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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.

 

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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.

 

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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?

 

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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.

 

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Europe’s Elections: A Coming Storm?

Europe’s Elections: A Coming Storm?

Dispatches From The Edge

Aug. 26, 2015

 

 

Between now and next April, four members of the European Union (EU) will hold national elections that will go a long ways toward determining whether the 28-member organization will continue to follow an economic model that has generated vast wealth for a few, widespread misery for many, and growing income inequality. The choice is between an almost religious focus on the “sin” of debt and the “redemption” of austerity, as opposed to a re-calibration toward economic stimulus and social welfare.

 

The backdrop for elections in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland is one of deep economic crisis originally ignited by the American financial collapse of 2007-08. That meltdown burst real estate bubbles all over Europe—particularly in Spain and Ireland—and economies from the Baltic to the Mediterranean went off the rails. Countries like Ireland, Greece, Spain and Portugal saw their GDPs plummet, their banks implode and their unemployment rates reach levels not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Debt levels went through the ceiling.

 

The response of the EU to the crisis was a carbon copy of the so-called “Washington consensus” that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) applied to indebted Latin American countries during the 1990s: massive cutbacks in government spending, widespread layoffs and double digit tax raises on consumers.

 

Instead of lower debt levels and jumpstarting economies, however, the IMF strictures for Latin America did exactly the opposite. Cutbacks, layoffs, and high taxes impoverished the majority, which in turn tanked economies and raised debt levels. The formula was a catastrophe that Latin America is still digging itself out from.

 

But the strategy was very good for a narrow stratum, led by banks, speculators, and multinational corporations. U.S, British, German, Dutch and French banks helped inflate real estate bubbles by pouring low interest money into building binges. The banks certainly knew they were feeding a bubble—land prices in Spain and Ireland jumped 500 percent.

 

However, as economist Joseph Stiglitz points out, the banks had a trick: their private debts would be paid for by the public. Taxpayers did pick up the tab, but only by borrowing money from the Troika—the IMF, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission—and accepting the same conditions that tanked Latin American in the 1990s. Needless to say, history was replicated on another continent.

 

The upcoming elections will pit the policies of the Troika against anti-austerity movements in Portugal, Greece, Spain and Ireland. If these movements are to succeed, they will first have to confront the mythology that the current economic crisis springs from avaricious pensioners, entitled trade unionists, and free spending bureaucracies, rather than irresponsible speculation by banks and financiers. And they will have to do so in a political arena in which their opponents control virtually all of the mass media.

 

Never have so few controlled so much that informs so many.

 

The election terrain is enormously complex, and, while resistance to austerity gives these movements a common goal, the political geography is different in each country. Plus the Left essentially has to fight on two fronts: one, against the policies of the Troika, and two, against a rising tide of racist, xenophobic and increasingly violent right-wing movements that have opportunistically adopted anti-austerity rhetoric. The openly Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece and the fascist National Front in France may attack the policies of the EU, but their programs have nothing in common with organizations like Greece’s Syriza, Ireland’s Sinn Fein, Spain’s Podemos, or Portugal’s Left Bloc.

 

Size counts in this coming battle. Because Greece makes up only 1.3 percent of the EU’s GDP, the Troika could force Greece to make a choice between, in the words of former Syriza economic minister Yanis Varoufakis, “suicide or execution”—suicide if Syriza accepted another round of austerity, execution of the country’s banks and financial structure if it did not. Because it is small, Greece’s death would scarcely cause a ripple in the EU. A similar situation exists for Ireland and Portugal.

 

But not for Spain. Spain is the 14th largest economy in the world and the fifth largest economy in the EU. Bankrupting it or driving it out of the Eurozone—the 19 countries that use the euro instead of a national currency—would cause more than a ripple, it could sink the entire enterprise. That is why the austerity measures the Troika impressed on Spain were severe, but not as onerous as those inflicted on Ireland, Portugal and Greece.

 

Besides trying to ameliorate the worst aspects of the Troika program, the anti-austerity Left faces an existential question: should their indebted countries remain in the Eurozone, or should they call for withdrawal and a return to national currencies?

 

The Eurozone has been a disaster for most its members, except Germany, and, to a certain extent, Austria and the Netherlands. While the currency is common, there is no shared responsibility for the results of economic unevenness. In the U.S., big economies like California help pay the way for Mississippi, under the assumption that a common interstate market is a good thing and why shouldn’t the wealthier states help the less fortunate? In the Eurozone, it is every man for himself, and if you’re in trouble, talk to the Troika loan sharks.

