In a two-part interview, Catarina Principe of the left-bloc in Portugal, says the left needs to unify on an economic and anti-austerity platform to avoid an interim caretaker government of the president’s party
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: This is the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. A political leadership crisis is brewing in Portugal. For the last four years Portugal has been led by an alliance between the social democratic party, PSD, and the democratic and social center People’s Party, PP. Together they ran under the banner Forward Portugal Alliance, PAF, in the October 4 elections. They are the pro-austerity, pro-eurozone parties. Together they garnered only 38.4 percent of the vote, which translated to only 107 seats in the 230 seat parliament. But President Anibal Cavaco Silva asked them to form the government and appointed Pedro Passos Coelho as prime minister amid protest by the main opposition socialists and their allies. Now joining me to discuss all of this is Catarina Principe. She’s just back from Portugal. She is a social activist from there. And she’s an organizer with Left Bloc in Portugal and Die Linke in Germany, which means The Left. She’s written for Jacobin magazine and contributed to an anthology titled Portugal 40 Years After the Revolution. She’s currently studying and living in Germany. Thank you so much for joining us today. CATARINA PRINCIPE: Thank you for inviting me. PERIES: So give us a sense of what is going on and what happened on October 4 in the general election. PRINCIPE: So the general elections of October 4 ended up with an outcome that basically no one was expecting at least two or three weeks before the day of the elections. So not only the right-wing parties that have been ruling Portugal for the last four years and applied the harshest austerity and cuts, measures for the last years, won again, but the socialist party which is the main oppositional party did not win, which was what we were expecting. Also the left, namely the Left Bloc, the party that–the party of the radical left, the party that I’m part of, we were not expecting to have such a good result. We had an historical victory. We won 10 percent of the vote and we elected 19 MPs. So what we see today in the Portuguese parliament is a very polarized parliament which is actually more or less normal in times of crisis. So on the one hand the right wing manages to win again, although not reaching an absolute majority on parliament, and at the same time the anti-austerity left, so the Left Bloc and the Communist Party, gather almost 20 percent of the vote. So we have a polarized parliament where none of the two big parties, so the social democrats and the socialist party, is able by themselves to form a government. So this means that–also another particular circumstance is that we will have presidential elections in January. And the president of the republic cannot dissolve the parliament within the last six months of his mandate. So this means this parliament has to work as it is. But none of the two big parties got an absolute majority in order to be able to rule the country for the next years in a stable way. So what happened three days ago was that the president of the republic appointed the right-wing party coalition of parties that have been ruling Portugal for the last four years in order to try to form a government. This was against the last, during the last two weeks, the socialist party has reached out to the left, so both to the Left Bloc and to the Communist Party, in order to try to make an agreement that would allow them to form a government on parliament, and pass a state budget for the next year that would allow Portugal to have some sort of political stability for the next, at least for the next year. PERIES: So the socialist party is essentially proposing Antonio Costa as the leader of this left socialist alliance. PRINCIPE: Yes. PERIES: Let me show everyone a clip of what he had to say in protest to what is going on in terms of the appointment of the prime minister by the president. ANTONIO COSTA: It is incomprehensible to nominate a prime minister who the president already knows does not have and will not have the conditions to form a majority in parliament. The president has created a useless political crisis that postpones the start of a government in full capacity and with a majority in parliament, which could ensure the country the political stability that it needs. PERIES: So Katrina, what’s his main bone of contention here? Together they can form a majority in parliament, which would mean a much more stable government. But what is he actually proposing to the president here? PRINCIPE: You mean Antonio Costa, the leader of the opposition party? So it is, it has never happened in Portuguese history that the leader of one of, of the party that was not the most voted one, was appointed prime minister. So this would be a new thing. It’s democratic, it’s possible, it’s within the constitution. But it has never happened. So the political tradition in Portugal has been always to appoint the leader of the winning party to form government. This is what the president has done. And this means that next week the right-wing government that was just appointed and just formed today will go to, will have a vote on parliament. And most possibly, according to what we know right now, there will be a vote that won’t–like, a confidence vote that will not allow them to pass as a government. So Portugal will be without a government again in a week. What Antonio Costa is saying is that because the socialist party opened conversation with the left in order to try to establish an agreement between the three left parties, or center and left parties on parliament, at least for the state budget of 2016, that actually the president of the republic is choosing to appoint his own party leader as a prime minister instead of appointing a more stable or possibly more stable government of the left because he does not like neither the leader of the socialist party, and he’s not part of his own party. And very, very interesting, and I think this is a new–this is something new that is happening in Portugal since the crisis, was the very harsh tone that the president of the republic used to say that he will not appoint the socialist party leader, so Antonio Costa, as the prime minister and allow him to try to form a government on parliament because he’s being supported by euroskeptical and eurocritical parties as the Left Bloc and the Communist Party. So basically what he’s saying is that democracy is not as important as what the European institutions decide. PERIES: All right. Catarina, let’s take this up in part two, the current democratic crisis in Portugal, and what all this means for the future of Portugal in our next segment.
