In Portugal, the Left Is Rebuilding
A conversation with former Bloco de Esquerda MP Beatriz Gomes Dias
- IMAGO / NurPhoto
With less than nine months to go before the 2024 European elections, democratic socialist parties across the continent are gearing up for campaign season. Conditions for the Left vary across Europe, with some parties poised to maintain or build on previous results, while other parties are struggling to keep their heads above water — to say nothing of the EU member-states where the Left has no parliamentary representation whatsoever.
Two countries where the Left has faced recent setbacks are Germany and Portugal. Die Linke, Germany’s democratic socialist party that emerged from a fusion of two smaller parties in the mid-2000s, has faced a string of stinging electoral losses, but recently announced an ambitious campaign programme in an effort to turn things around in time for the 2025 federal election. In Portugal, the so-called Left Bloc, or Bloco de Esquerda, which also emerged from a fusion of smaller parties, watched its fortunes tumble in the 2022 elections, after a decade of growing political influence.
Next year’s European elections will be an important measure for both parties’ recovery and prospects for the future. As both parties move into campaign mode, Anna Schröder, head of office of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussles, spoke with former Bloco MP Beatriz Gomes Dias to get a better sense of the challenges facing Bloco and what other European parties can learn from their experience.
You have been an activist for many years, served in the Portuguese parliament and were a city councillor in Lisbon. How did you become politicized and what motivated you to become a member of Bloco de Esquerda (the Left Bloc)?
My early politicization was in thinking about strategies to fight racism and overcome racial discrimination, as this was the first inequality I suffered from and I wanted to understand it better. I became a member of SOS Racismo, an anti-racist organization, which brought me closer to the Revolutionary Socialist Party (PSR) — one of the founding parties of Bloco de Esquerda.
As a young student, in secondary school, I was also involved in the fight against the general exam to finish secondary school and apply to university that was introduced by the government in 1988. At university, I got involved in the fight against tuition fees and participated in demonstrations. We fought for equality of access and opportunity. Some of the meetings took place with the support of the PSR.
Later, as a teacher, I was involved in a big struggle against the creation of two different categories of teachers — one at the bottom and at the top of the professional structure. We fought against different salaries, opportunities, and participation in school life. It was during this huge mobilization that I became a member of Bloco.
Bloco de Esquerda emerged in 1999 as a merger between several distinct far-left political currents, including Trotskyism and more orthodox Marxist-Leninism. How has the party gone about forging a shared political culture and perspective?
When Bloco was formed, it was a fusion of three different political currents: the People’s Democratic Union, a Marxist-Leninist group, the Revolutionary Socialist Party, which came from a Mandelite Trotskyist background, and Politics XXI, a democratic socialist formation. It was very exciting for me to be part of this political project, as I thought it was a very powerful instrument to change Portuguese society — and I still believe that.
We are recovering from the defeat we suffered. We are now in a position of rebuilding and winning back stronger parliamentary representation, which is crucial to be able to influence politics in the way we once did.
Bloco de Esquerda is the most progressive party in Portugal. It provides the space, tools, and framework to fight for social justice, against discrimination, inequality, and exploitation. It is the party that is closest to the social movements and able to translate their demands into political initiatives. As a grassroots movement activist before I was elected to parliament, I was committed to implementing the demands of the social movements within the framework of the political institutions.
Is Bloco today a united party, or still a coalition of distinct groups?
I think that it is a united party, but we don’t agree on every position. We have very strong internal debates. The debates within the party are very important because they keep us moving. We can’t be complacent about our position, we have to keep thinking about the decisions we have taken, the strategies we are implementing, and how we can better represent our political ideas and our political project.
This is clearly a strength. We have to keep reflecting, discussing with each other, and strengthening our internal democracy, and we need to be able to make changes. This includes, for example, reflecting on our diversity, on how we are structured, who is deciding our policies, who represents the party, and how they do so.
I think we need to strengthen our relationship with the social movements. We need be on the streets more, and we need to talk with the people more. All these discussions are very important.
Die Linke often debates over whether participation in government is desirable, and has had varied experiences in different states. Bloco tolerated the minority Socialist Party government led by António Costa from 2015 to 2019 with a confidence and supply agreement. Bloco returned to the opposition after the elections in 2019, when your party received a very impressive result, but you lost half of your support in the 2022 election. How did the party analyse this defeat, and what implications does it have for your approach to entering government more generally?
