Porto, Portugal PHOTO/Garda Travel Club/Google

Since the end of 2015, Portugal has been the scene of an unusual political drama. After failing to win a majority in parliament, the country’s long-established centre-left machine rejected the offer of a ‘grand coalition’ with its conservative rival to implement the demands of Brussels and Frankfurt. Straying from the beaten path of European social democracy, the Portuguese Socialist Party came to an arrangement instead with radical-left forces of the kind ostracized everywhere else in the eu. The Socialist Prime Minister António Costa governs with the support of two groups that lie well outside the bounds of respectable opinion: the Portuguese Communist Party, which never had any truck with Eurocommunism or its post-Soviet afterlives, and the Left Bloc, which traces its origins back to the revolutionary movement of the 1970s. On taking office, Costa pledged to ‘turn the page’ on austerity and roll back measures imposed by the Troika. European voters have often heard such promises on the campaign trail, but Costa’s government has broken with convention by following through on the initial rhetoric under pressure from its left-wing allies, reversing wage and pension cuts, halting privatizations and restoring collective-bargaining agreements. In defiance of conventional wisdom, these reforms have been followed by an upswing in economic growth. Dismissed by hostile critics as a rickety geringonça (‘contraption’), the alliance between the Socialists and Portugal’s radical left has confounded predictions that it would collapse in a matter of months. Costa’s own approval ratings have soared, along with those for his party, in pointed contrast with the fiasco of Hollande, the bubble of Renzi and the capitulation of Tsipras. What conditions—long- and short-term—have made this exception possible, and how long can it endure?

For a brief period in the mid 1970s, Portugal was a focus of international attention in the West, for fear that it might go Communist. Once that danger had passed, the development of the country attracted much less interest than the rest of Europe’s southern tier, and knowledge of it abroad has been much more limited. Perhaps the best way of sketching its founding coordinates is through a comparison with Spain. Both countries were ruled by long-standing dictatorships of clerico-fascist stamp—Franco’s regime lasting some forty years, Salazar’s nearly fifty—which came to an end at virtually the same time in 1974–75. But the origins and trajectories of the two regimes were very different. Franco was the military victor of a bloody civil war, won with the help of Mussolini and Hitler, and sealed with systematic extermination of those who had resisted him. Salazar was a civilian at the head of a police state that had been installed with scarcely a shot fired; although his regime crushed its opponents with iron determination, it never had to carry out baptismal massacres of the kind that consecrated Franco’s authority. The violent repression of Salazar’s pide secret police was more selective, if ultimately no less formidable.

The better part of half a century later, the exit of the two dictatorships reversed the pattern of their entry. From the sixties onwards, the Spanish regime steered through a modernization of the country’s economy and society that was designed to perpetuate the Civil War victory beyond the Generalísimo’s lifespan, with the creation of new middle classes attached to the consumer capitalism it brought. When Franco died, his heirs had little trouble securing a soft landing for the regime. The Bourbon monarchy was restored in all tranquillity, and a constitution imposed to guarantee that Spanish democracy would be manipulated and neutralized from the start, with an electoral system rigged to confine power in the Cortes to parties of the establishment, a Senate with a built-in conservative majority based on the countryside, and a Constitutional Court stacked with holdovers from franquismo and their epigones. The Communist Party, which had been the principal force of underground resistance to the dictatorship, rallied to the new royalism under its leader Santiago Carrillo, and in rubber-stamping the destruction of the Spanish Republic, committed hara-kiri, leaving the Socialists under Felipe González to become the reassuring heirs of what Franco had bequeathed to the country.

In Portugal, on the other hand, the killings over which Franco had presided at home were exported abroad, in fourteen years of brutal war to preserve its African empire, eventually provoking a revolt against the regime from within its own army. The Spanish colonies in Africa had served as Franco’s trampoline to power, his Moroccan mercenaries ferried across the straits of Gibraltar to battlefields in Andalucía by the Luftwaffe. The Portuguese colonies, on the other hand, became the spring-board for the fall of Salazar’s system: junior officers who had come to realize the futility and barbarity of their mission became rebels determined to put an end to the regime commanding it. There was no peaceful transition in Lisbon. The dictatorship did not engineer its own metamorphosis; amid popular jubilation, it was overthrown. Portuguese democracy arrived as a Revolution, not a Restoration, with the uprising of April 1974. In a year and a half of intense social and political ferment, lands were seized, factories occupied, banks nationalized. The Communist Party and a plethora of smaller left-wing groups were active in society and army alike. To Washington and Bonn, it looked as if a socialist revolution was taking shape; if Portugal was not to be lost to the West, nato would have to mobilize. With funding and advice from West German Social Democracy, a Socialist Party committed to Atlantic normalcy bested the Communists on the electoral front; officers of a similar bent ousted the radicals from the army in November 1975, and the danger was averted.

