Politics against fear. Notes on an electoral process

The 10.2% Left Block (BE) election score, more than doubling its parliamentary representation, reveals a partial overlap of tactical voting, the other face of depoliticized fear that importantly needs overcoming.

Two main assumptions underpin this brief analysis of the elections in Portugal.
The first affirms that we’ve rarely seen such propaganda effectiveness and benefiting the coalition formed by two parties of an austeritarian government (PSD/CDS-PP). This propaganda efficiency, sustained by erratic messages from the European Commission, covered up the emptiness of their political program and was highly benevolent towards the devastating results of oppressive austerity. That same effectiveness, however, managed to be proportional to the inoffensive strategical weaknesses of the Socialist Party (PS).
The second assumption regards the affirmation of the struggle against austerity as the definition of a clear political stance. It was deployment in this field of battle that enabled the exponential growth in the radical left with impressive parliamentary gains by the Left Block (BE). This also stemmed from its focus on the concrete effects of austerity (unemployment, precariousness, social inequality as well as clear positions regarding both the international situation and the European Union) that generated the electoral success of a political message with Catarina Martins, BE’s spokeswoman, leading the way in terms of activist support, both inside and outside the party.
These two assumptions mutually interconnect in the description of a plot that led the Portuguese scenario into a process of negotiation that will mark the political framework resulting.

The cosmetics of fear

“Listen to what I say/ I’m gonna tell you a secret/ it’s very profitable that the world fears” – These are the words of Capicua, a Portuguese rapper with unconcealed civic concerns. Written years before the recent electoral process, these words encapsulate fear as an instrument of business and profit, therefore opposed to politics, defined as critical and clearheaded. Fear is one of ordoliberalism’s favorite imposed affections – and fear was one of the Right’s main discursive strategies in Portugal. 
Fear served as the folding screen around an empty and imprecise political program in a foggy scenario, backed by indicators pointing to a decrease in the unemployment rate and economic recovery. Such indicators, the result of severe statistical manipulation, contributed to forging a picture threatening some return back to the first stage in the crisis; fear was launched as a curtain shielding any evaluation of a globally disastrous governmental mandate. The austerity government threatens the country with the mirage of even greater austerity simultaneously  this imposes the same actors and the same politics under a coat of effectively concealing make-up. 
At the same time, the PS confronts itself over the hesitation in its own agenda. This proposes the recovery of income through the decapitalization of social security, the freezing of pension plans and labor law flexibilization – oscillating between “European commitments” and austerity relief with a liberal economist as a gate keeper with a financier’s rectitude (almost the materialization of Marx’s ironic “social contradiction in action”) that fails to mobilize anyone. For the first time, however, a considerable proportion of the electorate opted in favour of the BE as a vivid political orientation, consistently structured around the assumption of effective governance. 
The final election results demonstrate how, regarding the desperate argumentation coming from the Right, fear frequently attacks its own instigators. Taking the conclusion to Capicua’s song quoted above, “they fear that we don’t fear anymore”.

