Lessons from the general elections in Portugal

by | 11 Feb 2022

The results of the 30 January general elections in Portugal, with the Socialist Party (PS) winning an absolute majority, came as a surprise. Portugal will now be the only European country ruled by a government based on the absolute parliamentary majority of a single left-wing party. The two parties to its left had their poorest results ever. The Communist Party (PCP) had its representation in Parliament halved to six seats, and Bloco de Esquerda (“Left Bloc” – BE) won only five seats, down from 19 in the previous elections. BE is now the fifth largest political force in the country after having been the third largest, while PCP has gone from fourth to sixth. The positions formerly held by these parties have been filled by two forces of the far right: the fascist-inspired Chega (“Enough!”), a force related to the family of the European and world far right, which has risen to become the third largest political party; and the hyper-neoliberal, hardline social Darwinist, survival-of-the-fittest Iniciativa Liberal (“Liberal Initiative” – IL), which now has the fourth-largest number of seats in Parliament. The election results show that the left to the left of the Socialist Party has squandered the historic opportunity it was given in 2015, when it helped build a left-wing government arrangement that came to be known as geringonça (“the contraption”), formed by PS, BE and PCP. It was instrumental in putting an end to the neoliberal austerity imposed in 2008 as a result of the financial crisis and sending the country on a modest but sustained economic and social recovery. This arrangement began to deteriorate in 2020 and fell apart by the end of 2021 when PCP and BE voted against the State budget submitted by the government, thereby precipitating the 30 January snap elections. After six years of Socialist rule and two years of pandemic, the PS landslide victory is quite remarkable and calls for reflection. There are several lessons to be learned.

Lesson number one: the pollsters failed miserably. On the eve of the elections, every opinion poll predicted a technical tie between the Socialist Party and the Social Democratic Party – PSD, the largest party on the right. The following day, PS won the elections with an outright majority. Opinion polls use a binary logic that is at the basis of today’s dominant quantitative thinking, which in turn is prevalent in building the algorithms powering social media platforms. This logic cannot handle ambiguity, complexity, contradiction, the logic of the included middle, let lone the various layers of reality, opinion and emotion behind each citizen’s decisions. This is especially true in situations outside the normalcy of collective life. The pandemic has given rise to one such situation. In such circumstances, political leaders would be wise to keep in touch with citizens and communities in a direct, diversified and permanent manner and to amass qualitative proximity information rather than rely on opinion polls that are as facile as they are misleading.

Lesson number two: in times of existential insecurity such as ours, now made worse by a pandemic, citizens tend to make realistic and prudent assessments of the policies likely to assuage their insecurity and are extremely fearful of any policies likely to exacerbate it. If policies are viewed as positive, citizens are bound to opt for stability. The pandemic has added a new dimension to human frailty. It lasted long enough not to be seen as a mere glitch and it mostly hit the aged – people who have grown accustomed to a minimum of social protection that all of a sudden felt precious, not because it was enough, but because it was there when so much was missing. It caused the imbalance between fear and hope to grow exponentially. This imbalance in favor of fear gave rise to two distinct collective emotions: fear of increased vulnerability, and despair experienced as resentment. The former emotion fueled the desire for stability and was almost exclusively appropriated by the Socialist Party. Portugal was among the countries with the most efficient health policies in fighting the pandemic. Besides, in no other country has the pandemic been less politicized, and both the government and the opposition should be thanked for that.

The latter emotion fueled the desire for the authoritarianism that is required to radically change “the system” and was appropriated by the ultra-right in two ways: State authoritarianism – with its harking back to Salazar’s dictatorship, which lasted until 1974 (Chega); and the authoritarianism of capital and social Darwinism – in other words, the survival of the fittest (IL). It stands to reason that, in these circumstances, the parties to the left of the Socialist Party (i.e., the Communist Party and the Left Bloc), which had backed Socialist administrations since 2015, could not but be on the side of stability, so as to strengthen and enhance it. This stability had already been imperiled in late 2021, when they rejected the budget proposal for 2022. Imperiling the very stability that the citizenry thought was so important during the pandemic was considered to be a huge mistake. They failed to understand the signals sent by their constituents because their vanguardist thinking prevented them from pausing and listening to the citizens discussing – on their own terms – their fears and hopes. That is why they were so harshly punished by the voters.

