Massive anti-austerity march as Portugal prepares for national elections

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The red hammer-and-sickle banners of the Portuguese Communist Party and the green flags of the country's Green Ecological Party filled the streets of Lisbon on June 6 as an estimated 100,000 Portuguese workers, pensioners and young people marched in protest against the harsh austerity program imposed on Portugal by the European "Troika" and the conservative government of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho.

The Portuguese Communists and Greens have a long running joint electoral effort called the United Democratic Coalition (CDU) which will again run a united effort in national elections scheduled for Sept. 20 and Oct. 11 of this year.  Voters will elect all 230 members of the unicameral Portuguese parliament and the new government will be formed by the party or coalition of parties that wins the majority of seats.

In the last elections, in 2011, voters severely chastised the centrist Socialist Party (Partido Socialista) government of Prime Minister Jose Socrates for having signed on to the austerity program imposed on Portugal by the "Troika" of European financial authorities, consisting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Central Bank and the European Union executive, called the European Commission.  That election brought to power a right wing government of the People's Party (PP) and the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the latter being a right wing party in spite of its name.

The new prime  minister, Pedro Passos Coelho of the PSD, promptly signed Portugal onto the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union, or Fiscal Compact. This agreement is called the "Pact of Death" by Portuguese Communist Party Secretary General Jeronimo de Sousa because it forces Portugal and the other poorer countries in the European Union and the Euro currency area to balance their budgets by following the neoliberal program of drastic austerity and privatization of national resources.  The effects of the Fiscal Compact policies were soon evident in a slashed social safety net, skyrocketing unemployment and a widening of the gap between the increasingly impoverished workers and small farmers, and the economic elites.

When faced with the problem of massive unemployment among young adults, even those with university educations, Prime Minister Passos Coelho could think of no better idea for dealing with this than urging young Portuguese citizens to emigrate to the former Portuguese colonies of Brazil and Angola.  This annoyed these other countries, as he had not thought to inform them that he planned to ship them his country's unemployed.

So the conservative government is being hammered from all sides by labor unions, retirees, youth, and every other major sector of Portuguese society.  An interesting question is whether the Socialist Party will be able to gain votes because of this.

Jose Socrates, the prime minister the last time the PS was in power, has since gotten into deep legal trouble because of credible accusations of corruption, and in fact was arrested last November.  The news in Portugal this past week included stories about Socrates refusing to wear an ankle bracelet under home arrest.

The new leader of the Socialist Party, Antonio Costa, has been making radical populist noises, but it is almost certain that the CDU alliance of  communists and greens, and perhaps independent left candidates, will make inroads.  The CDU's strength has up to now been in the South of the country and in Lisbon, so it also remains to be seen if it will a advance in other areas.

At Saturday's rally, the Ecological Greens Party's main speaker, Heloisa Apolonia, called for a complete reversal of existing policies and the adoption of "a policy of dignity, in favor of the people".  She accused the governing PSD-PP coalition and the formerly governing PS of having placed Portugal at the mercy of the Troika and big finance capital.

She listed many of the disasters that have befallen the Portuguese people under the neo-liberal regime, including cuts in pensions, privatization of water, 300,000 emigrants to other countries, two million living in poverty (in a country of 10.5 million people), increasing disparities of wealth, overwhelmed health services, environmental degradation.  "We are sick," she said, "of these lying parties which have served up the people of Portugal on a platter to serve the large economic and financial interests. We demand dignity, development, progress!"

De Sousa of the Communist Party called for a patriotic and leftist policy, which "defends the social functions of the state" (i.e. against privatization and budget cuts to social services) and rejects debt demands which "subordinate our country to the interests of big capital". 

The mass march in Portugal coincides with dramatic events in Greece, where the left wing government is in cliff-edge confrontation with the Troika over the issue of Greek debt, and Spain, where there is also a general election in the Autumn and where candidates of the left just won the mayoralties of two of the most important cities, Madrid and Barcelona.  It will soon be seen whether this presages a general cross-border movement against neo-liberal austerity programs.

Photo: Portuguese Communist Party