Category Archives: Europe

Dispatches 2015 News Awards

Dispatches Awards for 2015

Dispatches From the Edge

Jan. 3, 2016

 

Each year Dispatches From The Edge gives awards to individuals, companies, and governments that make following the news a daily adventure. Here are the awards for 2015

 

The First Amendment Award to U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter for issuing a new Law Of War manual that defines reporters as “unprivileged belligerents” who will lose their “privileged” status by “the relaying of information” which “could constitute taking a direct part in hostilities.” Translation? If you report you are in the same class as members of al-Qaeda.

 

A Pentagon spokesperson said that the military “supports and respects the vital work that journalists perform.” Just so long as they keep what the see, hear, and discover to themselves? Professor of constitutional law Heidi Kitrosser called the language “alarming.”

 

Runner up is the U.S. Military College at West Point for hiring Assistant Professor of Law William C. Bradford, who argues that the military should target “legal scholars” who are critical of the “war on terrorism.” Such critics are “treasonous”, he says. Bradford proposes going after “law school facilities, scholars’ home offices and media outlets where they give interviews.” Bradford also favors attacking “Islamic holy sites,” even if that means “great destruction, innumerable enemy casualties, and civilian collateral damage.”

 

The Little Bo Peep Award for losing track of things goes to the U.S. Defense Department for being unable to account for $35 billion in construction aid to Afghanistan, which is about $14 billion more than the country’s GDP. The U.S. has spent $107.5 billion on reconstruction in Afghanistan, more than the Marshall Plan. Most of it went to private contractors.

 

The Pentagon response to the report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan on the missing funds was to declare that all such information was now classified, because it might provide “sensitive information for those that threaten our forces and Afghan forces.” It has since partially backed off that declaration.

 

While it is only pocket change compared to Afghanistan, the Pentagon also could not account for more than $500 million in military aid to Yemen. The U.S. is currently aiding Saudi Arabia and a number of other Gulf monarchies that are bombing Houthi rebels battling the Yemeni government. Much of that aid was supposed to go for fighting Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), against which the U.S. is also waging a drone war. The most effective foes of AQAP are the Shiite Houthis. So we are supporting the Saudis and their allies against the Houthis, while fighting Al-Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

 

If the reader is confused, Dispatches suggests taking a strong painkiller and lying down.

 

The George Orwell Award For Language goes to the intelligence gathering organizations of the “Five Eyes” surveillance alliance—the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—who changed the words “mass surveillance” to “bulk collection.” The linguistic gymnastics allows the Five to claim that they are not violating Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In the 2000 decision of Amann v. Switzerland, the Court found that it was illegal to store information on an individual’s private life.

 

As investigative journalist Glen Greenwald points out, the name switch is similar to replacing the world “torture” with “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The first is illegal, the second vague enough for interrogators to claim they are not violating the International Convention Against Torture.

 

A runner up is the U.S. Defense Department, which changed the scary title of “Air Sea Battle” to describe the U.S.’s current military doctrine vis-à-vis China, to “Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons.” The Air Sea Battle doctrine calls for bottling up China’s navy, launching missile attacks to destroy command centers, and landing troops on the Chinese mainland. It includes scenarios for the use of nuclear weapons. “Global Commons,” on the other hand, sounds like a picnic on the lawn.

 

The Lassie Come Home Award to the U.S. Marine Corps for creating a 160-pound robot dog that will “enhance the Marine Corps war-fighting capabilities,” according to Captain James Pineiro. Pineiro heads up the Corp’s Warfighting Laboratory at Quantico, Virginia. “We see it as a great potential for the future dismounted infantry.”

 

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is also designing an autonomous fighting robot. Can the Terminator be far off?

 

The Golden Lemon Award goes to Lockheed Martin, the biggest arms manufacturer in the world, which has managed to produce two stunningly expensive weapons systems that don’t work.

 

The F-35 Lighting II is the single most expensive weapons system in U.S. history: $1.5 trillion. It is supposed to replace all other fighter-bomber aircraft in the American arsenal, including the F-15, F-16 and F-18, and will begin deployment in 2016.

 

Slight problem.

 

In dogfights with the three decade-old F-16, the F-35 routinely lost. Because it is heavy and underpowered, it is extremely difficult to turn the plane during air-to-air combat. It has a fancy 25-MM Gatling gun that gets off 3,000 rounds a minute—but the plane can only carry 180 rounds. As one Air Force official put it, “Hope you don’t miss.” Oh, and the software for the gun won’t be out until 2019.

 

And that’s not the only glitch.

 

The F-35 has stealth technology, but its Identification Friend or Foe system is so bad that pilots are required to get a visual confirmation of their target. Not a good idea when the other guys have long-range air-to-air missiles. The $600,000 high-tech helmet the pilot uses to see everything around him often doesn’t work very well, and there isn’t enough room in the cockpit to turn your head. If the helmet goes out, there is no backup landing systems, so maybe you had better eject? Bad idea. The fatality rate for small pilots (those under 139 pounds) at low speeds is 98 percent, not good odds. Larger pilots do better but the changes of a broken neck are still distressingly high.

But it is not just Lockheed Martin’s airplanes that don’t work, neither do its ships.

 

The company’s new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), The Milwaukee, broke down during its recent East Coast tour and had to be towed to Virginia Beach. The LCSs are designed to fight in shallow waters, but a recent Pentagon analysis says the ships would “not be survivable in a hostile combat situation.” The LCSs have been plagued with engine problems and spend more than 50 percent of their time in port being repaired. The program costs $37 billion.

 

And Lockheed Martin, along with Northrop Grumman and Boeing, just got a $58.2 billion contract to build the next generation Long Range Strike Bomber. Sigh.

 

The Great Moments In Democracy Award goes to Jyrki Katainen, Finnish vice-president of the European Commission, the executive arm of the 28-nation European Union. When Greece’s anti-austerity Syriza Party was elected, he commented, “We don’t change policies depending on elections.” So, why is it that people have elections?

 

A close runner up in this category is German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, who denounced Athens’ government for not cracking down on Greeks who can’t pay their taxes. The biggest tax dodger in Greece? That would be the huge German construction company, Hochtief, which has not paid the Value Added Tax for 20 years, nor made its required contributions to social security. Estimates are that the company owes Greece one billion Euros.

 

 

The Ty-D-Bol Cleanup Award to the U.S. State Department for finally agreeing to clean up plutonium contamination, the residue from three hydrogen bombs that fell near the Andalusia town of Palomares in Southern Spain in 1966. The bombs were released when a B-52 collided with an air tanker. While the bombs did not explode—Palomares and a significant section of southern Spain would not exist if they had—they broke open, spreading seven pounds highly toxic plutonium 239 over the area. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years.

