Portugal’s Secret Revolution

Members of the Left Bloc campaigning in Lisbon. Credit: Paulete Matos

After the election of Donald Trump in America, the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, and the resurgence of far-right parties in Holland, France, Poland, and much of the rest of Europe, it would be easy for anyone with progressive opinions and hopes for a world of greater justice and compassion to become dispirited. Undoubtedly, tens of millions of Americans, Brits, and others have been wondering if there is any country in which left-of-center parties committed to creating a more egalitarian society have been elected and brought about meaningful political change – a place where they may have even reversed reactionary social and economic policies.

As a matter of fact, there is one small country at the western edge of Europe where exactly that has taken place, but most mainstream newspapers and television stations have been keeping it a secret. Over the past fourteen months, a quiet revolution has taken place in Portugal, where three left-of-center parties have come together to form a coalition that has brought an end to the socially devastating, neo-Conservative austerity program put in place by the previous center-right government under the auspices of the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund (the so-called Troika). Among other policy changes they have rapidly instituted are the extension of adoption to gay couples; medically assisted reproduction for single women and lesbian couples (whether married or not); a freeze on school textbook prices; an end to the privatization of state enterprises; a hike in the minimum wage; increases in state salaries to make up for the cuts legislated by the previous government; a lowering of the sales tax for restaurants; and a renewed focus on public education, health care, and scientific research.

At the same time – and to the great displeasure of right-wing parties in Portugal – the Portuguese economy grew 1.6 percent over the third quarter of 2016, the highest rise in the entire European Union. Unemployment has fallen to 10.8 percent – a five-year low – and the budget deficit currently stands at about 2.5%, down from 4.4% in 2015. Boosted in part by a booming tourism sector, the climate of gloom and defeat that characterized Portugal for several years is giving way to renewed optimism. This is especially true amongst young people, who have worked hard to create thousands of start-up businesses across the country, helping to make Lisbon and Porto two of Europe’s trendiest cities.

Members of the Youth Organization of the Socialist Party at the Gay Pride parade in June 2016.

Portugal’s shift to a progressive political agenda began in October of 2015. At that time, elections for Parliament pitted the ruling center-right coalition against the Socialist Party, the Communist Party (together with the Green Party) and a progressive party known as the Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda). The results? The government coalition received 38.6 percent of the vote; the Socialists 32.3 percent; the Left Bloc 10.2 percent; the Communists and Greens 8,3 percent; and an animal rights party 1.4 percent.

The President of Portugal, Cavaco Silva, soon asked the winning coalition to form a government even though it might quickly face a no-confidence vote from the opposition parties, who now held a majority in Parliament.

António Costa campaigning in Porto in October 2015. Credit: Cecilia Gama

Those who opposed the right-of-center coalition and their reactionary social, educational, and economic policies feared four more years of cuts for education, culture and science. Such policies had helped to increase the number of Portuguese living below the poverty line to levels that hadn’t been seen for more than a decade and obliged 350,000 workers – many of them highly qualified – to emigrate.

But the opposition succeeded in its no-confidence vote, and, in an unprecedented move, the Socialists, Communists, and Left Bloc began to explore the possibility of forming a coalition that could be asked by the Portuguese President to form a government. It was a goal that seemed highly unlikely to most opinion-makers and political experts, given the traditional antipathy between the Portuguese Communist Party and Socialist Party and the failure of left-of-center parties in Europe to unite together over the last few decades. Within a few weeks, however, the three parties had achieved an accord, and a coalition led by Socialist Party chief António Costa was formed. Added together, this amalgam had won 50.8 percent of the vote, 12 percent more than the center-right parties. If asked to form a government by the President of the Republic, they would hold an outright majority in Parliament.

At this point, the leaders of the previous government cried foul, alleging that such a coalition would be highly unstable and that any government it formed would be illegitimate, since it would represent a break with traditional Portuguese political practices. They also predicted economic disaster, since international ratings agencies and financial institutions were likely to view a progressive coalition as suspect. Of course, they conveniently disregarded the fact that nearly all the international ratings agencies had already classified Portugal’s sovereign debt as “junk.” While the Portuguese President decided whether to ask the new coalition to form a government or call for new elections, the tone of right-wing attacks grew malicious and slanderous. To ridicule Costa’s attempts to form a government, pundits and center-right politicians began to refer to the grouping of left-of-center parties as the geringonça, meaning a contraption built from spare parts.

