The Global Left Can Learn A Lot From This Tiny Country

Above Photo: Portuguese Prime Minister and Socialist Party leader Antonio Costa raises his fist during a campaign rally in Lisbon, Portugal. (Armando Franca / AP)

There’s a place in the West where a smattering of anti-austerity, pro-immigration, pro-public-spending left-wing parties are not only in power, but are actually popular. I’m talking about Portugal, the small European country I have witnessed grow into a global political marvel.

On Sunday, progressives around the world cheered as a loose left-wing coalition won enough seats to rule the country for another four years.

The story of Portugal’s resurgent left starts in 2015, when, as a center-right government continued to force austerity measures painfully down the throats of a suffering nation, the Portuguese voted for an alternative—sort of. While the ruling coalition, made up of center-right and right-wing parties, earned the most seats in the Portuguese parliament, it wasn’t able to form a majority government. That’s when António Costa, Lisbon’s former mayor and progressive leader of the Socialist Party (PS), did something unprecedented and highly controversial—he reached left to form what was disparagingly labeled a geringonça, meaning an odd contraption, and established something between a coalition and a parliamentary pact with the Left Bloc (BE) and the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP).

The idea behind the pact was that while all three parties would agree on core, anti-austerity policies that would establish a functioning majority in parliament, on all other issues, politicians from the left-wing parties were free to vote against and openly criticize the PS, allowing them to maintain their integrity and vows to voters when the PS diverged from a more leftist approach. No one, perhaps least of all the left-wing politicians themselves, expected the political arrangement to work as well as it did, successfully ruling the country through to Sunday’s general election.

In the years since the left took over, I have personally seen the sweeping shifts take effect across the country during several stints there. Not only did the major cities of Lisbon and Porto go through massive restoration projects that made the uptick in the economy seem palpable, but the effects could be seen in people’s outlooks across the country. The Portuguese, whom I find to be some of the friendliest and most humble people this side of the Atlantic, were visibly downtrodden after the 2008 financial crisis and years of subsequent spending cuts imposed by the dreaded “troika”—the combination of the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank. On my most recent stint in Portugal this summer, I witnessed a country and a people excited for what seemed like the first time in quite a while for the possibility of a more stable and prosperous future than many thought possible just years before.

Underpinning this sea of change was a vastly different approach to the economy, but more important, the Portuguese people’s well-being. Costa, a politician of Goan descent who gained popularity and power with an anti-austerity message, prioritized pensions, raising the minimum wage and other public spending projects. Unemployment is on the decline and economic growth on the rise, all while sticking to the European Union’s economic constraints regarding spending deficits. All of which is why on Sunday, Portuguese voters seemed to express their willingness to give the “contraption” government another go, handing the Socialist Party a near-majority and re-electing the same amount of Left Bloc members of parliament. The Communist Party was the only party in the pact to have suffered the loss of five seats.

With results like these, the government likely will be formed using another similar pact, which might include a new left-wing parties which gained a seat. Costa even made a joke about the popularity of the geringonça, telling supporters on Sunday, “The Portuguese liked our arrangement.” Most important, however, Portugal, where many people still remember the repressive dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar who ruled until 1974, is being held up as proof that the European hard-right can be stomped out by a strong left. While the racist Chega became the first far-right populist party to gain a seat in the Portuguese parliament, as the Left Bloc’s Catarina Príncipe points out in a piece for Jacobin, the rise of “Livre (a social-democratic party related to Yanis Varoufakis’ Diem25, and the first party to stand a black woman as its lead candidate) … points to the political tensions of a country with both renewed racist tendencies and new anti-racist movements.” Even so, while keeping in mind Portugal has had very low immigration rates in recent years, the fact that the current leader actually openly campaigned on the need for more immigration in a Europe where xenophobia is on the rise is somewhat remarkable.

What’s the Portuguese left’s secret? According to the country’s socialist leader, it’s a healthy dose of democracy.

“What sets democratic politics apart from populism is that it does not tap into people’s fears … but instead gives them back hope in the future,” Costa told other European leaders.

The progressive prime minister’s tenure, however, has not been completely trouble-free. Increasing spending while adhering to EU economic restrictions has meant alarming cuts in education and health care investment, among other public sectors. The rapid rise of tourism has brought up many questions about how to protect housing for residents, despite a valiant attempt to address the issue with a law that guarantees housing as a right. Costa’s Socialist Party is also still grappling with the fallout of a corruption scandal surrounding a previous leader, former Prime Minister José Sócrates. And, according to the founder of the Left Bloc, Francisco Louçã, Costa has not done enough to truly break with austerity. Louçã wants the Left Bloc to fight for “a fresh rise in the minimum wage and in pensions, to propose concrete measures for a housing program and the national health system, a new wave of public investment in urban transport in order to reduce emissions, and the nationalization of the Post Office,” though he finds it “quite implausible that the PS would agree to negotiate these measures, and still less to apply them.” In other words, Louçã is advocating for more long-term solutions to economic troubles rather than simply short-term relief from austerity measures.

Others warn against seeing Portugal as “Europe’s beacon of social democracy,” as The Guardian labeled it in a recent piece. Federico Santi, a political analyst, calls it instead “left-wing exceptionalism”:

The absence of a far-right party, the fact that the PS were in opposition during the bailout and the willingness of the radical parties to work with the moderates is not the case in most other countries. Rather than a template for other parties to follow, I see Portugal as the exception that proves the rule, what some people see as an irreversible crisis of the moderate left.

Yet, with the harrowing rise of far-right forces across the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Poland and other parts of the EU, not to mention the U.S., and its own neighbor Spain struggling to even form a government, you can’t fault those who see Portugal’s left-wing geringonça as an enviably progressive dream come true—or, at the very least, a leftist vision in progress.