 

While there was an initial cleanup, Francisco Franco’s fascist government covered up the incident and played down the dangers of plutonium. But recent studies indicate that there is still contamination, and some of the radioactive materials are degrading into americium, a producer of dangerous gamma radiation.

 

When Spain re-raised the issue in 2011, the U.S. stonewalled Madrid. So why is Washington coming to an agreement now? Quid pro quo: the U.S. wants to base some of its navy at Rota in Southern Spain, and the Marines are setting up a permanent base at Moron de la Frontera.

 

As for nukes, the U.S. is deploying its new B61-12 guided nuclear bomb in Europe. At $11 billion it is the most expensive nuke in the U.S. arsenal. The U.S. will base the B61-12 in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Turkey, a violation of Articles I and II of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Those two articles ban transferring nukes from a nuclear weapon state to a non-nuclear weapon state.

 

Dispatches assumes they will also bring lots of mops and buckets.

 

Buyer Beware Award to the purchasing arm of the U.S. Defense Department that sent dozens of MD-530 attack helicopters to Afghanistan to build up the Afghan Air Force. Except the McDonnell Douglass-made choppers can’t operate above 8,000 feet, which means they can’t clear many of the mountains that ring Kabul. The Afghan capital is at 6,000 feet. It also doesn’t have the range to reach Taliban-controlled areas and, according to the pilots, its guns jam all the time. The Pentagon also paid more than $400 million to give Afghanistan 16 transport plane that were in such bad condition they couldn’t fly. The planes ended up being sold as scrap for $32,000.

 

The Pogo Possum “We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Us” Award goes to Defense Intelligence Agency for warning Congress that “Chinese and Russian military leaders…were developing capabilities to deny [the] U.S. use of space in the event of a conflict”. Indeed, U.S. military satellites were jammed 261 times in 2015—by the United States. Asked how many times China and Russia had jammed U.S. signals, Gen. John Hyten, head of the Air Force Space Command replied, “I don’t really know. My guess is zero.”

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Afghanistan, Europe, FPIF Blogs, Military, Year Awards

Spain Says “No” to Austerity

Spain Says “No”

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 23, 2016

 

For the third time in a year, the tight-fisted, austerity policies of the European Union (EU) took a beating, as Spanish voters crushed their rightwing government and overturned four decades of two-party reign. Following in the footsteps of Greek and Portuguese voters earlier this year, Spaniards soundly rejected the economic formula of the Troika—the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund—that has impoverished millions of people and driven the jobless rate to almost a quarter of the country.

 

Greece’s leftist prime minister, Alex Tsipras said “Austerity has been politically defeated in Spain,” and that the election was a sign “that Europe was changing.” Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi said, “As already happened in Greece and Portugal, governments which apply rigid austerity measures…are destined to lose their majorities.”

 

The big loser in the Spanish elections was the rightwing Popular Party (PP) that lost 63 seats and its majority in the 350-member parliament. The PP won more votes than any other single party, but its support fell from 44 percent in the 2011 elections to 28.7 percent. While PP Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy ran on a platform that the Spanish economy had recovered from its disastrous plummet following the 2007-08 worldwide financial crisis, voters were not buying.

 

The economy is indeed growing—3.1 percent this year and projections for 2.7 percent in 2016—but after four years it has yet to reach pre-crisis levels. Unemployment has remained at 21 percent nationwide and more than double that figure among youth and in Spain’s battered south.

 

Besides delivering a decisive “no” to austerity, Spaniards also turned out the two-party system that has dominated Spain since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. For 40 years the PP and Socialists Workers Party (PSOE) have taken turns running the country, racking up a track record of corruption and malfeasance. The Socialists also took a drubbing, albeit less so than the PP. PSOE lost 20 seats and fell from 28.8 percent support in 2011 to 22 percent in 2015.

 

The winners were two new parties, the left-wing Podemos (“We Can”) and the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens), although it was former that really won the day.

 

In pre-election polls the Citizens party was projected to become the second largest party, but voters clearly decided that its free market economic strategies and backward positions on abortion and immigration made it look like PP-lite. Ciudadanos was supposed to win upwards of 25 percent. Instead it took less than 14 percent of the vote, although that translates into 40 seats.

 

For months the Spanish and European media have been filled with stories on Podemos’ falling support—one newspaper called it “No Podemos” (“No we can’t”)—and the New York Times essentially anointed Ciudadanos as the new up and comer. Voters had a different idea and gave the left party 20.6 percent of the vote and 69 seats in the parliament.

 

Spain’s political system is heavily weighted toward rural areas, where both the PP and the Socialists are strong. In Madrid, a candidate needs more than 128,000 votes to be elected. In a rural area that figure can be only a little over 38,000. The difference in votes between the Socialists and Podemos—both won more than five million—was only 341,000, but the Socialists have 90 seats and Podemos has 69.

 

Podemos came out of the 2011 plaza demonstrations by “Los Indignados” fighting against home foreclosures, social inequality, evictions, and massive cuts in support for education and health care. Its membership is mainly urban, although it has made gains in rural areas. Its grassroots organizing experience came in handy it when it needed to turn out votes.

 

Cuidadanos started as a regional party opposed to Catalan independence but, taking a page from Podemos’s book, went national last year.

 

Rajoy says he intends to form a government, but how that would work is not clear. Both Podemos and the Socialists—between them they control 159 seats—have made it clear they intend to fight any attempt by the PP to remain in power. Rajoy could try a coalition with the Citizens Party, but that would only amount to 163 seats, and one needs 176 seats to control the parliament. In any case, Citizens’ leader, Albert Rivera, says he won’t go into an alliance with Rajoy because of the PP’s history of corruption.

 

There are other members of the parliament representing the Basque regions and Catalonia, and Podemos emerged as the strongest party in both regions. However, it will not be easy for a Socialist Party/Podemos alliance to patch together a majority, and it will require navigating the tricky politics of Catalonia.

 

Catalonia, Spain’s richest province has 17 seats in the parliament, all of whom support either greater independence or outright secession. Catalonia became part of Spain after it was conquered by a joint French/Spanish army during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14). It has its own language and culture, which until recently was suppressed by Madrid. In September, 47.7 percent of Catalans voted for independence-leaning candidates, who now control the regional parliament.

 

The Socialists Party and Podemos are both opposed to Catalonian independence, although Podemos believes the issue should be up to the Catalans and supports a referendum on the issue. Ciudadanos is adamantly opposed to Catalan independence.