It will be some time before these left-wing parties have another chance and it is to be hoped that they will then remember their previous failures and will have learned how not to repeat them. They will surely have new leaders by then and hopefully new policies as well. A distinction needs to be made between BE and PCP. Their history goes back a long way, to the time of the labor movement split between Socialists and Communists in the early 20th century. PCP belongs to the Communist faction, whereas BE stems from the differences that arose in its midst in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution. What the two parties have in common – and is of primary importance to understand the root causes of their electoral debacle – is the fact that they both view the Socialist Party as essentially a right-wing party, one that poses as being of the left, but in reality is not. They are the real left. Their leaders will not say it in so many words, but that is what they think. They cannot even contemplate the possibility that the Socialists’ victory in these elections was a victory of the left.

There are historical reasons for the PCP to behave like this. The Communists and their main support base (the workers’ movement) have often been the victims of the Socialists’ policies, this being partly why the anti-Socialist bias is widely shared by Communist leaders, militants and sympathizers alike. This sentiment is not shared by BE. In fact, the relationship in this case is a bit more ambiguous, as has been evident since the Bloc’s inception. Both parties, PCP and BE, come from a tradition of vanguardist thinking. For them, when theory collapses in the face of reality (an electoral debacle, for instance), it is reality that is to blame, never the theory. And let us keep in mind that, back in 2011, this same contempt for reality led BE to vote against the Stability and Growth Programme submitted to Parliament by the Socialist prime-minister (José Sócrates), thereby opening the door to the most anti-social right-wing rule the country has ever seen. This time, António Costa’s PS deserves full credit for preventing the emergence of a right-wing geringonça. Even so, the door has now been opened – and not just a little – to the far right.

The decline of the Portuguese Communist Party is structural in that it is directly linked to the decline of the trade unions, which provide its social basis. PCP is one of the only European Communist parties that did not renew itself after the fall of the Berlin wall, that being the reason why it became hostage to the evolution of its organized social base, the trade unions. Their decline has brought about the party’s decline. In fact, the Communist Party’s failure to renew itself was one of the reasons behind BE’s emergence and success. It embraced the new struggles over reproductive rights and sexual orientation, the environment and anti-racism. It has been BE’s tragedy that, instead of accentuating its distinctive features, it allowed them to be diluted. In terms of political rhetoric, no one could really tell the difference between the Bloc and PCP during this election campaign.

Lesson number three: it is fair to assume that if the health protection measures taken during the pandemic are ultimately considered to be disastrous for having increased insecurity and caused preventable deaths, the voters’ main goal in the next elections will be to oust the government deemed responsible for that and to choose whatever alternative has the best chances of success, even if less satisfactory than one might wish. If the government in question was a right-wing or far-right government, they may vote for a less radical right-wing alternative or for a left-wing one. The alternative with the best chances of success will come out the winner. Given that the lefts tend to have more ideological certainties and more identity anxieties, finding unity is always more difficult for them than for the right. The forces of the right will take advantage of the difficulties faced by the coalition of the forces of the left and seize the opportunity to rise to power.

Lesson number four: in times of heightened existential insecurity, despair and resentment are pervasive collective emotions that the fearmongers excel at manipulating. In the Portuguese case, besides the absolute majority of the  Socialist Party, the other most significant fact is the exponential growth of the far right. This suggests that in case the now victorious left-wing solution is defeated in the future, the right that will replace it will not be of the moderate kind, which has been dominant until now, but will instead aggressively and violently antagonize dissenters and those groups that are already suffering from exclusion and discrimination. This is the same right that we now see flaunting its presence in many countries, from the US to Brazil, India, Spain, Italy and France.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School and Global Legal Scholar at the University of Warwick.

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