful and inspiring than the other ones. At least the Greek process gave us one advantage: No one can say anymore that they don’t know how the institutions work. Everyone is aware of how they are able to use blackmail in order to implement their policies. Generally, I would say that the severe consequences of austerity, the dramatic increase of poverty, the fact that over 500.000 inhabitants had to leave Portugal and to emigrate, along with the fight for our dignity were much more powerful than the institutions’ blackmail.

After the Greek experience, did your attitude towards the European Union and the Euro change?

No, because our program already stated before that we wouldn’t accept any other sacrifices in the name of the Euro. That was already the political line since the last congress of our party, way before what happened in Greece.

“At least the Greek process gave us one advantage: No one can say anymore that they don’t know how the institutions work.”

On the thin line between euroscepticism and acceptance of the strict European framework, what are the perspectives for the anti-austerity left in Europe?

They are all open, honestly. Nothing is closed, on the contrary. They are more open now than ever before, because now we know more and we have more tools to work with. It’s not a question of having or not having proposals, it’s a question of being accepted or not. For that, we need to have majorities. We know that the great majority of Portuguese as well as most people in other countries are sick and tired of politics and politicians. But they are also sick and tired of austerity: So it would be good if we could convert this social majority into a political majority. That’s the main challenge. The point is: We have to agree with this anger against politics, politicians, the political system, because the institutions are dealing with democracy in the worst way possible and are not listening to citizens. There are good reasons for this lack of interest in politics… Until recently, we saw far-right and populist movements increase in importance. Now we see that there are alternatives emerging also in a different spectrum. I think that’s a first step towards changing the political regime in the European Union. What we saw in Greece, even with all the blackmail and the bad agreements, but also what we saw recently in the UK with Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour Party, what we saw in Portugal during the elections, the situation in Spain, Sinn Fein in Ireland, all this makes me think there is hope again.

Back to Portugal: What will happen now?

Everything is open. Next week the parliament will vote on the right-wing coalition program. I think we all have high expectations: The three left parties will present a censure motion and I think that they will be quite united. But then, you can never know. There’s a critical movement within the Socialist party that doesn’t want this so-called coalition. As for me, I hope that we’ll be united. If it’s the case and the censure motion is voted as I hope, the president will have two options: He can invite the leader of the second party with the most votes to form a government – that will be the SP – or decide to have a temporary government with no budget and no real power. I hope that’s not the option, honestly, because we can’t afford to waste more time. What we saw over the last days was a shame: We saw a government using its short life-span to finalize privatizations in very critical sectors and to nominate high-ranking officials. Even not being formally a government, they proceeded with more than a hundred high-level positions nominations. It’s a shame! We say: It’s a waste of time. But probably it’s the time they still needed to implement some of the things they absolutely wanted.

Although the leader of the Socialist party announced a vote of no confidence towards the right-wing minority government, new elections could only be held in six months, according to the Constitution. Will the new left unity last that long?

Yes. We will have presidential elections in January, which can change everything. The new president – which fortunately will not be the same because he cannot run again – has the option of meeting all parties again and finding a stable solution. The situation can be solved after the January elections…

… when you will be the president of Portugal?

I hope so!

“We think that the situation in Portugal is an emergency situation and that we really need to overthrow the current government.”

You’re the candidate of the Bloco for the January presidential election. Wouldn’t a single candidate for the left be a better option?

Our program, the program that we adopted during our congress, supports as a priority a single candidate who could gather all the left-wing forces. Unfortunately, candidates started to appear one after the other. There were two candidates from the Socialist party family, then the Communist party decided to present a candidate too. There is only one candidate for the right, as always. This right-wing candidate is very strong. He’s been campaigning for ten years; he was on television every Sunday. The first poll credited him with 49 per cent of voting intentions. The more options we have, the more we will be able to mobilize to defeat this candidate. And then we will be able to stand together for the second round, if we can avoid that the right-wing candidate wins the first.

Socialist leader Costas announced a possible left-wing government would accept the “European budget framework”. How is a left-wing policy possible within these limits?

We put conditions, very concrete conditions. All these conditions are related to putting an end to the austerity policies, re-establishing wages and pensions that were cut before, protection of the less-privileged and fighting poverty. We studied all possibilities and we did huge work to present alternative budgetary proposals. They exist. They are possible. We think that the situation in Portugal is an emergency situation and that we really need to overthrow the current government. And if, along with that, we can start to protect those who are unprotected now, it’s a first step. That does not mean that we have to agree with the Socialist party. It just means that we need to – and we were able to – find budgetary alternatives within the European framework.

Will the Socialist party accept those budgetary alternatives?

They already accepted them.

By accepting the strict European framework, doesn’t your party run the risk of being discredited in the eyes of its supporters?

It’s a risk, yes. It’s a huge risk. But not as high as the risk of continuing with the same government and the same policies. That would destroy the country, and we cannot accept that. We should use all the means available in order to avoid it. We are keeping our political line, but we know that power without principles serves no one; having principles without power serves no one either. We are in an emergency situation and emergency situations demand emergency answers.

“We are keeping our political line, but we know that power without principles serves no one; having principles without power serves no one either.”

In the 2011 election, the Bloco reached an all-time low, scoring only 5.2 per cent, which was followed by a huge internal crisis. How did you manage to redress the situation and could this happen again?

In the life of a party, everything is possible. We went through a very critical period, with huge internal divisions. Everything was public, with full transparency. Honestly, I don’t think it’s a problem specific to the Bloco… On the contrary, it’s its most important quality. We have internal democracy, we are transparent, and we were able to rebuild ourselves to reunify the party and to stand together for the campaign. The electoral outcome is also the result of this process. We are now probably more united than ever, but I think – and I hope – there’s still space left for different opinions inside the party. I don’t see that as a problem. It becomes a problem when it starts to influence our political activity and our main purpose, and when it endangers the instrument we have – a party is still an instrument, nothing more -, it can become dramatic. But you always have to learn the lessons out of your mistakes, then do better and do different. I do hope that we continue to foster different voices within the party. I don’t want to have only one voice talking on behalf of everyone. I am not from the Bloco, no one of the members is from the Bloco – the Bloco is ours. We are the owners of the party.

Born in Coimbra in 1976, Marisa Matias is a sociologist, specialized in environment and public health issues. After being a militant in student movements, then women and LGBT rights movements, she became a member of the Bloco de Esquerda. Today, she’s a member of the European Parliament and candidate of her party for the January presidential election in Portugal. She was in Luxembourg to attend the European united left (GUE) congress and held a meeting organized by Déi Lénk.

L’interview existe aussi en français.

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