 

It might be possible to cobble together a government from the 159 seats that the Socialists and Podemos control with the 28 other seats representing Basques, Catalans, Canary Islanders, plus other leftish groups. While such a government looks fragile, it might be better than trying to forge a three-way alliance of Socialists, Podemos and Ciudadanos.

 

The latter party is opposed to government regulation, supports privatization of publically owned assets and, at its core, is socially conservative. The left, on the other hand, wants a strong role for government and is firmly opposed to privatization. And the election, says Socialist Party leader Pedro Sanchez, shows Spain wants “a move to the left.”

 

On January 13, King Felipe VI will most likely offer Rajoy the first shot at forming a government. If he does, it will be a short-lived minority one. Last month the right-wing Portuguese president appointed a minority rightist government, which only lasted a week. The Portuguese left is currently hammering together a three-way alliance that will run the country.

 

If Rajoy fails, and the Socialists can’t cobble something together, then there will have to be new elections. However, the left has the best chance of pulling a coalition together.

Whatever happens, the old two-party system is broken. Before this election, the two major parties controlled 75 percent to 85 percent of the votes. In this last election that fell to just over 50 percent. And that, as Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias says, means, “Spain is not going to be the same, and we are happy.”

 

The next hurtle is the EU. But while the Troika could beat up on Greece, Spain, with the fifth largest economy in the EU, is altogether another matter. The game is changing, and Spain is a new piece on the board, one that the Troika will not be able to bully quite as easily as Greece and Portugal.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Europe

End To Right’s Reign In Spain?

An End To Right’s Reign In Spain?

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 12, 2015

 

 

“Volatile” seems to be the adjective of choice for pollsters going into the Dec. 20 Spanish elections, a balloting that will likely not only change the face of politics in the European Union’s (EU) fifth largest economy, but one that will have reverberations throughout the 28-nation organization. Long dominated by two parties—the rightwing People’s Party (PP) and the center-left Socialist Workers Party—the political landscape has atomized over the past two years. “For the first time in general elections in Spain,” says Manuel Mostaza Barros of Sigma Dos poll, “We have four parties polling above 15 percent when it comes to voter intentions.”

 

What levers those voters pull is very much up for grabs. Polls indicate that 41 percent of the electorate has yet to make up their minds. But whatever party ends up on top, it will have to go into a coalition, thus ending the reign of the two-party system that has dominated the country since the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

 

The latest polls indicate that the rightwing PP will take a beating, dropping from the 44 percent that it won four years ago to around 28 percent, but it will still win the largest number of votes of any one party. Behind the PP are the Socialists, with close to 21 percent, followed by the center-right Ciudadanos Party at 19 percent, and the left-wing Podemos Party at 15.7 percent.

 

However, with a chunk of the voters yet to make up their minds, “These are the most volatile elections of recent years,” says pollster Mostanza. Pablo Iglesias of Podemos says, “We’re expecting a bumpy ride with political turbulence.”

 

Spain is just beginning to emerge from five years of draconian austerity that drove the national jobless rate to 27 percent, and above 50 percent in the country’s south and among its young people. While growth has finally returned, unemployment is still 22 percent, and far higher for those under 35. The gap between rich and poor has sharply widened, and many workers have lost their modest state support, because they have been jobless for more than two years.

 

The PP’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has been campaigning on a program of ‘stay the course because things are improving.’ The Party’s slogan is “Espana, en serio” (“Spain, seriously”). Opponents have added a question mark to the end of that sentence.

 

It is true that Spain’s economy is growing—3.1 percent in 2015, and projections for 2.7 percent in 2016—but the austerity program had little to do with that turnaround. The fall in the euro’s value has lifted Spain’s export industries, and the precipitous drop of world oil prices—from $114 in 2014 to $35 today—are the major reasons Spain has clawed its way out of recession.

 

Spain’s woes began with the American banking crisis of 2007-08, which crashed Spain’s vast real estate bubble and threatened to bring down its financial system. At the time, Spain had a budget surplus and a modest debt, but speculators drove borrowing rates so high that the country found itself on the edge of default.

 

The Socialists were in power at the time and accepted a “bailout” from the “Troika”—the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund. The term “bailout” is a misnomer, since most of the money went to the speculators: German, Dutch, French and English banks. And the “price” the Troika demanded in return was a savage austerity regime that threw Spain into a five year recession, impoverishing millions of its citizen, and driving the jobless rate to over a quarter of the country.

 

However, the Spanish did not go quietly into that good night. Starting in 2011, hundreds of thousands of “indignatos” occupied the plazas of Spain’s great cities, a massive outpouring of rage that eventually led to the formation of Podemos—“We can.” The Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S. was an offshoot of the plaza demonstrations.

 

Podemos shocked the country in 2012 by winning 8 percent of the vote in the European parliamentary elections and eventually polling as high as 24 percent, making it the second largest party in the country. Since then its poll numbers have fallen for a variety of reasons, but it is still likely to win close to 50 seats in the 350-member parliament.

 

There are a number of complicating factors in the upcoming elections, some national, some regional, particularly in the case of Spain’s wealthiest province, Catalonia.

 

The Spanish newspapers and the international media are harping on Podemos’ declining support—some have been hard pressed to dampen their obvious glee—but the 27 percent was always a soft number. Indeed, Podemos activists charge that the figures were deliberately inflated so that when later polls reflected a decline in support, the media could claim that the left party was “out of steam.”

 

The mass media—dominated by Spain’s elites—have been relentless in their attacks, and Podemos, the most resource-poor of the four major parties, has struggled it get its message out. But the party is a grassroots organization, and it knows how to get out the vote. Plus, in last May’s regional elections Podemos-allied candidates were elected mayor in Madrid, Barcelona, Cadiz, Zaragoza and several other cities.

 

Ciudadanos is the wildcard in this election. Originally a Catalan-based party formed to oppose the push for Catalonian independence, it now has a national profile. It is also anti-abortion and anti-immigrant, and its economic policies are closer to the PP than the Socialists, let alone Podemos. It is, however, deeply critical of the PP’s corruption, and generally supports the kind of constitutional changes favored by the more left forces.

 

The Party’s telegenic leader, Albert Rivera, is hard to pin down on anything but Catalonia and taxes: he opposes independence and he wants to cut business taxes. Whether voters will be attracted to the party’s vague centralism remains to be seen.

 

Catalonia is another wildcard. In the Sept. 27 regional election, the pro-independence parties took 47.7 percent of the vote and 72 of the 135 seats in the regional parliament. While pro-independence parties hailed it as a major victory, the PP government in Madrid called it a defeat for the breakaway movement because the independence parties drew less than 50 percent of the voters.