 

Since the euro is controlled by the European Central Bank—read Germany—countries can’t manipulate their currencies to help get themselves out of trouble the way the U.S., China, Russia, India, Brazil, Great Britain, and others do. A currency union doesn’t work without a political union, and such a union is a bad idea when it puts countries like Germany and Greece on the same playing field. In the end, the big dogs dominate.

 

While the issues throughout the Eurozone may be similar, each country is different. A short scorecard:

 

Greece-Sept. 20

 

Syriza, the leftwing party that won the last election, has split with 25 former Syriza deputies who formed the Popular Union Party and called for full resistance to the Troika’s demands. Despite retreating from his previous opposition to any new austerity, polls show Syriza’s former prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, is popular. The parties that formerly dominated Greece—the right-wing New Democracy and center-left PSAOK—have been badly discredited, and the centrist Potami Party doesn’t have a clear program, except none of the above. The Left should do well, but it will be divided. Division in the face of the Troika is perilous, but this battle is a long way from over, and there are creative ways to resist the Troika without taking it head on. A civil war within the Left, however, could be disastrous.

 

Portugal-Oct. 4

 

The country is currently dominated by the conservative Popular Party/Social Democratic Party coalition that holds 132 seats in the 230-seat assembly. But polls show the opposition is running neck and neck with the Socialists (74 seats), The Socialists put in the austerity program, but have since turned against it. The leftwing United Democratic Coalition (16 seats), an alliance of the Communist Party and the Greens, and the Left Bloc (8 seats), looks like they will pick up deputies. There is a strong possibility that the conservatives will fall, and that the center-left and left opposition will form a coalition government. The Left already controls 98 seats. It will need 116 to form a government.

 

Spain, December, 2015

 

The political situation in Spain is fluid. The rightwing ruling Popular Party is in trouble because of several major corruption scandals and its enthusiastic support for austerity. The Socialist Party has recently increased its popularity but it was the Socialists that instituted the austerity policies. Support for the leftwing anti-austerity Podemos Party appears to have stalled, but it has elected, or helped to elect, the mayors of Madrid, Barcelona, Cadiz and Zaragoza. Unlike Syriza, which is a coalition of left parties, Podemos is a grassroots organization that knows how to get the voters out.

 

There is also the center-right Ciudadanos Party that did well in spring elections, but is anti-immigrant and anti-abortion, and whose economic program is at best opaque.   Those things are not likely to translate into major electoral gains. Whatever happens, Spain is no longer a two party country, and the Left will play a key role in any coalition building to form a government.

 

There is a wildcard in this election: the newly minted Citizens Security Law, which the Popular Party rammed through Parliament and is aimed at suppressing demonstrations, criticism of the government, and free speech. It is clearly aimed at shutting down Podemos.

 

 

Ireland, April 2016

 

“Volatile” is the only way one can describe the Irish Republic, where the polls shift from month to month. The economy is growing, but the Troika’s austerity regime is still raw. Over 100,000 mortgages are under water and since 2008, some 400,00—mostly young professionals—have fled to Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S., inflicting a crippling brain drain on the island.

 

The centrist coalition of Fine Gael and Labor currently rules, but that is likely to change after the election. Polls show Fine Gael at 28 percent, and Labor at 7 percent. At 21 percent, the leftwing, anti-austerity Sinn Fein Party is in the number two post, although its support has fallen off slightly since last year. However, the popularity of its leader, Gerry Adams, has been climbing. Lastly, there is a mix of independent parties, ranging from Greens to socialists, supported by 24 percent of the voters. Most are anti-austerity and potential coalition partners if the ruling parties fall. The conservative Fianna Fail Party is polling about 20 percent.

 

In these upcoming elections, the Left will have to confront the enormous power of the Troika on the one hand, and on the other, deliver services and jobs. It will also have to clearly differentiate itself from the racism of the right on the immigration crisis and challenge the unwillingness of their own governments to find a humane solution to the problem. Since of the bulk of the refugees are generated by the irresponsible policies of countries like France, Britain, Italy and Germany in Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, the Left must clearly link the foreign adventurism of their elites to the flood of people now seeking safety from the storms those elites help generate.

 

None of this will be easy and disunity will make it harder. The Left elsewhere in the world cannot expect small countries like Greece, Portugal and Ireland to take on the power of international capital by themselves. Not since the rise of Nazism has there been such a pressing need for international solidarity. In a very real way, we are all Greeks, Spanish, Portuguese and Irish. These elections are as much about the U.S. as they are about the parties and movements that have decided to resist a species of capitalism that is particularly red of tooth and claw.

 

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