Where is Portugal’s Radical Left?

Image by Menjoulet&Cie

Image by Menjoulet&Cie

It has been a tumultuous month in European politics. As Greek debt negotiations dominate the headlines, the resurgent left-wing in many European countries waits with baited breath in the realisation that the popularity of their movements may rest on what happens in Athens. It is interesting, however, that while the radical left has enjoyed a resurgence in some countries, in others it has failed to mobilise as a viable political alternative. To understand the reasons for this it is worthwhile looking at the Iberian Peninsular to consider why Portugal’s radical left has failed to match the popularity of Podemos in Spain.

Post-revolution Portuguese politics has traditionally been dominated by the big two of the Socialist and Social Democratic parties. In 1999 three parties from the radical left – the Popular Democratic Union, the Socialist Revolutionary Party and XXI Politics – came together to form the Left Bloc with the objective of creating a ‘new left, anti-capitalist, socialist, feminist and ecologist’ party to offer a choice to those viewing the Socialist Party as too centralist or neo-liberal. As well as acknowledging its left-wing roots, the Left Bloc made a point of claiming to be pluralist and democratic in its drive to win popular support.

From an electoral point of view, so far so good, and there are some parallels with Podemos in their enthusiasm to appeal to all left-of-centre voters. But in the pre-crisis days of the late 90s and early 21st century, the movement lacked the widespread public disenchantment that Podemos has been so successful in tapping into. Nonetheless, although its initial election results were underwhelming, the party went on to build support and achieve a succession of victories, culminating in the 16 seats won in the 2009 parliamentary elections.

At this point things started to unravel for the Left Bloc and in 2011 they lost half the seats they had won only two years earlier, with their share of the vote falling to just over 5%. As their electoral support started to dwindle, factional disputes arose within the party and the Left Bloc suffered defections, the resignation of leader, Francisco Louça, and a further loss of popular support. By the European elections of May 2014 they were reduced to only a single MEP.

After the party’s early successes, in-fighting and factional disputes relating to policy, leadership, party management and just about everything else came increasingly to the fore. In the days when the Left Bloc’s share of the vote was increasing, the party was able to unite the core factions of its founding members, but when things turned against them it seemed increasingly likely that there was little in terms of ideology or leadership which could keep them together. Over the last 18 months two factional groups, or ‘tendencies’, have emerged within the party – the Socialism Trend and the Alternative Left Trend – with its parliamentary group being split between the two. The complete division within the Left Bloc came to a head in its congress last November when 5 different motions were put forward relating to the direction of the party.

In some ways the Left Bloc shows that timing is everything. Had the party launched in 2013, when public demonstrations against government policy were reaching a head, instead of 1999, perhaps they would have been able to build up and sustain the momentum they lost post-2009. As the early years of the party have shown, success is a great tonic in uniting people behind a common purpose. But even if this had happened it seems unlikely that this coalition of the left would have remained harmonious for long. In politics, the Left in particular is characterised by the labels used by individuals to categorise themselves within the movement, and this often leads to a fragmented approach. Marxists, Trotskyists, Social Democrats, Neo-Marxists and many other terms conspire to create a basis for argument rather than consensus.

The problem here then is one self-categorisation. In terms of identity, there is no such thing as a radical left-wing stereotype and there is often a tendency for party members and activists to align themselves with one particular socialist tendency and then to defend it to the hilt, regardless of changes on the ground in the contemporary political arena. This is at the core of many of the factional disputes within the Left Bloc but it is also undermining attempts at creating a popular and united radical left in the UK. Differences in socialist identity breed arguments over party direction, which in turn lead to fragmentation. Political parties unable to present an attractive, popular and united narrative are destined to remain in the margins of political debate. Syriza have successfully avoided making the same mistakes as the Left Bloc by uniting behind debt reduction and anti-austerity, and so moving the focus away from the core ideologies of its members.

The fundamental reason behind the success of Podemos in Spain has been its ability to move the debate away from the language of the old left/right debate and find popular support on a platform of insiders vs. outsiders, or people vs. the establishment. This is a sentiment that is easy for the public to relate to and one which appeals to a broad demographic. Schumpeter once said that ‘the religious quality of Marxism also explains a characteristic attitude of the orthodox Marxist toward opponents. To him, as to any believer in a Faith, the opponent is not merely in error but in sin.’ He meant this in the context of the left vs. right debate but in fact it is just as relevant these days between the various factions on the left. In countries where radical left-wing supporters are more concerned with treating their own factional, ideological positions as non-negotiable, a popular socialist uprising is impossible.

So does this mean that Portugal’s citizens are bigger supporters of austerity than their Greek and Spanish counterparts? Probably not, it just means that they have not found a viable, marketable alternative. Things can of course change in an instant, and what happens in Greece in the next few days and weeks will be instrumental in determining the future of the radical left as a popular and electable alternative. Only time will tell what impact this has on the politics of Portugal and beyond.

Image courtesy of Menjoulet&Cie

Andrew Tasker

About Andrew Tasker

Andrew Tasker is an experienced economist and business professional. Originally from the Scottish Borders, he has spent much of the last 12 years in Portugal working with a number of major non-profit organisations. In recent years he has been a regular contributor to political and economics blogs and has written for several online publications.

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