Analysis

Portuguese Far Left Throws Away Leverage

António Costa no longer needs smaller parties for a majority.

António Costa Pedro Sánchez
Prime Minister António Costa of Portugal greets his Spanish counterpart, Pedro Sánchez, in Lisbon, July 2, 2018 (Governo da República Portuguesa/Clara Azevedo)

Portugal’s far left put purity before power and lost power.

Until 2015, neither the Communists nor Left Bloc had ever been in government. That year, the Socialists fell short of a majority and António Costa made a deal with the smaller parties. In return for policies like free textbooks in schools and a higher minimum wage, the far left would vote to make Costa prime minister. They were involved in annual budget negotiations, but they didn’t join his cabinet.

The right dubbed it a “contraption,” but it worked. Costa could avoid the stigma of forming a coalition with extremists. The Communists and Left Bloc could still criticize Costa when, for example, he refused to raise salaries in the public sector or overturn the labor market reforms of his conservative predecessor.

Until the left decided they wanted more. When Costa insisted on reducing Portugal’s budget deficit, from 5.8 percent of GDP in 2020 to a projected 4.4 percent in 2021, the Communists and Left Bloc withdrew their support.

Lost

Costa argued his government had made daycare free for children under the age of 3 and increased pensions, two proposals that weren’t in his own manifesto. But the Communists and Left Bloc rejected any spending restraint and forced Costa to call snap elections.

They lost. The two had 31 out of 230 seats in the outgoing parliament. They fell to eleven seats in the election on Sunday.

Costa went up from 108 to 117, giving him an absolute majority and the ability to govern without anyone’s help for the next four years.

Learn from Spain

Portugal’s far left should have learned from Spain’s.

Podemos (We Can) also rules in a coalition with the much larger and center-left Socialist Party. They are also criticized by purists for keeping Spain in NATO, not rolling out a universal basic income and only partially repealing labor market reforms. (As in Portugal, the last conservative government of Spain weakened collective bargaining rights and made it easier for firms to hire and fire workers.)

But Podemos, which has 10 percent of the seats in Congress, also has much to boast about. The left has capped rents in expensive areas, introduced housing subsidies, eliminated tax breaks for private pensions, raised taxes on capital gains, property and high incomes, and is making unprecedented investments in renewable energy.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez also pardoned the nine Catalan separatists who were convicted of treason for organizing an unsanctioned independence referendum in 2017. Podemos is the only national party of Spain that supports Catalan self-determination.

A little to the left

Podemos wasn’t always reasonable. As recently as five years ago, they chose purity over power by voting against a minimum wage increase, which they said didn’t go far enough, and electing a hardliner as leader, causing pragmatists to leave.

Podemos eventually realized they were never going to win a majority, and the best they could hope for was to pull a center-left government a little further to the left.

Portugal’s far left had that same power for six years and threw it away.

3 comments

  1. Smart analysis. Utopian ideologues tend to self-sabotage, and by attacking their allies can end up helping their worst enemies gain power.

    Fortunately, the Portuguese people chose democratic stability and pragmatic policymaking over populist purity and pipe-dream promises. The rest of the world should take notice.

  2. But the question here is if they had such room. I don’t think so. Maybe the Left Bloc could have chose power, but it is not the case of the Communists (and they see each other). Another thing would be if both of them were under the same electoral umbrella, which maybe could broaden the room for concesions, but because of Portugal particularities it is not the case.

    For the PCP, is a lost-lost game. If they concede, they lost. If they don’t, they lost too. But in the first case the lost is more permanent, in the second case it is reversible. I think these parties are working as a voting reservoir, when needed, most of them move to the center, and when stage changes, they go back to the left. It all was a trap, Costa forced the matter to get a majority, it worked well. But now all responsability is on the Socialists and there is no way to excuse anything.

    The PSOE are trying to do the very same. But in Spain this will not work, it did, but in the past. If these votes fly away from UP, they won’t vote PSOE, they will vote local left options, if there are, or choose abstention. This is clearly seen in the recent laboral reform vote and how each player did. Of course, I can’t deny that the PSOE could grow on its right bank, but I am skeptical, at the end of the day, representatives behave like represented ones.

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