Portugal’s radicals move to heart of power after debt crisis

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/11/09/portugals-radicals-move-to-heart-of-power-after-debt-crisis/

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Die-hard communists are poised to walk the corridors of power in Portugal, and a new generation of leftist radicals is right beside them.

The Portuguese Communist Party and the radical Left Bloc say they are hitching up with the bigger, moderate Socialist Party for what will likely be a successful — and controversial — gambit next week to unseat the country’s center-right government just days after it was sworn in. The three parties then intend to take command of the country’s fortunes for the next four years in a bold power play that just a few weeks ago was unthinkable.

Communist leader Jeronimo de Sousa, a square-jawed 68-year-old who started work in a factory age 14, and the Left Bloc’s Catarina Martins, a 42-year-old actress-turned-activist, became kingmakers after a recent election gave most votes to the three anti-austerity parties.

After years on the sidelines, political forces like these have been pushed into the political foreground across Europe by voters weary of economic difficulties in the wake of the continent’s financial crisis.

The Portuguese have endured hard times since their debt-heavy country needed a 78 billion-euro ($85 billion) bailout in 2011, following years of borrow-and-spend policies. Cuts to pay, pensions and public services ensued. Steep tax rises ate further into incomes. Labor reforms snatched away longstanding entitlements.

Those measures, demanded by foreign creditors, were enacted by the center-right government. It was re-elected with 38 percent of votes in the Oct. 4 general election despite promising more frugality. But it is outnumbered in the post-election Parliament by the left-of-center parties who together collected 62 percent and vow to force its resignation in a confidence vote expected Tuesday.

At their most extreme, the Communist Party and Left Bloc propose policies that some find scary. The communists want to nationalize the country’s banks and energy companies. The Left Bloc has recommended mass disobedience against austerity and, like the communists, wants Portugal out of NATO. Both would like to see Portugal out of the 19-nation eurozone, too.

Those two parties have never been in government, and to achieve their unprecedented alliance with the Socialists — and gain a door to power — they will have to surrender their more extreme positions. A policy agreement for the next four years being negotiated between the three parties is not yet public, but the Socialists insist on abiding by eurozone financial rules.

Still, the mainstream Socialists and their new allies are strange bedfellows.

De Sousa is an old-style communist. Broad-shouldered and favoring an open-necked shirt and sports jacket in Parliament, he has been a lawmaker since 1976 — on the party’s central committee for more than three decades and on its politburo for more than 20 years. The party doesn’t change much: De Sousa is only its third leader since 1961.

The Communist Party takes a hard Marxist-Leninist line. It was cool toward former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost and was displeased by the fall of the Berlin Wall. It uses the language of class warfare in attacks on eurozone-inspired policies, with De Sousa recently speaking of “exploitation and impoverishment which the interests of national and transnational capital, and their political representatives, have imposed on our country and the Portuguese.”

Under its hammer-and-sickle banner, the party commands a loyal — and mostly elderly — base of supporters. Its vote of almost 8 percent in last month’s election, where it stood with the tiny Green Party, was its rough election average in recent parliamentary ballots. Its place in the political spectrum is not exceptional in the European Union, where seven countries send communists to the European Parliament.

Unlike De Sousa, the Left Bloc’s Martins has a Facebook page and moves easily through social media, where many young and disaffected voters are. Her anti-austerity message — as well as her affable manner, jeans and sneakers, and push to legalize cannabis — struck a chord with them. The Left Bloc more than doubled its number of lawmakers to 19 in the 230-seat Parliament. One newspaper called her “Catherine the Great.”

Martins, who has a degree in modern languages and literature, and in 1996 appeared on the Lisbon stage in Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist play “The Bald Soprano,” won’t accept all the praise. The Left Bloc has no leader — her official title is “spokesperson” — and is run by a six-member committee, the so-called Gang of Six.

Like Martins, the Left Bloc is brash and daring and determined to shake things up. After electing its first lawmakers in 1999, it last month fielded a transsexual candidate for the first time in Portugal, and its youngest lawmaker is 22.

The Socialists say the alliance will “turn the page” on austerity. That means flaunting many of the international creditors’ demands. The three parties want to restore workers’ rights, unblock pension increases and roll back recent privatizations, such as flag carrier TAP Air Portugal. They also want to bring back a 35-hour week for government employees instead of 40 hours, and reinstate four public holidays that were scrapped to improve productivity.

The alliance’s anti-austerity goals are “very risky” and could backfire, says Antonio Costa Pinto of Lisbon University’s Institute of Social Sciences, because they largely depend on a continuation of easy-money stimulus policies by the European Central Bank, and any economic setback will force a return to budget cuts.

“The Portuguese wouldn’t forgive another crisis so soon,” he said, suggesting the political stakes are high for the budding three-way alliance.

— Written by Barry Hatton

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