Why is there no Syriza in Portugal?

Unlike in Greece or in Spain, in Portugal the dire crisis and steep austerity measures have not entailed important changes to the party system. Why? Português. Español

Manuel Nunes Ramires Serrano
2 October 2015
Passos e Costa.jpeg

Pedros Passos Coelho, leader of the PAF (PSD/CDS) coalition and António Costa, leader of the opposition (PS). Sapo Photos: all rights reserved.

Portugal is heading to the polls on October 4 with no real alternative to mainstream parties. Over the last few years, the country has been sharing with other Southern European countries many common traits such as recession, high unemployment, unbearable austerity and widespread corruption scandals, and yet we have not seen the emergence of radical and anti-establishment parties.

Portugal exited its bailout program in 2014 and the economic situation is slowly but steadily improving. Social cuts, unemployment, low productivity and a serious demographic crisis remain serious threats to its future, but the Portuguese two-party system remains stable.

In Greece the PASOK, a traditional centre-left party, plummeted into oblivion while Syriza won a landslide victory with a 35 percent vote. In Spain, the PSOE, a political heavyweight, dropped to 20 percent voting intention as of July this year, whereas the emerging Podemos even showed a threatening sorpasso in some opinion polls in early 2015. The centre-right is likewise wobbly as the emergence of Ciudadanos is looming the traditional PP hegemony.

In contrast, Portugal polls show a technical draw between the centre-right coalition PSD/CDS and the opposition, the centre-left Socialist Party, having both between 32-40 per cent of voting intention.  Why is Portugal such an exception in Southern Europe?

The state of domestic politics

Back in March 2011, after it become clear that Portugal needed a bailout, the Socialist Party leader at the time, José Socrates (currently under house arrest for corruption claims) resigned following the parliament refusal to approve an austerity plan. Elections followed and the centre party, the PSD won, forming a coalition with the centre right party, CDS-PP. This scenario saved the socialists from being associated to the implementation of the bailout.

The existence of a relatively strong and stable Communist Party is another specific characteristic of Portuguese politics. Bolstering a loyal electorate, this party tends to draw approximately 10% of the votes and leaves little space for emerging movements.

Leaning towards the extreme left, radical parties, the potential equivalents of Podemos and Syriza remain deeply divided and unable to present a competitive alternative. The Left Bloc voting intention amounts to 7.5 per cent while Livre support hovers around 1-2 per cent.

Some cultural and demographic factors can also be pointed as potential causes of this absence of credible political alternatives in Portugal. On the one hand, young people, left with very little opportunities, might prefer to emigrate rather than to engage in social contestation. On the other hand, abstention has historically reached very high quotas in Portugal. It amounted to 41.9 per cent in the 2011 legislative elections and to 50 per cent in the last presidential elections. In comparison, Spain, Italy and Greece present much higher turnout rates.

This relative passivity has been also linked with the lack of an internal regional division or a somewhat less bloody and intrusive dictatorship in comparison with Spain or Greece. However, these accounts tend to be more speculative that actual factual supported and do not amount to the full picture.

Social movements are unable to generate political organizations

It is not that civil society in Portugal is particularly weak in comparison to Italy or Spain, but the Portuguese social movements struggle to generate political organizations has deep sociological and historical reasons.

Some historians point out that civil society in Portugal has been influenced by four major factors. First, a Roman Catholic heritage. Secondly, a tradition of mutuality and self-help. Thirdly, a long history of authoritarian political control. Finally, the democratic transition led to an increasing reliance of state agencies on private non-for-profit organizations. All in all, it turns out that civil society’s influence in the political system has been constrained due to its prominent focus on the provision of social services (48 per cent) in detriment of advocacy or education issues.

Following an often-accepted categorization, three factors are critical for social movements to be successful: political opportunity, organizational capacity and framing ability. It is undeniable that, in Portugal as elsewhere, politically opportunity arose with the big recession. A mobilizing frame was also established around the rejection of austerity measures and social cutbacks. However, Portugal´s civil society lacked a proper organizational capacity.

In Spain this organized mobilization was the “Indignados” movement, and in Greece, the “Space for Dialogue for the Unity and Common Action of the Left”. These organized movements led the uprising mobilization and directed it in the pursuit of joint objectives, establishing a relationship with the media and the government, as well as ensuring they had the capacity to finance their cause.

Maria Flor Pedroso argues that the Syriza phenomenon “is not replicable” in Portugal. The social movements lack the capability to organize themselves under the same banner and towards common goals. They traditionally have focused mostly on providing social services (assistance). Going beyond traditional politics in the Greek and the Spanish party system was only possible because a critical mass of people mobilized and showed a vibrant interest in politics (according to the European Social Survey, 40% of Portuguese have no interest in politics, in contrast with a 30% in Spain or 20% in Italy).

Democracy problem?

The fact that Portugal´s civil society failed to replicate the emergence of new radical parties does not mean there is no room for that in the current party system. Leaving aside the nature of such parties, either if they lean left or right, the point is that contrary to common believe, civil society corpulence is not to blame for Portugal´s lack of political alternatives. In a context of a paternalistic system that focuses too much on assistance and channels popular interests through traditional parties, social movements should re-direct their efforts towards establishing a proper niche, assuring that the infrastructure is set before starting to build the organization.

The economic situation is improving in Portugal and the worst days of the crisis are beyond us, but there is still a crisis of democracy. On October 4 elections only the two mainstream parties can win and there is no alternative. The lack of solutions regarding the state-rescued Banco Espirito Santo or the steep social costs austerity had on the Portuguese society, as reflected by the UN Human Development Index for 2013, are not challenged by the population. The weakness of citizen’s participation, essential for the quality of democracy and national integrity, might leave the increasing deterioration of social justice and the rise of inequality overt.

For this crisis to be overcome we need a diversified civil society that goes beyond assistance and enacts proper social movement organizations able to become strong political forces. The point is that Portugal lacks a truly participatory and accountable political system, which can only emerge if citizens are willing to take an active part in political affairs and, as important, are given the proper channels to do so. The anticipated results of the upcoming elections might yet again underlie the urgent need of such political innovation.

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