 

Catalonia was conquered by a joint French and Spanish army during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14) and has never quite reconciled itself to rule by Madrid.

 

Podemos took some losses in the Sept. 27 vote, largely because they are caught in the middle. The Party does not want Catalonia to breakaway from Spain, but it also supports the right of the Catalans to hold a referendum to decide the matter. Standing on the sidelines is not a successful formula in polarized Catalonia.

 

Just as it did in the Greek and Portuguese elections, the EU has waded into the Spanish elections. Brussels has showered the PP government with praise, and the Troika has eased up on its austerity demands, allowing the PP to put forth modest spending increases for education and social services. The EU has also warned Catalans that if they break free from Spain, they cannot assume they will be able to maintain their membership in the organization. Similar threats were aimed at Scotland when it was considering breaking free from Great Britain.

 

The EU and the PP have also warned Spaniards that if they don’t support the PP’s economic program, they could end up like Greece. That line of argument didn’t work in last month’s elections in Portugal, where a coalition of center-left forces has taken control despite a massive media campaign warning the Portuguese that failure to support the rightwing government’s austerity policies would lead to ruin and damnation. Images of Greek pensioners lined up at banks flooded television ads.

 

 

But Portugal has now become a model for a center-left takeover. Initially the rightwing coalition claimed that, because it received the largest number of votes, it should continue to rule. The rightwing Portuguese president agreed and re-appointed the old government, a maneuver that lasted a little more than a week, when they were voted out of office by the progressive coalition.

 

The PP’s Rajoy supported the position of the rightist Portuguese government even though it had received only 38 percent of the vote. The final outcome in Lisbon may be a re-run of Portugal: Rajoy gets the most votes of any single party, but not enough to rule.

 

The difference in Spain is Ciudadanos. The Spanish party is much more conservative than the center-left Socialist Party in Portugal, and there is a possibility that it could go into coalition with the PP. That would give a center right government a majority in the parliament.

 

Ciudadanos leaders are coy about their intentions and also a little wary of being swallowed up by the more conservative Popular Party. When the English Liberal Party made a decision to join with the Conservatives, voters punished them in the next election go-around. Ciudadanos leaders are concerned that the same thing could happen to them.

 

Whatever the outcome, nothing is going to be quite the same in Spain after Dec. 20. The rightwing will almost certainly lose its majority, and that, in turn, will crimp Rajoy’s efforts to intimidate the media and criminalize mass demonstrations through the Citizens Security Law that the PP rammed through Parliament. It will also mean a setback for the policies of the Troika. And one hopes, an antidote to the growing strength of racist and xenophobic forces in Europe.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Europe, FPIF Blogs

Portugal: The Left Takes Charge

Portugal: The Left Takes Charge

Dispatches From the Edge

Nov. 25, 2015

 

 

After several weeks of political brinkmanship, Portugal’s rightwing president, Anibal Cavaco Silva, finally backed off from his refusal to appoint the leader of a victorious left coalition as prime minister and accept the outcome of the Oct. 4 national elections. Silva’s stand down has ushered in an interesting coalition that may have continent-wide ramifications.

 

Portugal’s elections saw three left parties—the Socialist Party, the Left Bloc, and the Communist/Green Alliance take 62 percent of the vote and end the rightwing Forward Portugal Party’s majority in the 230-seat parliament. Forward Portugal is made up of the Social Democratic Party and the Popular Party.

 

Even though Forward Portugal lost the election—it emerged the largest party, but garnered only 38 percent of the votes—Silva allowed its leader, former Prime Minister Passos Coelho, to form a government. That maneuver lasted just 11 days. When Coelho introduced a budget loaded with austerity measures and privatization schemes, the left alliance voted it down, forcing the government to resign.

 

Rather than giving the left alliance a chance to form a government, however, Silva—a former leader of the Social Democrats—insisted that the alliance pledge in writing that it would maintain the country’s role in NATO and commit itself to euro zone financial rules. Portugal is a member of the 19-country euro zone, those countries in the 28-member European Union that use the euro as a common currency.

 

Silva’s threat was real. While the president’s term only runs until January, the constitution requires a six-month delay between the appointment of a new president and fresh elections. It would have been eight months before the left alliance could take power and roll back some of the more onerous austerity measures that Forward Portugal had installed.

 

In the face of growing outrage and a threatened general strike, however, Silva finally asked Socialist Party leader Antonio Costa to form a government.

 

Portugal is the victim of the great 2008 international banking crisis. At the time, Portugal’s debt was small and its public spending modest, but speculators drove up the price of borrowing beyond what the country’s small economy could manage. Through no fault of its own, Portugal suddenly found itself on the edge of bankruptcy.

 

In 2011, the “Troika”—the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund—lent Portugal $83 billion, but in exchange instituted an austerity regime that raised taxes, slashed education and medical care, cut wages and pensions, and drove 20 percent of the population below the poverty line. The crisis forced almost half a million young people to emigrate, and Portugal ended up with one of the highest income disparities in Europe.

 

The left alliance government is unprecedented in Portugal, where the Communists and the Socialists have locked horns since the 1974 Carnation Revolution overthrew the 48-year old dictatorship. But four years of austerity have apparently convinced everyone on the left that there needs to be some immediate relief.

 

The Communists and the Left Bloc have agreed to temporarily shelve their demands to exit NATO and the euro zone, and the Socialists have agreed to roll back austerity measures, cut taxes, and raise pensions and wages. Privatization will be on hold.

 

There are still major differences within the alliance, however, and not just over dumping the euro and getting out of NATO. The Communists and Left Bloc want debt reduction because much of the country’s encumbrances are the result of private speculators, not profligate public spending. The Socialists did not mention debt reduction during the election and, at least for now, seem committed to repaying all debts.

 

However, the new government is pledged to loosen austerity’s grip and to challenge the Troika’s tight-fisted formula for economic recovery with one based on economic stimulus. If successful, that could model a new strategy for the rest of Europe, where, in spite of years of austerity, economies are still sluggish or in recession.

 

Even in countries that show growth, the rate is relative. Spain, for instance, is growing at a respectable 3 percent, but unemployment is over 20 percent—close to 50 percent for young people—and its gross domestic product has still not reached pre-2008 levels. Wages have declined in nine out of 14 quarters. According to Simon Tilford of the Center for European Reform, Spain’s recovery is not due to austerity, but rather, to low interest rates, the declining value of the euro, and a worldwide fall in oil prices.

