The Great Recession had political consequences across the world, but nowhere greater than in the periphery of Europe. The debt crisis the recession helped trigger allowed elites to impose severe austerity measures in Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal. These measures only worsened economic conditions — in Greece alone, GDP fell by more than one fifth and youth unemployment rose to 50 percent.
In response, something happened that few outsiders expected: A massive wave of resistance erupted across the continent. With mainstream parties largely discredited by their support of austerity measures, room opened for radicals to offer a left-wing alternative.
The most dramatic outcome so far is Syriza’s victory in Greece’s late January election, which marks the first time far-left forces in a major European country have formed a ruling coalition. And in Spain, Podemos now polls as the nation’s second leading party; in Ireland, Sinn Fein is making advances; and in Portugal, the center-right government will likely be forced from office — though by forces of the center-left — in September.
Taken as a whole, radicals are seizing a moment that represents the best opening for the Left in Europe since the 1970s.
To discuss the situation in both Portugal and Greece, I interviewed Catarina Príncipe, an organizer with both the Left Bloc in Portugal and Die Linke in Germany. Príncipe, who turned 29 in March, has been a leftist since she was 15, when she joined Portugal’s vibrant student movement. With Príncipe as president of the student union, the students in her high school protested against proposed corporate education reforms and pushed for the introduction of sexual education classes.
Príncipe joined the Left Bloc, a formation founded in 1999 that includes radical elements from across Portugal (and today has eight parliamentary seats) shortly after. She moved to Germany in 2011, forced out of Portugal by the same economic collapse that has brought activists like her to the forefront of European politics.
Príncipe was recently in Athens, joining a wave of young activists who traveled there in the lead-up to and aftermath of Syriza’s election triumph.
Along with Greece, Spain and Ireland, your native Portugal was among the hardest hit by austerity. And like Greece, it has a long established radical Left. So why has Portugal lagged behind perhaps all three in its level of social struggle?
I think there are several differences between what is happening in Greece and what is happening in Portugal. For one, the government learned something from the resistance to austerity in Greece, and so those austerity measures have been applied in Portugal over the past four years in a much slower, more methodical way. Despite some early resistance, that has allowed the measures to go through more smoothly here — even though the effects of austerity are very similar to those in Greece. Portugal has, for example, more poverty now than in the last decade of dictatorship, before the Carnation Revolution in 1974.
The second thing is that, since 2011, we only have had right-wing government. So that has allowed the [centrist] social democrats to capitalize on discontent with austerity and grow in opposition.
And finally, for the last five to 10 years, Greece has been the stage of very intense mobilizations, which have not happened in Portugal in the same way. And those demonstrations have not only introduced an entire generation to politics, but also created the social structures that allowed Syriza to grow.
So in Greece, the centrist parties were discredited by their support for European austerity measures. In Portugal, only the center-right has been discredited, and energy is going to the center-left rather than the Left Bloc and other radical forces.
Is the relationship between Portugal’s Communist Party and the Left Bloc more productive than the relationship between the Greek Communist Party and Syriza? Both Communist Parties are known in Europe for maintaining their Stalinist roots. In Greece, this has meant the party does not work openly with Syriza or many on the Left.
Yes and no. The Left Bloc and the Communist Party do not have a good relationship, but some work is done together that is coordinated in parliament. There have also been some developments in the relations between the social movements and the trade unions in the last year. This is significant, because the big trade union federation in Portugal is politically close to the Communist Party, so the increased cooperation is a step forward. In 2012, the Left Bloc called for a meeting between its leadership and the leadership of the Communist Party, an invitation which was accepted. Nothing concrete came out of it, but it was a sign of openness and the idea that we need to start building something together against austerity. The Greek Communists were not pleased — they sent a letter of dissent.
You just came back from Athens. How do Greek activists in organizations like Solidarity 4 All feel about relating to a left government, after so many years as the opposition?
People I talk with from the various protest movements and solidarity centers had all anticipated this Syriza victory. They understood that without winning state power, the “structures of solidarity” that they were building would never be as big as they could be.
The “social pharmacies” in Greece, for example, operate on donations and can’t possibly hope to make up for the collapse of the country’s health system by themselves. State power, in the form of a left government, can help there. This doesn’t mean these forces outside government are now giving up on their work and just demobilizing. They all know they can’t stop. Everyone I talked to understood very well that they have a political responsibility to keep the government in line and serve popular interests.
Take the story of the Greek cleaners. Several hundred of them were all employed by the finance ministry, and they went on strike because of the cuts and the old government fired them. There was a big struggle there about four and half years ago, and their leader, a Bulgarian immigrant named Constantina Kuneva, got acid thrown in her face. She was in the hospital for a long time. She was then elected as a Member of the European Parliament for Syriza.
For them, Syriza’s victory is the first step toward regaining their work. The cleaners have maintained an encampment outside the finance ministry for 19 months, and on the night of the Syriza victory, they went to the main square where Syriza’s big campaign tent was, symbolically wearing red rubber cleaning gloves, and said, “We are very happy that you won, but never forget that you won because of us.”
I think that captures the mood pretty aptly.
What do you think made Syriza successful compared with Rifondazione in Italy and other left parties that haven’t had electoral success, even in the new climate?
I think one lesson is that, especially in times of crisis, being a junior partner in a coalition, effectively managing austerity in order to gain some sort of governing respectability, does not work.
Rifondazione fell into that trap by going into a coalition with the Prodi government and it still hasn’t recovered. The Democratic Left splinter from Syriza is nowhere on the map after joining the last coalition government. The United Left in Spain has not had the success of Podemos partially because of being involved in the same type of politics.
At the same time, I would argue that in times of crisis, an organization must have two points of emphasis: on the one hand, the ability to coordinate social movements and engage in grassroots community organizing in the trade unions and the rest of civil society. On the other, a political program that fights for state power. It doesn’t have to be the most revolutionary program. It has to be a program that could be applicable today that would create the basis of, eventually, a more revolutionary movement — or the non-reformist reforms, or whatever you want to call it — without managing austerity or making compromises with the old centrist parties.