Unfortunately for them, the Portuguese constitution didn’t support their allegation that such a coalition would be in any way illegitimate. The only question remaining: would Portugal’s staunchly conservative President go against his own political leanings and ask Costa and his allies to form a government?  In the end – possibly to avoid tarnishing his already highly damaged image – he gave Costa his consent.

The vitriolic criticisms from the right continued once the geringonça took power in late November of 2015. In one of the first meetings of the new Parliament, one unidentified deputy from the center-right coalition called out “Monhé” when António Costa entered the hall, a derogatory term for South Asians, and a reference to the Indian (Goan) origins of Costa’s father.

Cleverly, supporters of the government and ministers themselves soon began using the term geringonça to refer to their coalition, giving it both a humorous and positive spin, rather like the gays in America who began to use the word queer to refer to themselves back in the 1970s.

The most difficult and rancorous battle of the government’s first year involved the state funding of private schools. Government support of private education had been included as an option in the Portuguese constitution of 1976 because some sparsely populated districts had no public schools. Yet over the last forty years, the financing system had grown corrupt, and by the time the left-of-center coalition took power, many private schools (including Church-affiliated educational institutions) located just a short bus ride away from a public school were receiving massive government subsidies. When the Ministry of Education decided to limit such funding – to make public schools a priority – the right-wing parties, along with the corporations running private schools and Church leaders, bused-in students and teachers to Lisbon, Porto, and other cities for demonstrations. Such protests were generally given front-page coverage by the media corporations running the country’s newspapers, as well as huge coverage on virtually all the Portuguese television stations. Yet when the Ministry of Education and others supporting public education organized a mass demonstration in Lisbon in June of 2016 – one that attracted tens of thousands of supporters – the coverage was minimal. Throughout this period of rancorous debate, the owners of private educational facilities and conservative media pundits constantly demanded the resignation of the Minister of Education, Tiago Brandão Rodrigues, but he and Prime Minister Costa stuck to their strategy and ended funding for those private educational institutions located near public schools. Despite that, and to the great disappointment of many on the right, the school year began smoothly this past September.

In speaking of the accomplishments of the new government, Carlos César, a Member of Parliament and head of the Socialist Party, cites several initiatives that have given him particular satisfaction, including “the restoration of lost salaries and reinstatement of social programs, as well as the effort to guarantee equality to everyone regardless of gender.” As for priorities for 2017, César refers to the government’s desire to lower unemployment, further stabilize the banking sector, give cities and districts – rather than the central government – more control over political decision-making and attract greater foreign investment.

Catarina Martins, head of the Left Bloc, is proud of having eliminated a rule adopted by the previous government that obliged women seeking an abortion to submit to psychological counseling. It was important, Martins says, “to end the humiliating requirements forced on women…as well as to give all women access to medically assisted reproduction.” She also believes it was essential to have granted adoption rights to same-sex couples and restored salaries and pensions cut by the Troika. As for her party’s goals for next year, she laments the precarious job situation faced by many workers and hopes to be able to ensure them greater job security in 2017.

Of course, as one of Europe’s poorest countries, Portugal’s situation remains far from ideal. Among other problems the country will face in 2017 is the backlog of requests for research grants created by the previous government. Also worrisome are the frailty of the country’s banking sector and a debt of 129 percent of the country’s Gross National Product.

Nevertheless, the Portuguese have grown more confident in their country’s future over the past year. Indeed, recent polls show that Prime Minister Costa’s approval ratings have soared to 81 percent, up from 47 percent when he took office. If elections were held today, his Socialist Party would likely win an outright majority of seats in Parliament without the need for a coalition. Still, he seems content to continue governing with the support of the Left Bloc and Communist Party.

Whatever Costa decides, the gerigonça has already proved to the Portuguese public and others that there are responsible alternatives to austerity, and that the political certainties of the past are no longer so certain. Indeed, the coalition has demonstrated that if left-of-center political leaders are willing to give up past quarrels and rivalries, they can work together to bring about meaningful economic, political, and social change.

For news about the geringonça, visit http://geringonca.com

Richard Zimler’s novels have been translated into 23 languages and have appeared on bestseller lists in twelve different countries, including the United States, UK, Australia, Brazil, Italy, and Portugal. Four of his novels explore the lives of different branches and generations of a Portuguese-Jewish family: The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon; Hunting Midnight; Guardian of the Dawn; and The Seventh Gate. Zimler has lived in Portugal since 1990, and he has both Portuguese and American nationality. His website is: www.zimler.com
 
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