One of the great failings of the European centre-left has been its inability to effectively capitalise on the anger felt by ordinary citizens over the austerity measures implemented throughout the continent since the global financial crisis of 2008. The majority of EU member states are governed by centre-right administrations, with no visible sign of there being a “pink tide” similar to the one that swept across Latin America during the first decade of the new century. The past year in particular has been a dismal one for European social democrats, with British Labour suffering a crushing defeat in May, the Finnish Social Democratic Party experiencing its worst electoral performance in almost 100 years, and Denmark’s socialist-liberal administration narrowly losing to the right-wing alliance of previous Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen. In France, the hopes raised by François Hollande’s victory back in 2012 appear to have evaporated, with the Parti Socialiste facing dismal poll ratings and the prospect of Nicolas Sarkozy returning to the presidency in 2017. But in Portugal, where a general election is being held on the 4th October, there is a good chance of the opposition Socialists emerging triumphant; an outcome that can not only bring hope to the Portuguese people but to the demoralised Left across Europe as a whole.
Portugal was particularly hard hit by the global financial crisis of 2008. Unemployment soared to record levels and severe austerity measures were implemented to balance the country’s books. Although the economy is finally growing again, with rising household spending and a steady fall in the rate of joblessness, these positive trends need to be set against the backdrop of increased poverty, a diminished middle class, and rising levels of emigration that have resulted in shortages of nursing staff. The duration of unemployment benefits has also been lowered while health charges have been increased, and the failure of revenue to cover debt repayments has meant that at least 60% of all restaurants and hotels face possible closure. From the perspectives of social and economic justice, the record of conservative Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho is hardly a positive one.
In contrast, the main opposition Portuguese Socialist Party offers voters an alternative, socially compassionate programme that sets it clearly apart from the right-wing incumbents; one which emphasises justice and prosperity rather than a continuation of austerity. Their policies include increasing the minimum wage and social benefits as means of tackling deprivation, reversing previous reductions in public sector wages, and creating 200,000 jobs through reduced social security taxes. The Socialists have also spoken of building 100 new health centres with GPs, raising the school leaving age, lowering the workweek for civil servants from 40 to 35 hours, and spending more on education; measures that could go some way towards reinvigorating public services after years of government cutbacks.
Proposals have also been put forward for a new inheritance tax (which could lead to greater equity in the taxation system while helping to fund Socialist spending proposals), while calls by the Party for reductions in restaurant VAT and personal income tax have the potential to bolster economic activity through higher levels of personal consumption. Significantly, Party leader Antonio Costa (who has taken a firm line against austerity) has spoken of pushing for EU fiscal rules to be relaxed so as to provide governments with more breathing space to lower their deficits; an action that his ideological counterparts in debt-ridden countries such as Greece and Italy would strongly support. Costa has also declared himself to be in favour of achieving this goal through negotiation within the framework of the European Union; a pragmatic stance that could very well help him to do so.
Altogether, the Socialist Party programme is a catalogue of promises that is truly visionary in scope and ambition. In some respects, it is more radical than the one that the British Labour Party stood on in this year’s general election. Indeed, Ed Miliband never went so far as to advocate shorter working hours and reversals in salaries for public sector employees, despite the electoral benefits that Labour could have gained from making such promises.
Although the Socialist Party’s platform is one that is arguably in tune with the feelings of the electorate, there is no certainty that this will convince enough voters to provide the Socialists with a clear-cut victory. Over the past month, the governing “Portugal Ahead” alliance has held a steady lead over its left-wing rivals, and is expected to win the most seats in Parliament. However, many observers predict that neither the governing (conservative) Social Democrats nor the Socialists will win a majority of seats, raising the prospect of political instability and potential policy compromises. If the Socialists were to form a minority government (as they did during their last period in office), they could find themselves at the mercy of parties on both Left and Right, with the latter forcing the Socialists to sacrifice much of their programme in the name of fiscal conservatism. Nevertheless, the parliamentary arithmetic could very well work in the Socialists’ favour. All of the additional seats are expected to be held by minor left-wing parties, with the radical Portuguese Communist Party expected to win the third largest number of seats. Although allying itself to more radical parties raises the fear that the Socialists will abandon their pledge to meet deficit-reduction targets (thereby undermining their economic credibility with both the electorate and financial institutions), a broad-based alliance of the Left could ensure that the Socialists fulfil the bold promise made by Antonio Costa to “turn the page on austerity.”
Although some observers might see a coalition between social democrats and anti-capitalists as implausible (with one commentator noting that the Portuguese Socialists have never before shared office with the Communist Party), the experience of neighbouring France and Italy shows that this can be done. In both countries, political parties ranging from the centre-left to the far-left have been able to put aside their differences and work together for the good of their countries. The Plural Left government (a diverse coalition of Socialists, Greens, Communists, and Liberals) that led France from 1997 to 2002 left behind a legacy of sound economic management and important reforms in areas such as shelter, human rights and healthcare. Similarly, in Italy, the centre-left governments in power from 1996-2001 and again from 2006-2008 (which contained such diverse groups as Marxists, Christian Democrats, and Libertarians) effected important changes in aspects of Italian life concerning education, social welfare, and working conditions, while pursuing fiscal policies that improved the financial situation of low-income families. In Portugal, a similar alliance would be constructive in the long-run if it delivered both economic and social gains for ordinary people, with parties of the Left putting aside their differences and working together to achieve progressive goals.
The Portuguese Socialists have a historic opportunity to change Portugal for the better. If they emerge victorious in Sunday’s election, they will need to develop a clear strategy for how to implement their ambitious plans for achieving greater equity and growth. Portugal’s deep seated economic troubles will make it difficult for the Socialists to fulfil all of their promises, but they must nevertheless fight for their principles and demonstrate both economic competence and progressive governance. If they manage to achieve these broad goals, they may be able to earn the lasting respect of the Portuguese people and reshape their society along the lines of the great tradition of European Social Democracy.