Portugal was saved for capitalism, but the legacy of the revolution could not be entirely effaced. When political life had stabilized, the most radical parts of the new Portuguese constitution were scrapped—one article had spoken of ‘the transition towards socialism’ as an overriding goal; another declared that ‘all nationalizations effected since 25 April 1974 are irreversible conquests of the working classes’—and the Council of the Revolution charged with safeguarding it abolished. But the Braganza dynasty was not restored: Portugal remained the republic it had been since 1910. Parliamentary government led by a prime minister was based on a voting system significantly less distorting than the Spanish, and coupled with an elected presidency of limited powers. [1] Portugal’s Constitutional Court, instead of acting as a bulwark of reaction as in Spain, has on more than one occasion defended social rights against neoliberal attempts to dismantle them. There is no equivalent of Spain’s Guardia Civil (or the death squads of gal). The post-revolutionary settlement has produced an institutional configuration that is much less restrictive—and much less rooted in the plans of the dictatorship and its pall-bearers—than the one in Madrid.

On the other hand, the newly democratized order inherited a society with the highest birth rate and the lowest life expectancy in Western Europe. At the beginning of the 1960s, gnp per capita was almost identical in Spain and Portugal ($274 and $270 respectively); by 1970, the Spanish figure had risen to $1,020, while the Portuguese was just $660. Small, uneconomic plots, chiefly concentrated in the north, still dominated Portuguese agriculture. At the turn of the seventies, 96 per cent of farms were less than 20 hectares in size; in contrast, four great southern landowners had 95,000 hectares between them. Some economic development did take place in the last years of the dictatorship: industry’s share of gnp rose from 27 per cent in 1953 to 36 per cent in 1969, as new factories and dockyards sprouted on the outskirts of Lisbon, and employment in the primary sector fell sharply, from 48 per cent in 1950 to 32 per cent two decades later. [2]

But there was still a yawning gap between Portugal and its neighbours when it came to living standards. As Salazar’s regime entered its twilight years, Portugal had fewer doctors per capita than any West European state, and the lowest number of students enrolled all the way from primary school to university level. [3] The minimum monthly income in France was higher than the earnings for nine-tenths of Portuguese workers; wages were two-thirds of the level in Spain or Greece, while the infant mortality rate was almost twice as high. One-quarter of the population was illiterate, including almost 40 per cent of women. [4] Between 1960 and 1973, one and a half million people left the country in search of jobs elsewhere, and there was a net population decline, despite the high birth rate. In the early 70s, more than half of all immigrants to France came from Portugal, and remittances from abroad covered nearly one-third of the cost of Portuguese imports. [5]

With the fall of the dictatorship, moreover, the post-revolutionary state had to grapple with the stiff challenge of integrating 700,000 Portuguese nationals—equivalent to almost a tenth of the country’s existing population—who fled the African colonies en masse as independence drew near: the so-called retornados. Many blamed the revolution and the left-wing parties for their plight and supplied a bank of votes for the Portuguese right once the electoral register had been adjusted to take them into account—without, however, becoming an anti-systemic irritant in the manner of the Algerian colons who rallied behind Le Pen in southern France. New immigrant communities subsequently arrived from the former African territories—Cape Verde, Angola and Guinea-Bissau in particular—and from Brazil. After 2000, a fresh influx from Eastern Europe helped turn Portugal for a time into one of the European countries with the highest proportion of immigrants in its population: a dramatic reversal of tradition. [6]

Two lefts

In the years directly following the revolution, the political landscape had yet to congeal into the shape it would assume for the rest of the century. The immediate threat to the social order might have been contained, but the Marxist left was still a force to be reckoned with. At the moment when the dictatorship fell, the Portuguese Communist Party (pcp) was the strongest political organization in the country. Initially it took a cautious approach, accepting ministerial positions in the provisional government and opposing strikes. As a wave of social agitation reached its peak in the summer of 1975, the party stiffened its line under the pressure of competition from smaller Marxist groups, and briefly contemplated making a revolution in tandem with radical officers. The constituent assembly election of April 1975 struck one blow against that aspiration, as the pcp and its allies won less than 17 per cent of the vote; the defeat of the army’s left-wing radicals finished it off for good. But, unlike its Spanish counterpart, the party was not a busted flush. With no immediate prospect of attaining power, it set about consolidating its base in Portuguese society over the long run, with the assets it still possessed.

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