 

Certainly the new Portuguese government will not be welcomed by Madrid, where the declining popularity of the rightwing Popular Party’s threatens its control of the Spanish Parliament. It is not unlikely that the Dec. 20 elections in Spain will produce a very similar outcome to Portugal’s: the Popular Party will lose its majority to the center-left Socialist Party and the left Podemos Party. Whether that will result in the kind of coalition that Portugal’s left has stitched together is not clear, in part because the centrist Citizen’s Party is a bit of a wild card and there are complex politics around Catalan independence.

 

However, even if the smaller Spanish parties cannot unite a’ la Portugal, they will put the brakes on the Popular Party’s austerity policies and its push to muzzle the media and curtail mass demonstrations.

 

The Portuguese model may end up having an influence on the rest of the European left, where conversations are going on about how to begin moving the continent away from the policies of the Troika. There are at least two major currents now engaging the left, the so-called “Plan A” and “Plan B.”

 

Plan A—supported by the United European Left/Nordic Green Alliance, the group representing the left parties in the European parliament—calls for democratizing the European Union and the European Central Bank, taxing the rich, raising wages, funding social services, and creating jobs through public investment. Plan A is backed by Spain’s Podemos, Greece’s Syriza, and Germany’s Die Linke (Left Party).

 

Plan B was launched Sept. 11 by five key figures in the European left—Oskar Lafontaine, a former leader of Die Linke, Italian parliamentary deputy Stefano Fassina, Jean-Luc Melenchon of France’s Left Party, and two former Syriza leaders, Zoe Kostntopoulou and Yanis Varoufakis. Plan B is somewhat more nebulous than Plan A, and not everyone who advocates it is on the same page. While it doesn’t contradict Plan A, most of its advocates are not sure the EU is really reformable.

 

According to Liam Flenady of Green Left Weekly, the September call “remains intentionally open to what this Plan B could look like.” For one thing, it comes off sounding a little wonky: “Parallel payment systems, parallel currencies, digitization of euro transactions, community based exchange systems…euro exit and transformation of the euro into a common currency.”

 

Not all of the five left figures are in agreement. Varoufakis, Greece’s former finance minister, is for staying with the euro, while the Italian Fassina is not. No one openly attacks Syriza, but most supported Popular Unity, the anti-euro split from Syriza that failed to win any seats in the last Greek election.

 

A Plan B summit is set for the end of the year.

 

The disagreements between—and within—the plans reflect the enormous complexity of the task facing Europe’s left, including how to present a united front while still searching for solutions that are not obvious. Is trying to democratize the euro zone like teaching a pig to whistle: can’t be done and annoys the pig? Can a country withdraw from a common currency zone without the Troika destroying its economy? Do countries within the euro zone have the right to experiment with different economic strategies?

 

Greece was forced to swallow the Troika’s medicine, in part because Syriza assumed that the Troika was essentially rational and actually interested in resolving the crisis. It was not, because the Troika saw Syriza’s resistance as the precursor to a continent-wide movement against its austerity policies.

 

Portugal is charting a somewhat different path than Syriza. Instead of head-on confrontation, the left is trying to maneuver while strengthening its base by improving people’s lives. Disagreements will eventually surface—hardly an unhealthy thing—but the Portuguese alliance has decided to kick that can down the road.

 

On Nov. 20, the Portuguese united left used its majority to approve a law allowing same sex couples to legally adopt children and permit lesbians to obtain medically assisted fertilization. That little act hardly shakes the foundation of the EU, and one doubts it caused the Troika to tremble. But suddenly Portugal is a little bit kinder place than it was a month ago.

 

Small things can lead to big things.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Europe, FPIF Blogs

Portugal and Europe’s Democracy Crisis

Portugal’s Democracy Crisis

Dispatches From The Edge

Nov. 5, 2015

 

Within a week, Europe will face one of the most serious challenges to democracy it has seen in many decades. On Nov. 10 Portugal’s minority rightwing government will likely lose a vote of confidence, initiating a series of events that will determine whether voters in the European Union (EU) still have the right to a government of their own choosing.

 

The crisis was set off by the Oct. 4 elections that saw the rightwing Forward Portugal coalition, which has overseen austerity policies that have driven 20 percent of the population below the poverty line, lose its majority in the parliament to three parties on the left, the Socialist Party, the Left Bloc, and a Communist/Green alliance.

 

Forward Portugal, an alliance of the Social Democratic Party and the Popular Party, lost 28 seats in the election, dropping from 135 seats to 107. The left parties, meanwhile,won over 50 percent of the vote and picked up 25 seats, for a total of 122. An animal rights party won 1 seat.

 

The Portuguese parliament has 230 seats. A majority is 116 seats.

 

Instead of asking the left if it could form a government, however, on Oct. 23, Portuguese president Cavaco Silva—a former prime minister for the Social Democratic Party—reappointed the rightwing alliance’s leader, Pedro Coelho as prime minister.

 

Silva went further, however, delivering an incendiary speech in which he declared that he would never appoint “anti-European forces” to run the government, and denouncing parties on the left for opposing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the common currency, the euro.

 

“It is my duty, within the constitutional powers, to do everything possible to prevent false signals being sent to financial institutions, investors and markets,” he concluded.

 

The speech has set off a firestorm in Portugal, one that is reverberating throughout the EU. It is one thing for the EU and its financial enforcer, the Troika—the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund—to exert pressure on a country from the outside. It has done exactly that in Greece. It is quite another to say that a particular political or economic program is beyond the pale.

 

Portugal’s austerity program, originally introduced by the Socialist Party, has impoverished the country and driven half a million young people emigrate. Unemployment, while down from its height of 17 percent, is still at 12 percent, and over 31 percent for youth. One out five in the population is below the poverty line of $5,589 a year, and Portugal has one of the highest in income inequality in the EU. The average household income has fallen 8.9 percent since 2009. Exhausted by austerity, Portugal’s voters turned against the rightwing government and turned it into a minority.

 

In what is an historic development—one commentator called it a “Berlin Wall moment”—the three left parties put aside their differences and agreed to form a united front government.

 

While all the left parties opposed austerity—the Socialist Party having finally seen the light— they differed on many other issues. The Left Bloc and the Communist Green alliance opposes Portugal’s membership in NATO and wanted the country to get out of the Eurozone, the group of 19 countries in the 28-member EU that use the euro.

 

The euro is a controversial issue. It has been a boon for Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, and to the large banks that dominate European finance. But it has had a generally negative impact on many other countries, particularly those in the distressed south—Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal. Since Ireland is also in this same the problems are economic, not geographical.

 

As far as NATO goes, there are a number of political organizations that argue the old Cold War alliance should be retired and that NATO does more to raise tensions on the continent that it does protect its members.