Our support for the government was an important moment. We had a very difficult period behind us with the Troika in Portugal. The Right was in government, emigration was very high, wages dropped, and many people became impoverished during that time. Bloco de Esquerda decided to support the socialist government with the purpose of advancing a new form of politics that could improve the living conditions of the population. One main goal was to get rid of some of the policies implemented by the right-wing party and the Troika.
The conclusion of this agreement was very important to bring the country out of this very difficult period, but it was not enough. In 2019, we wanted to go further in this process and win back some workers’ rights and protect the country’s public service. We wanted to continue to improve the lives of the people, to boost wages, to improve labour relations, to fight against precariousness and exploitation, to improve conditions for public workers, like doctors and teachers, and win better pensions for the elderly, but we saw that the path taken by the socialist government was contrary to our goals. That’s why we voted against the budget.
Unfortunately, we did not have the population’s support to form the necessary opposition. Our decision was not properly understood by the people and we didn’t have time to explain all the things that we knew would happen and that people are now experiencing. There was also a dramatization on the part of the Socialist Party, claiming that they were the only bulwark against the far-right party joining the government.
In May, Bloco held its thirteenth National Convention in Lisbon, following the difficult election in 2022. The party has a long history of renewal, split, and recovery. How would you describe your current situation?
In 2022, we suffered a very big loss and lost 14 elected parliamentarians. I was not re-elected, either. It is very difficult to cover all the areas that we worked on prior to the loss.
According to the polls, however, we are on the ascent. I think we are recovering from the defeat we suffered. We are now in a position of rebuilding and winning back stronger parliamentary representation, which is crucial to be able to influence politics in the way we once did.
What are the party’s strategic priorities for the coming period?
One of our priorities is to defend the public services, which are under attack. Professionals are leaving the national health service to work for the private sector, which the government finances. Resources are actually being removed from the healthcare system. Forty percent of the Ministry of Health’s budget is put into private sector contracts. This is unacceptable.
Professionals leave because they have no career prospects, because of low wages and many extra hours. We have the same problems in public education – low wages, very long working hours, and no career perspectives. Bloco is thus participating in the mobilization to defend the national health service and the public school system.
Another priority is supporting mobilizations around climate justice. The global climate crisis affects all aspects of life, social problems, work, and political decision-making. We fight for decarbonization, a rapid and drastic reduction of CO2 emissions, and the end of the use of fossil fuels.
It is so crucial that elected representatives place anti-racism high on the political agenda, but we have to do more.
A related priority for us is the fight for workers’ rights and against exploitation, precarization of labour, and inequality. The heart of all of our political proposals is to build a better life for all. That’s why Bloco de Esquerda is prioritizing the most precarious sectors and issuing corresponding legislative proposals.
There is a major crisis in housing, with unaffordable rental prices. People can’t find houses they can afford with the wages they earn. The government’s measures are insufficient to tackle real estate speculation and control rental prices. Defending the right to housing is thus one of our priorities.
It is necessary to affirm the political priority of the fight against racism and discrimination. We have to translate the claims of anti-racist and migrant organizations into a political proposal, defending the rights of racialized communities, the struggles for the rights of migrants and people in refugee situations.
You spoke about how the black community in Portugal is organized at the international conference “Black Europe” in Berlin last year, sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and the Initiative of Black People in Germany. Can you elaborate on what role racism and anti-racism play in Bloco’s politics?
Bloco has made considerable advances in this discussion, but the most important force that brought the country forward in the fight against racism are the Black and Roma movements. Thanks to our proximity to the social movements, Bloco de Esquerda was able to bring the debate to parliament. One example is the amendments to nationality law passed in 2018 and 2019 – the first bill I presented in parliament. Another initiative to criminalize racism brought to parliament by Bloco unfortunately did not pass, but the party was able to influence the other political parties to reflect on how to fight racism, inequality, and discrimination in Portuguese society.
It is so crucial that elected representatives place anti-racism high on the political agenda, but we have to do more. Bloco plays an important role, but the conditions under which the discussion were held in parliament were not as progressive as we would have liked in the social movements.