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome back. I’m speaking with Catarina Principe. She’s just back from Portugal. She is a social activist from there, and she is an organizer with Left Bloc in Portugal and Die Linke in Germany, which means The Left. She’s written for Jacobin magazine and contributed to an anthology called Portugal: 40 Years after the Revolution. Thank you so much for joining me again. So in the first segment, we were actually discussing the crisis that Portugal is in at this moment in terms of its leadership and its, in terms of its parliament. And we were specifically talking about the president and the fact that he was not willing to appoint a coalition, socialist left alliance, to parliament. And instead he chose the leader of his own party. So why is he doing this? CATARINA PRINCIPE: Well, I think in order to understand precisely what is happening in Portugal we need to understand what has been the role of the socialist party, and in which situation they find themselves at the moment. So it’s important to go back to 2011, when Portugal signed the memorandum to the agreement with the Troika. The Troika are the three institutions that applied cuts and austerity in Portugal. So the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the IMF, the International Monetary Fund. And this, this agreement that threw Portugal into the harshest impoverishing process in its 40 years of its democracy was signed both by the two right-wing parties that constitute a government right now, but also by the socialist party. So until now, the socialist party was not criticizing any of the austerity implementation processes, or politics, in Portugal. But right now, because–so the socialist party finds itself in a very particular situation. They are between a rock and a hard wall, so to say. Because on the one hand they know that if they support a right-wing government they will lose their political space within the Portuguese political scenario. And at the same time they know that if they reach out to the left there will be very concrete programmatical questions that they will have to change in order to find an agreement with the left. Because until now they have not backed down from what they signed, and what their compromises with all the European international institutions were. So they need to make a decision. And I think what is happening with the president of the republic is he’s trying to force the socialist party into making a very clear decision, whether they’re going to back the right or whether they’re going to try to build a government with the left. The problem is both the Left Bloc and the Communist Party are eurocritical parties. So we denounce our, the belonging of Portugal to NATO. We both say we don’t want Portugal to belong to NATO. We want to end the Lisbon treaty, the European fiscal compact, the growth and stability pact. So we want to question all of this. And we also, during our, during the electoral campaign there was a political space that opened in Portugal for a more eurocritical left. So let me just bring Greece into the discussion. When the third memorandum was signed by the Syriza government, the mainstream idea was that no eurocritical or EU-critical left-wing party could win or gain any political terrain if they would voice their disagreements with what the European project is today. Portugal proved the contrary. And this is very important, because it is an opening of a political space. So although the left has been clearly critical to everything that Europe has been doing, especially to the periphery, to the southern European countries, still the left managed to grow and assert itself in a certain way on parliament. And have a stronger social basis of support. So what the president of the republic is doing is to say that because we had a financial crisis, and because we were so dependent on European institutions in order to have any sort of financial aid to pay for the debt that we owe, that we’re actually not paying because the debt is only growing and that’s exactly the problem of austerity, but that’s maybe another discussion. Because we’ve been going through this process to appoint a prime minister from a party, so the socialist party, who was willing to negotiate to its left with eurocritical perspectives, would mean to put Portugal in a very dangerous position that the European institutions and the European elites would not like and approve. So what he’s saying is actually, is that democracy and sovereignty in Europe does not matter anymore. This is why there has been a public campaign on Twitter or on Facebook saying that what is happening in Portugal is a political coup. Because it’s saying we, our democratic processes, are less important than the wills and the impositions of the European institutions. PERIES: So Catarina, what is the left doing about all of this? There is of course a Twitter campaign going on, as you said. But what is the organized left doing there? PRINCIPE: First of all, we are trying to negotiate a clear and very–we know that the socialist party signed the austerity agreements. So we know that we also have to go–we have to negotiate with them, but we have to be very careful about it. We cannot give them full, unlimited path