 

In any case, opposition to NATO and the euro are hardly opinions that should bar one from government, but that is exactly what the Portuguese president has done.

 

He has received support for his position as well. Joseph Daul, president of the center-right grouping in the European Parliament, said, “The sacrifices made by the people of Portugal must not be jeopardized by a government composed of anti-EU and anti-NATO parties.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said an anti-austerity government in Portugal would be a “very negative” development.

 

Some of the comments have an Alice in Wonderland quality to them. Coelho said, “It’s time to say loud and clear that the Socialist Party lost the elections…we’re not going to stand the elections results on their head.” He was joined by the rightwing Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, who warned, “coalitions of losers want to join forces to do away with moderate majorities in our societies, to attain through deals what they didn’t achieve at the ballot box.”

 

But as the Socialist Party grouping in the European Parliament pointed out in a statement, “Portuguese voters were very clear in the last general election with a strong majority (62 percent) against the austerity policies of the last four years.”

 

Rajoy, of course, has his own problems. His rightwing People’s Party will probably lose its majority to the Socialist Party and the leftwing Podemos Party in Spain’s upcoming Dec. 20 elections, but it still may be the single largest vote getter. He wants to stay in power and the Portugal maneuver gives him a strategy for doing just that.

 

What clearly surprised the Portuguese right is that the left could agree to work together. The Socialist Party has long been at loggerheads with the Communists, who accuse it of being too much like the rightwing Social Democratic Party. Indeed, the fact that the Socialists did not win the election outright is in part due to the fact that voters are still angry with the party for introducing the austerity policies in the first place.

 

But the dramatic gains for the Left Bloc—it is now the third largest in the parliament, ahead of the Communist/Green alliance—clearly convinced the left that it should find issues to agree on. After several meetings, the Left Bloc and the Communist/Greens agreed to temporarily shelve the euro and NATO issues, and the Socialists pledged to end austerity.

 

There are still major questions to iron out. The Left Bloc and the Communist/Greens want to challenge Portugal’s staggering debt—they have a solid basis for claiming that much of it is illegitimate—while the Socialists have been silent on the subject. Eventually the euro, NATO, and the debt will be on the table, but such disagreements are hardly unique to Portugal. There is virtually no government in Europe without ideological divisions.

 

In any case, despite their differences, the left parties are on the same wavelength as the majority of Portuguese voters: no more austerity.

 

If the Portuguese president refuses to allow the left to form a government and Portugal Forward is defeated in the Nov. 10 vote, Silva can appoint Coelho to run a caretaker government and call for new elections. But those won’t be for eight months. Silva’s presidency runs out in January, and new elections can’t be held for six months following the appointment of a new president.

 

The left has the votes to insure a president compatible with the will of the voters—they have already overridden the right’s candidate for Speaker of the House and put their own candidate in—but there will still be six months before the next election. Eight months is enough time for a rightwing caretaker government and its backers in the EU and the Troika to do considerable mischief. Greece has felt the power of the Troika and seen what it can do to undermine opposition to its policies.

 

During the recent Greek crisis, German finance minister Wolfgang Schaueble made it clear that what Greek voters wanted was irrelevant. Greece would bow to the Troika or the Troika would strangle the Greek economy, period. In essence, national governments should restrict themselves to things like what color park benches should be painted—provided the paint is affordable.

 

If this “soft coup” stands, taxes, interest rates, public ownership, investments, and economic strategies to control inflation and unemployment—long the battleground for conflicting ideologies—will no longer be issues to be decided democratically. Unelected bodies, like the Troika, will make those decisions, in spite of the fact that many of the Troika’s policies—like austerity—are highly controversial and have an almost unbroken track record of failure.

 

Democracy is what is at stake in Portugal, and it is a crisis that cuts to the heart of the European Union experiment. Do people still have the right to make decisions about policies that have a profound impact on their lives? Or do they only get to quarrel about the color of park benches?

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Europe

The Price Of Turkey’s Election

Turkish Elections

Dispatches From The Edge

Nov. 2, 2015

 

If there is a lesson to be drawn from the Nov. 1 Turkish elections, it is that fear works, and there are few people better at engendering it than Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Only five months after the Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority in the Turkish parliament, a snap election put it back in the driver’s seat.

 

The cost of the victory, however, may be dear, because, to achieve it, Erdogan reignited Turkey’s long and bloody war with the Kurds, stood silent while mobs of nationalists attacked his opponents, and unilaterally altered the constitutional role of his office.

 

Observers from the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said that violence and attacks on the media had a significant impact on the election. “Unfortunately we come to the conclusion that this campaign was unfair, and was characterized by too much violence and fear,” said Andreas Gross, a Swiss parliamentarian and head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe delegation,

 

At the same time the European Union (EU) seemed to favor an AKP victory. The EU Commission held off a report critical of Turkish democracy until after the vote. Two weeks before the election German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Turkey bearing $3.3 billion in aid for Syrian refugees and an offer for Turkey to revive its efforts to get into the EU. Previously, Merkel had been opposed to Turkish membership in the EU.

 

The finally tally is almost everything Erdogan wanted, although he fell short of his dream of a supermajority that would let him change the nature of the Turkish political system from a parliamentary government to one ruled by a powerful and centralized executive—himself.

 

There are 550 seats in the Turkish parliament. The AKP took 49.4 percent of the vote and won 317 seats, an increase of 64 over the June election. While 276 seats is a majority, what Erdogan wanted was a supermajority of 367 seats that would allow him to change the constitution without involving the electorate. He did not achieve this.

 

The secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) picked up two seats over the June election for a total of 134 seats. The Kurdish-dominated leftwing People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which scored an historic 13.1 percent of the vote and 80 seats in the June election, managed to squeak by with 10.7% of the vote and 61 seats. If it had failed to pass the 10 Percent barrier for parliamentary representation, most of those seats would have gone to the AKP, possibly giving Erdogan’s party the supermajority it craved.

 

Indeed, it was a statement of the HDP’s resilience that despite the violence directed at the party and the arrest of many HDP activists, the organizations still managed to clear the 10 percent bar for representation in the parliament. The HDP announced that it planned to challenge several seats that the party says involved fraud.

 

The rightwing Nationalist Action Party (HDP) dropped 31 seats, falling to fourth place with only 40 seats. It would appear that most of their voters jumped to the AKP.

 

Erdogan set out to change the Turkish constitution back in 2007 and has pushed to reconstruct the country’s politics ever since. However, the AKP has never had 330 votes in the parliament, the number needed to place a referendum before the voters. Erdogan did not get that magic number this time either, but he is close and may be able to pry a dozen or so voters from the ranks of the rightwing nationalists and get his referendum.