We are still pressing the political parties to move faster, for example with regard to how to protect migrants against exploitation and precarity. We have an important role to play in this debate and we cannot be complacent about it.
On a related note, we are witnessing a frightening rise of far-right forces across Europe. We see this with figures like Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni of the post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia, or France’s Marine Le Pen of the Rassemblement National. In this year’s elections in Greece, two small far-right parties made it into parliament, and in Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is surging in the polls. Do you see a similar danger in your country?
Yes. The extreme Right in Portugal is rising and has increased its parliamentary representation. The far-right party, Chega, is currently the third-strongest political party in parliament with 12 elected members. They are using hate speech to mobilize their followers.
The growth of far-right forces is based on mutually reinforcing ideas: On the one hand, we see declining living conditions for many people and a certain resentment among the population. On the other hand, there is a structural racism in Portuguese society that provides the fuel for mobilizing that resentment.
Structural racism creates the idea of an “Other" that is responsible for all the problems in your life. That was the main reason behind Chega’s good result. The party does not present any solution that can improve life, but they use this idea of the “Other” that already existed in Portuguese society.
Portugal, like Spain and France, is a country with multiple relevant parties to the left of Social Democracy. Do you see any prospects for left-wing unity in Portugal, similar to the processes we’ve seen in Spain and France?
I think it depends on the situation. We supported the government, which was very important and a very successful experience because we were able to improve living conditions in different ways. When we look at the Socialist Party now, with its majority in parliament, we see policies closer to the proposals of the Right.
We need to push the Socialist Party more to the left. This is what we are doing with our interventions in parliament and with the coalition with the social movements. Maybe we could have this alliance of left-wing parties similar to the one we had in 2015, but the priority has to be pushing the Socialists to the left.
Did the toleration of the Socialist government together with Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) represent a kind of left unity?
Well, it was only a support within parliament — we were not together in the government. We did not enter the government with the Socialists. In that sense, it’s different from the coalition that emerged in France or from what we see in Spain with Pedro Sanchez and Yolanda Díaz governing together.
We have to come up with unity strategies to defeat right-wing policies. We don’t have to follow the terms they seek to impose in the political and public debate.
We maintained programmatic independence of each party — the Socialists, the Communists, and us — but we were able to find some measures that allowed for convergence between the different parties. We have our own programme and our own proposals, which we defend. After the elections, we can talk and hopefully find a consensus.
Coalitions are also interesting for the European elections taking place between 6–9 June. What is Bloco’s perspective?
One thing that we seek to defend is the country’s independence. Some European regulations constrict wages here in Portugal and mandate a transfer of wealth from labour to capital. We have to address all these regulations and rules that have a huge impact on the Portuguese population.
Another priority in the upcoming European election is EU migration policy, including the work of Frontex — which is very restrictive, to say the least. Europe needs migration, but adopts policies that put migrants in very vulnerable situations and exposes them to various forms of exploitation.
Bloco de Esquerda currently has two members in the European Parliament. It would be important to maintain or even increase this representation. In 2009, we had a good result with three elected members, which is a result we would like to have again. It will also be important to have more representation from the Left within the European Parliament as a whole in order to dispute the power of the Right and far-right parties. With a strong Left, we can stop the rise of far-right politics, we can better protect civil rights, and address racism and xenophobia.
How would you assess the situation of the Left in Europe? The vast majority of parties are not in a particularly good situation. Are there common reasons and perhaps common solutions?
The European Left must address questions of equality and climate change in a stronger way. These are the questions that the population wants to discuss. We have to fight inequality. We have to fight social exclusion. We must fight these conservative ideas that the far right is imposing on the political and public discussion.
We have to come up with unity strategies to defeat right-wing policies. We don’t have to follow the terms they seek to impose in the political and public debate. We must defend gains that have already been won, such as the right to abortion or the rights of LGBTQ communities. We have to defend all the progress we have made as a society.
Sometimes left-wing parties are not as progressive in their proposals as they could be. I think they should be bolder in their proposals and stronger in their positions. In this way, we’d be able to mobilize more popular support.
Beatriz Gomes Dias was a Member of Parliament for Bloco de Esquerda from 2019 to 2022 and is currently a member of the Lisbon City Council.
Anna Schröder is the head of office of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussels.