Portuguese elections – mistaken analogies



Brazil and Portugal are two qualitatively different societies. Class structure, location in the world, history differentiates them

“A red hour is better than a lifetime of yellow”; “Better a year around than never home”; “It is better for the world to remain silent than for a liar to speak” (Portuguese popular wisdom).

It is very important for the left to follow the international situation. But we are, perhaps, facing the danger of hasty conclusions about the elections in Portugal, confusing tactics and strategy. The decision of the Bloco de Esquerda and the Portuguese Communist Party to enable a Socialist Party government with the “contraption” agreement between 2015 and 2019 was a tactical option.

It is plausible to discuss today, with the perspective of history, whether or not it was correct, but it was tactical. Why? Because the four years of Passos Coelho's PSD government supported by the right had been, dramatically, terrible. If they did not, they would objectively have been an obstacle for António Costa to form a government, since the PS not only did not have a majority, but was a smaller minority than the PSD. It was a complex decision. Let's be honest: very difficult to assess for someone who didn't have their feet on the ground. It would have been a decision of a strategic nature if they had appointed ministers and submitted to government discipline. They did not and preserved their independence.

So much so that, after 2019, Costa refused to negotiate with Bloco, while pretending to negotiate with the PCP, ending the contraption agreement. In the Marxist tradition, the revolutionary left should not be an obstacle for the reformist left to come to power. But it can and must present the conditions under which it votes in Parliament against the bourgeois right, and even that has limits, therefore it is tactical, too. There are those who argue that the Bloc and the PCP were wrong when, in 2015, they signed the contraption, and others who were wrong when they voted against the budget in 2021.

With regard to the Brazilian situation, for those who are somehow inspired by the contraption, it is good to clarify that voting for Lula in the first or second round is a tactical decision. Participating in a Lula government will always be a strategic decision. If it was a mistake in Portugal, in Brazil it would be a tragedy.

Marxists attach great importance to the difference between tactics and strategy, even though they are relative, not absolute, concepts. Strategy is the planning of the objective to be conquered, or a purpose. A political strategy is an elaboration on the path to power. A party that has lost the “instinct” of power, that is, that has given up fighting for its program, does not deserve to exist. Tactics are the various orientations that, in each situation, correspond to the struggle for strategy. They must change depending on the concrete conditions that are determined by the oscillation of the social and political relationship of forces, sometimes more favorable, but in many others more adverse.

A party cannot have a “permanent” tactic. Nor should it change strategy as if it were a tactic. Did the Bloco de Esquerda and the PCP risk “everything” by deciding to vote against Costa's budget? Yes, they made a tactical calculation at the service of a strategic project. They bet on the need to occupy a position of left-wing opposition to the Costa government, in the context of the arrival of the “bazooka” of the European Union. The truth is that the vertiginous fall in the left's vote happened only in the last week, if not in the last three days. It is wrong, therefore, who thinks that the Bloco de Esquerda, or the PCP have become marginal. The Bloc already fell in 2011, and doubled in the next election, in 2015. The PCP has a hundred years of history.

There are two distorted readings looming. The first is those who claim that the defeat of the Bloco de Esquerda and the Communist Party demonstrates that it was a mistake by the two main parties to the left of the PS to have voted, in 2021, against the budget presented by António Costa. Summary of the opera: there would be no room for a left-wing opposition to the PS government for an indefinite period. The conclusion for Brazil is that it would be a mistake if the parties to the left of the PT, in particular the PSol, did not accept joining a possible Lula government, not mattering much if Alckmin becomes vice-president, or the concessions that can be made to the big capitalists.

The role of the anti-capitalist left should be to accompany the Lula government and exert pressure from within. The problem is that these analysts, generally outside the parties, call this turnaround a contraption, and mask what would be a change in strategy as a tactical adaptation. The analogy is unfair with the contraption made by the Bloc and the PCP in Portugal, and with the intelligence of the militancy of the socialist left parties who know very well that voting for a candidate is not the same as a commitment to join a government.

The second is those who claim that it was a mistake for these organizations to set up the contraption in 2015, that is, to have signed a parliamentary support agreement for the government of António Costa, even though he remained outside the government. They do not give greater importance to the fact that the contraption agreement ended in 2019. The conclusion for Brazil is that it would be a mistake for the anti-capitalist left to support Lula in October 2022. Some defend presenting a candidacy in the first round, but admit a critical vote in Lula in the second round, others not even that.

They commit at least three errors of analysis with the hasty analogy: (a) they reduce the immense differences between the situation at the center of power, in Lisbon and in Brasília The dilemma posed in the early elections in Portugal was whether the Socialist Party government, in power since 2015, would or would not get a majority in the Assembly of the Republic. Who is in power in Brazil is a far-right coalition led by Bolsonaro, a neo-fascist, and the danger of his re-election, although unlikely today, remains; (b) elude that the liberal-democratic regime in Portugal has remained stable for half a century, while in Brazil an institutional coup took place in 2016, even against a very moderate PT government, and that Lula was convicted and placed in prison; (c) disregard that the political power relationship between the Bloc and the PCP and the PS is much more favorable than that between the PSol, and other organizations of the more combative left, and the PT. The Bloc already had support that corresponds to a quarter of the support of the PS. The PSol, with the exception of some extraordinary municipal votes in the capitals of the southeast, has not yet come close to being a tenth. Proportionally, therefore, Lula and the PT are, qualitatively, stronger than the PS.

Both in Brazil and in Portugal, the architecture of institutions corresponds to a liberal-democratic Republic. But the two regimes are very different. In Portugal, the exercise of executive power rests with a Prime Minister who must guarantee his legitimacy in a parliamentary majority. In Brazil, the leadership of the executive branch rests with the President of the Republic and, although the presidential election is simultaneous with the election of deputies and senators, the government may not have a majority in the National Congress.

More importantly, however, they are two qualitatively different societies. Class structure, location in the world, history differentiate us. António Costa's maneuver in forcing a vote on the budget without any negotiation on the left was a ruse because he had the complicity of President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. The PS had the “trick” of anticipating elections up its sleeve to blackmail the Bloc and the PCP for an absolute majority.

Costa was aware that in the popular majority, after almost two years of wear and tear due to the pandemic, the danger of an “Azorean” solution of a PSD government with the participation of Chega, could be enough for the pressure of the useful vote to be successful. Still, until the last week, it didn't work. Without the role of some vote evaluation polls, in the last three days, signaling the possibility of a technical tie between the PS and the PSD, within the margin of error, it is unreasonable to conclude that it would have an absolute majority. Research, to say the least, suspicious.

*Valério Arcary is a retired professor at IFSP. Author, among other books, of Revolution meets history (Shaman).


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