Some supporters of Jeremy Corbyn have been pointing excitedly at last Sunday’s legislative election in Portugal, where the mainstream centre-left Socialist Party increased its presence in the country’s Parliament by another 20 Deputados, and whose leader António Costa will therefore continue as Prime Minister, as an example of how socialism works within a mainstream European economy. Well, up to a point.
António Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal
Fuad Alakbarov has put together the positives of the past four years well: “Portugal's economic growth was higher than the EU average in recent years - 2.4 percent in 2018 - while the jobless rate fell to the level before the debt crisis … Taking advantage of the global economic recovery, Portugal's Socialist party reversed cuts to public sector wages and pensions while still managing to bring the budget deficit down to nearly zero this year - the lowest level since Portugal's return to democracy in 1974”.
Owen Jones spun the positive, although maybe too enthusiastically: “In 2015, Portugal’s Socialists won a mediocre result, and only formed a government with the support of left parties, on condition the Socialists shift to the left. The result? A very popular government, and an election in which the left won a majority of votes. A lesson, there”.
And into that mix has to be added, especially with Jones’ assertions, the corrective of reality. Let’s start with the 2015 election result: Costa and the PS expected to do better than their 86 seats in the 230-seat Parliament. But the outgoing PáF coalition, led by Pedro Passos Coelho, the head of the centre-right PSD, lost its majority.
The problem for the PS was that the left-wing but flexible and pragmatic Left Block, and the definitely left-wing Communists, campaigned separately, and before the results, neither they, nor the PS, suggested they might work together. Indeed, there is considerable bad blood between the PS and the rest of the Portuguese left.
Catarina Martins, coordinator for the Left Block
Only after it became clear that the PS, Left Block, and Communists coming to an arrangement gave them the numbers did they start talking seriously about ousting Passos Coelho. The election of a PS Speaker showed what the three groups could achieve when they voted together. They then voted down Passos Coelho’s budget, and outgoing President Aníbal Cavaco Silva had no alternative but to invite Costa to become PM.
Praça do Comércio, Lisbon. Tourism is being leveraged heavily in Portugal's recovery
The confidence and supply arrangement was nicknamed the Geringonça, or Contraption. It was not expected to last. But last it did, and as Alakbarov has told, reversed wage and pension cuts. But Jones’ claim of the PS “shifting to left” is not true. His own paper, the Guardian, says so. Here’s what it said after the 2015 elections.
Ponte 25 de Abril - another piece of overloaded infrastructure
“Costa has pledged to ease back on austerity and boost households’ disposable income … he is nonetheless a moderate who is keen to abide by Europe’s budget deficit rules … He had long been at pains to reassure investors and Portugal’s eurozone partners that a Socialist-led government would not result in a Greece-style clash with creditors and that he would respect Portugal’s international commitments”.
This meant that, while some austerity measures were eased, there was a squeeze on infrastructure spending. This meant the country’s rail network not continuing its programme of electrification, resulting in continued reliance on increasingly elderly diesel trains. Breakdowns and cancellations followed. Many diesel units date from the 1960s, and the single-car rail motors first ran in the 1950s (they were bought with Marshall aid funds).
Hospital wards have temporarily closed due to shortages of staff or strikes. Civil service recruitment has been paused; getting a new ID card for those unable to order one online can mean queuing for a whole day, or longer. Had the Geringonça been, as Owen Jones suggests, “A very popular Government”, then Costa and the PS might have been expected to secure an absolute majority last weekend. But they did not.
Instead, there will have to be some sort of arrangement with other left-wing parties once more, and already PCP leader Jerónimo de Sousa has said he’s not interested in a formal agreement with the PS, although he will back them on a case-by-case basis (or not).
Ironically, what Jones said about 2015 may now prove true for the Left Block, which has retained its 2015 high of 19 seats: they may be willing to join “Geringonça 2.0”, but this time, the price of that backing may really mean moving further left. Costa may also reach out to the People-Animals-Nature Party, which increased its representation to four seats.
Yes, unemployment is down significantly, and some of the worst of the austerity measures inflicted on the Portuguese economy by the PáF coalition between 2011 and 2015 have been reversed, or at least eased, but infrastructure spending needs a boost, and public transport in cities like Lisbon is now suffering from the lack of investment.
What the example of Portugal does show, though, is that a centre-left Government can work, can be relatively successful, and can retain market confidence. Even when operating under severe financial constraints. But it will not be working miracles.
Politics remains the art of the possible. Thus the lesson from Lisbon.
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