to, say, to apply whatever they want. We have to be very clear on what we are negotiating and what sort of measures we will be approving and not. So first of all, for the last two weeks both the Left Bloc and the Communist Party have been having several weekly meetings with the leadership of the socialist party trying to set up a clear agreement on what measures should the state budget for 2016 comply, and we would vote in favor for it. So this is one thing that we’ve been very clearly doing, which is a very important process. The second thing is now that parliament has already started, we have–so the left, the center and the left on parliament, so the socialist party, the Left Bloc, and the Communist Party, we voted together for the president of the parliament, which is the second-most important political figure in Portugal. So the candidate that was appointed by the left won against the candidate that was appointed by the right, which is actually the government right now. So this was the first big loss of this right-wing government. And thirdly there are some public, smaller but still public demonstrations happening on the street. There hasn’t been any very strong social mobilization right now yet because next week the government of the right, that the president just appointed two or three days ago, will have to go to votes on parliament. And we know that if nothing changes, because things are also changing every day and very fast, that this government will not be voted in favor of. So in one week, Portugal will be without a government again. And then a new moment starts. PERIES: And what happens in that moment? PRINCIPE: There’s two choices. Either the president of the republic decides he will allow the socialist party and Antonio Costa, whose declarations we just heard, either he will allow him to become the prime minister and try to form a government with the left, or he will have to nominate a caretaker government. Which means a technocratic, undemocratic government that actually cannot change anything from, for any fiscal policies, anything, [economic policies]–. PERIES: How long do the, do they last until the government has to–. PRINCIPE: The next elections can only be in March. Because no parliament in Portugal, according to our constitution, can be dissolved within the fist six months of its functioning unless the president of the republic dissolves it. But because the president of the republic cannot dissolve a government within his six months of mandate, and we have presidential elections in January, he can also not dissolve the parliament. So right now, the only two choices that he has left is either he appoints the socialist party as the leading party to form a government, and then the process starts of a negotiation and agreement with the left that has then to go to parliament and be voted in favor. And this would most possibly happen if we, the left manages to reach an agreement with the socialist party because together the three parties gather more than 50 percent of the vote. PERIES: And how likely is that? PRINCIPE: It is likely if we both, the three parts that are engaging in these negotiations keep their negotiation promises, so to say. So as for us, we are very clear on what we are saying to the socialist party. We are saying that we will not accept any flexibilization of–not unemployment. Sorry. I’m missing the word. We will not accept any flexibilization of the labor market anymore, which means that the bosses can fire their workers easily. We will not accept to cut down taxation on employers. And we will not–and we are fighting for both to unfreeze the pensions and to give back to the public sector workers their wages that have been cut in the last four years. These are our four basic measures, and we’re very clear on them. These are the, sort of our red lines. These are the lines that we want the socialist party to agree on. These are basically also the lines of the Communist Party. So if the socialist party is willing to actually form a government that has some sort of social interest that is willing to boost the economy, protect the weakest links in society, keep a social security system that is based on values of intergenerational solidarity, stop the attack on labor rights that has been going on in the country for the last four years, then we are willing to allow a government of the socialist party. If they are not willing to do this, so if they’re not actually willing to apply anti-austerity measures, then we cannot allow a government that will just apply austerity. Because then there is no more difference between the right-wing government and the socialist party-led government. PERIES: Just to remind everybody, Catarina is referring to the Left Bloc in Portugal when she’s talking about ‘we’ and negotiating with the socialist party. PRINCIPE: Sorry. True. Yes. PERIES: Quite all right. Just a reminder. Catarina, I want to thank you so much for joining us today. PRINCIPE: Thank you for inviting me. PERIES: And lots of our members have been asking about whether we are going to cover Portugal, and I hope to continue our dialog in the near future. Thanks. PRINCIPE: Thank you. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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