Real people with real people

Photo by Paulete Matos
The refrain “Real People” holds a double meaning. It served as a campaign slogan, reacting whether to distant models of image banks shown on the right-wing coalition’s billboards and posters or as a counterpoint to the fake unemployed persons recruited by the PS and immediately denounced by the media and social networks. Nevertheless, this was also an appeal to concrete people by concrete people under a totally assumed political program. Under this motto came internationalist solidarity towards refugees also as a left-wing response to the bureaucratic financier’s language with a clear position pointed towards an anti-austerity power orientated new hegemony. This proved the point when, proclaiming an alternative to the PS converted into a “one man show”, the BE deployed its message and affirmed a position at the forefront of the left of centre opposition. The lucidity displayed throughout the campaign about the scope for forming an alternative government partially annulled the “tactical vote” argument, assuming austerity as the center of the economic-political project for struggling against. This combination amplified the BE positions. 
Two main consequences regarding the negotiation we’re faced with:
1. The BE stood its ground as a political force with clear answers to the problems that matter. The entire campaign only reinforced that tendency, emphasised by the electoral declaration from Catarina Martins: “A right-wing minority coalition won’t be a government in Portugal if democracy doesn’t give it a majority. Depending on the BE, it surely won’t”.
2. The right-wing coalition, even after shedding around 700,000 votes and, consequently, losing their absolute majority, maintains an advantage of 4 percentage points over the PS. This will drive the PS defining decision, whether validating the right-wing coalition or negotiating an alternative government with BE, the Communist Party and the Greens (CDU). This impasse is more than merely contextual as it clearly reveals the social-democratic parties inoperative hesitation in facing up to the crisis we’re dealing with. An impasse that the Portuguese situation conveys quite blatantly. At the moment of my writing, the PS is holding an internal debate, between a center positioned leadership refusing any understanding with the Left and a stance, perhaps closer to its own social roots, that approves an alternative, and an alternative at least capable of respecting the Fundamental Law.
The next days will prove decisive and the lines are clear: should an alternative to the Right really be possible, this can only be sustained by an anti-austerity orientation, which inherently depends on the PS solving its drift on this matter; on the other hand, if the way forward implies the validation of a minority right-wing government, we may expect an identity crisis right at the heart of not only the PS but also an amplified reflection of the identity crisis affecting the whole of European social-democracy.
Anyway, the forthcoming work of the Radical Left’s forces will be deeply and seriously connected to its liaison with the streets, with social movements and with the transformative means that enabling the forging, in Europe, of a newborn politics standing against the fear.

Speech given by Bloco de Esquerda spokeswoman Catarina Martins

“(…) Bloco de Esquerda had today its best result ever. We had more votes, more mandates, more strength than ever.
We understand the people’s vote and we take on board the responsibility that was given to us.
We were the vote of trust to workers, young and retired people. I thank that trust of more than half a million voters and I tell you all: Bloco will keep and honour its word.
That’s why I am here to talk you about the future.
The right-wing coalition is certainly the most voted candidature, but they shouldn’t celebrate when they have lost 30 MPs and more than half a million of votes. Together, PSD and CDS don’t have anymore enough votes to privatize social security or to cut pensions. A new majority Passos Coelho and Paulo Portas government was rejected by democracy and nothing of what they will say will undercover the defeat.
If the President, either by party filiation or by lack of attention to the votes, invites that government, you all should know that Bloco de Esquerda honours its words, and – as this is our mandate – we will reject at the Parliament the governmental program which means making Portugal poorer.
The voters didn’t choose austerity and sacrifice; the voters said that austerity and sacrifice were already enough. The majority wanted a change and they have the right to that change.
We will now wait for the answer of the remaining left-wing parties because our responsibility is huge. (…)
Portugal needs an emergency plan that gathers forces. Needs to heal the wounds of poverty, needs investment, needs to increase the minimum wage, needs to put away the threats for the pension cuts.
Portugal needs the peace and the certainty that we are doing our best against financial blackmail, because our debt needs to be restructured in order to have public health, education and stability for the pensioners. 
We will have hard days and years. A lot will be said about political crisis, power games and tricks. But Bloco de Esquerda never forgets what’s truly essential: the social crisis, the people’s lives difficulties, one child out of three living in poverty, one million of unemployed, and more than one million of pensioners who live with less than 10 Euros per day for paying the house, eat and take care of themselves. These are the problems that fear our country. I want to give you my solemn guarantee: Bloco will not give up on Portugal, will not give up on those who work here or has worked before. We need to be firm, have clean head and pay all the attention to the essential: and the essential is the employment. 
Portugal will fail if our economy will not be corrected in order to create jobs. 
Portugal will win if it will open democracy and reaffirm responsibility.”
Catarina Martins
Left Block coordinator
Lisbon, 5 October 2015