 

The AKP won almost five million more votes than it did last June. Voter turnout was over 86 percent.

 

A referendum is a disquieting thought. Erdogan is a relentless campaigner, and opponents are worried that, while most Turks do not show much enthusiasm for his constitutional changes, scare tactics, repression, and money will push such a referendum through. Pre-election polls predicted that the AKP would get about the same number of votes in November that it got in June. They were dead wrong. Erdogan’s formidable political skills and his willingness to polarize the country are not to be underestimated.

 

While the AKP now has a majority, it is at the expense of re-igniting the war with the Kurds, a conflict that has cost Turkey $1.2 trillion and some 40,000 lives. It has also seen an almost unprecedented wave of attacks on the Kurdish party, its supporters, and the press.

 

Four days before the Nov. 1 election, police raided the offices of Ipek Media, closing down two newspapers and two TV stations. The news outlets have been handed over to a government trustee who is investigating them for “supporting terrorism.” Ipek Media is closely associated with Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher currently living in exile in the U.S. Gulen and Erdogan were formerly allies, but had a falling out in 2012.

 

Erdogan has also gone after several other media outlets, including the Dogan Group, which owns Turkey’ popular daily, Hurriyet, and CNNTurk. Both outlets have interviewed politicians from the HDP, which the President charges is a front for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). The PKK is designated a terrorist organization and the target of Turkey’s current war on the Kurds.

 

While there is a relationship between the PKK and the HDP, the latter has sharply condemned the violence of the former and has a far broader base among Kurds and non-Kurds. Apparently some of the conservative religious Kurds, who voted for the HDP in June, were spooked by the violence and returned to the AKP.

 

Mobs led by the Ottoman Hearths—the youth arm of the AKP—and the Idealist Hearth—youth arm of the rightwing MHP—have burned HDP offices, attacked Kurdish businesses and homes, and attacked leftwing book stores. On Sept. 8 a nationalist mob rioted for seven hours, burning offices and stores in the city of Kirsehir, while police stood by and watched.

 

The chair of a local branch of the HDP, Demet Resuloglu, said she warned police about the mob, but they did nothing. She and several others were temporarily trapped in a bookstore by a mob that set the establishment on fire. “We escaped with our lives after jumping from the second floor. It was an organized affair. Everything happened with the knowledge of the police, the governor and everybody,” she told the news outlet Al-Monitor.

 

Similar attacks took place in the resort towns of Alanya and Manargat.

 

During the election campaign, Turkish Kurds and leftists were the targets of several bombings that took over 130 lives and were almost certainly the work of the Islamic State. But Erdogan and his prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, blamed it on the PKK and tried to tar the HDP with the same brush.

 

Selahattin Demirtas, a leader of the HDP and a member of parliament, is currently being investigated for supporting “terrorism” and insulting the president, Since Erdogan became president in August of last year, more than 240 people have been charged with insulting him.

 

Erdogan is likely to treat the AKP’s victory as endorsement of his campaign to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, even though polls show that 63 percent of Turks disapprove of getting involved in Syria.

 

The war has turned into a disastrous quagmire, and the Europeans and the Russians are pushing for a political settlement. Erdogan—a man with a stubborn streak—will probably insist that Assad first must go, a formula that will endear him to the Gulf monarchies, but will almost certainly keep the war going. Turkey is already hosting 2 million Syrian refugees and millions more are headed toward Europe.

 

The Turkish president has unilaterally redefined the office of the president from one of neutrality to partisan activist. Rather than trying to form a coalition government after last June’s election—a major part of the president’s job—Erdogan sabotaged every effort to compromise, banking he could stir up the furies of sectarianism and fear to create the climate for a comeback. While the AKP is wealthy, parties like the HDP were tapped out by the June election and could not marshal the resources for another national campaign. In the last weeks of the election the HDP canceled rallies, fearing they would be attacked by rightwing mobs or create targets for Islamic State bombers.

 

Erdogan created chaos and then told voters the AKP was the only path to peace and stability. It was an argument a lot of voters bought, but the costs are high. The press has been muzzled, a war that was over has been re-started, and Turks and Kurds are once more at each other’s throats. The war in Syria is likely to drag on, and the polarization of Turkish society will deepen.

 

But the AKP has only a slim majority, and the peace and stability it promises is an illusion. As the British Guardian noted, “President Erdogan has got his majority back, but Turkey has been damaged in the process…Sadly, this election is unlikely to mark a passage into calm waters for Turkey.”

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Europe, Middle East, Syria

Portugal: European Left Batting 1,000

Portugal: Europe’s Left Batting 1000

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 7, 2015

 

In spite of a well-financed scare campaign, and a not very subtle effort by the European Union (EU) to load the dice in the Oct. 4 Portuguese elections, the ruling rightwing Forward Portugal coalition lost its majority in the parliament, Left parties garnered more than 50 percent of the vote, and the austerity policies that have paralyzed the country for four years took a major hit.

 

Along with last month’s Greek election, it was two in a row for the European Left.

 

While most the mainstream media touted the election as a victory for Prime Minister Passos Coelho’s Social Democratic Party/Popular Party coalition, the rightist alliance dropped from 50.4 percent in the 2011 election to 38.4 percent, losing 28 seats. In contrast, the center-left Socialist Party picked up 11 seats, the Communist/Green alliance 1 seat, and the Left Bloc 13 seats. All in all, the Left went from 40 percent of the vote in 2011 to a little over 50 percent in 2015.

 

There are still four seats to be determined by the votes of expatriates, but even if all four went to Forward Portugal, it would still be short of a majority. And given that a flood of young, mostly professional, Portuguese fled the austerity regime inflicted on the country by the “Troika”—the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Commission—those votes may well end up in the Left’s column.

 

The parliament has 230 seats. The Right now controls 104 and the left 121. A majority is 116 seats.

 

The surprise in the election was that the Left Bloc more than doubled its representation in spite of the fact that there were three Left parties vying for voters.

 

The Right ran endless images of poor Greek pensioners lining up at banks, and warned voters that voting for the Left could result in the kinds draconian measures the EU took out on Greece, but the scare tactics didn’t work.

 

The Troika also eased up on Portugal prior to the election, exactly the opposite approach it took in Greece, even though Portugal’s debt is still high and its growth is anemic—1.6 percent this year. Unemployment has come down from a high of 17 percent, but it is still 12 percent, and over 30 percent among youth—those that haven’t emigrated. Out of a population of 10.4 million, some 485,000 young people emigrated from 2011 to 2014.

 

In what one leftwing party member told the Financial Times was an “unseemly interference” in the election, Standard & Poor’s upgraded Portugal’s credit rating just two weeks before the election. S&P has long been accused of politicizing its credit ratings.

 

Forward Portugal is already backing away from some of its more bombastic attacks on the Left, and Coelho says his coalition would enter into “necessary agreements” with the Socialists in the future. Most commentators think the new parliamentary alignment is too unstable to last long.

 

The question now is, can the Left unite to roll back the four years of austerity that has impoverished the country? One in five Portuguese are below the poverty line of $5,589 income a year, and the minimum wage is $584 a month. Portugal has one of the greatest income disparities in Europe—the top 20 percent earn six times more than the bottom 20 percent—and education levels are among the lowest in the EU.

 

But much of the Left is not on the same page. Indeed, it did surprising well in the election considering its message was hardly consistent.

 

The Socialist Party is still saddled with the fact that it instituted the austerity policies in 2011 when financial speculators in the rest of Europe drove up interest rates on borrowing. Contrary to the Right’s charge, the debt was due to financial speculation, not spending. The Socialists also had a corruption problem, so voters turned to the Right in the 2011 election.

 

With an absolute majority in the parliament, the rightist alliance slashed wages, cut back pensions, privatized public property and raised taxes. One of the few checks on the slash-and-burn assault was the Portuguese Constitutional Court, which blocked some of the more onerous austerity measures.

 

In this election the Socialists ran against the austerity policies, but the message voters got was mixed: roll back austerity, but abide by EU rules. However, given that it was the EU rules that brought on the austerity, it was a message that voters found hard to decipher. The Socialists were also silent on the debt, a large part of which is of a questionable nature.

 

A study by the Committee for a Citizen’s Audit on the Public Debt found that most debt was not due to government spending, but massive tax cuts and rising interest rates. The Committee concluded that as much as 50 percent to 60 percent of most countries debts were “illegitimate.”

 

The Left Bloc—which is close to Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s anti-austerity Podemos Party—not only opposed the austerity, it demanded debt reduction. Indeed, without debt reduction—a so-called “haircut”—it is unlikely that small countries, like Greece, Portugal or Ireland, can ever emerge from their current economic crises. After years of austerity, Portugal’s debt is still among the highest in Europe.

 

The Communist/Green alliance did marginally better than 2011, although the Left Bloc passed if for the first time. The Communist Party has a strong reservoir of respect in Portugal because of its long resistance to the 48-year military dictatorship. It has been a consistent opponent of the austerity policies, but so far it has shown little interest in working with the Socialists, which its leaders say is Forward Portugal light. The Party calls for an exit from the Eurozone, the 19 countries in the 28-member European Union that use the Euro. While some on the Left also want to leave the Eurozone, the Socialist Party is committed to the common currency.

 

However, there is agreement scross the Left around privatizations and cuts, and that the crisis in housing, education, and daily life—including food and medical care—has to be addressed. Without a majority, the Right will have to back away from more austerity and plans to privatize some schools and public pensions.

 

Does this election have reverberations outside of Portugal? The Wall Street Journal’s headline on the outcome was that it was “a cause for concern” for Spain’s rightwing government, which goes before the voters in about 10 weeks.

 

But if there is one thing that the recent election in Greece made obvious, it is that small countries cannot take on the power of the EU by themselves. The European Union is now the single most powerful alliance of capital on the planet, and it is not a bit shy about crushing anything it sees as a potential threat. However, the Troika’s efforts to scare—and bribe—Portugal failed.

 

So, what is to be done?

 

In the long run, a common currency was a bad idea for everyone but Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and the banks, but a quick exit would be like pulling a spear out of your leg—without careful preparations you are likely to hemorrhage to death. While the ultimate goal should be to move away from the euro, the process may take awhile.

 

One thing the European Union is vulnerable on is democracy. Being in the EU essentially means abandoning sovereignty. The recently signed agreement between the Troika and Greece says that the former can veto any policy it does not agree with, including anti-corruption legislation aimed at tax scofflaws. Essentially, democracy has become dispensible.

 

Syriza and the Portuguese Left successfully made this an issue in their campaigns, and it has great potential to become a pan-European issue. At the same time, there is potential danger with the issue of sovereignty, and the Left must clearly distinguish itself from the xenophobic European Right’s opportunistic adoption of the issue.

 

Ronan Burtenshaw, vice-chair of the Irish Congress of Trade Union Youth Committee and Coordinator of the Greek Solidarity Committee in Ireland, has proposed that the European Left look to Latin America for a model.

 

Mercosur, the huge Latin American trading block, is the third largest on the planet, but it doesn’t dictate economic policy to its members. The Bolivarian Alliance, ALBA, draws progressive countries into a political and economic union, and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States has replaced the U.S. dominated Organization of American States. The Bank of the South offers development loans without the rigid strictures of the IMF and the World Bank.

 

Latin America is a counter to the European mantra that “there is no alternative” to economic crisis and debt but austerity. Each country in the region developed its own way of turning away from the market-driven, austerity laden “Washington consensus” that blitzed economies from Brasilia to Santiago during the 1980s and ‘90s. And the Left played an important role in establishing continent-wide political and economic connections, specifically in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia.

 

There are, of course, differences. Many in the European Left contrast Argentina’s successful replacement of the dollar with the peso and its refusal to service its debt with Syriza’s acceptance of the Troika’s demands.

 

But Argentina is a big, powerful country, self-sufficient in energy and food. Greece—or Portugal or Ireland—is neither. And while Argentina had support from other countries in the region, Greece stood alone, even from parties like the French Socialists and the German Social Democrats.

 

Somehow the Left will have to chart a perilous passage between resisting austerity on one hand, and not committing suicide on the other—or rather, allowing the Troika to impoverish its base even more than it currently has. How that will happen is hardly clear, but solidarity is its essential ingredient, along with a willingness to work with others.

 

The Left will have to persuade or pressure center-left forces to abandon their romance with the euro and confront the social crisis created by austerity. Social democratic parties should take note that moving to the right does not translate into political power. Syriza smoked the center forces in Greece, and the Left Bloc made the biggest gains in Portugal.

 

To a certain extent, this process is underway with the election of long-time leftist Jeremy Corbyn to head the British Labor Party.

 

In his speech at the Fete de la Rose this past summer, former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, told the Socialist Party gathering that what the Left in Greece had done was to give Europeans “a sense that democracy can change things.” Portugal was another step on that path, with Spain due up in December and Ireland in April.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Europe