“Choosing people’s lives over profits and high rents”
Interview with Mariana Mortágua
Early legislative elections will be held in Portugal next March 10th. The President of the Republic dismissed the government on December 7th and dissolved Parliament on January 15th, bringing an end to a Socialist Party government with an absolute majority elected on January 30th, 2022. The outgoing government was unable to resolve the population’s main difficulties - the housing crisis and bankruptcy for several public services, specifically health and education. This, together with several court cases and investigations into financial misconduct by members of the government, has brought Portugal to these early elections. These are difficult elections for the left, who will be affected by tactical voting for the Socialist Party in response to what the polls indicate will be the certain electoral rise of the extreme right. We are currently witnessing a reconfiguring of the traditional right wing, with a pre-election coalition emerging around the main party. On the left, an appeal was made by more than 150 personalities - former government officials, writers, musicians, journalists, editors, doctors, architects, trade unionists and researchers from the academic world - to left-wing parties to “present their proposals and publicize their commitments on what they are willing to do to solve the problems that plague the country.”
These are some of the topics covered in this interview with Mariana Mortágua, national coordinator of the Left Bloc since May 2023.
Next March 10th, Portugal will elect the next parliament. How and why did a government with an absolute majority, as obtained in the previous (January 2021) elections, fall, causing this snap election?
To make a long story short, you will remember that in 2015, after a four-year-long right-wing government, and the ECB, IMF, and European Commission Troika having imposed a harsh austerity program, a parliament was elected with a majority of the Socialist Party (PS) plus the Left Bloc (BE) and the Communist Party (PCP). In spite of the fact that these parties had never before cooperated in this way, an agreement was signed and a new majority was formed. The Left Bloc and the Communist Party were not part of the government, and were free to oppose it over any issue they chose. However, a number of common objectives were defined: stop privatizations; raise the minimum wage; abolish a number of the troika measures - including on working hours and other social rights – reduce student fees and the cost of public transport; legislate on topics including but not limited to, the rights of women, the LGBT+ community, and migrant people. This was accepted and adhered to.
In spite of the success of the formula, at the following elections in 2019 the PS sought an absolute majority in order to sideline the parties on the left and avoid any influence from them in its decision-making. It failed. Despite a reduction in PCP seats, the Left Bloc kept the same number of MPs (and around 10% of the popular vote). After that defeat, the António Costa government rejected a new agreement – which would necessarily be more demanding, in order to address critical problems, such as investment in the national health system and labor laws – and this precipitated a period of instability. After a short time the government refused to negotiate over the national budget with the left. The budget was defeated, and the move led to new elections and then - owing to fears that a new, right-wing government might form - to an absolute majority for the PS, with a defeat for the parties on the left.
The real problems began then, since such a powerful government, beholden only to itself, proved to be very unstable: many ministers and junior ministers resigned for several reasons, including judiciary cases and investigations into financial misconduct. In the end, the prime minister handed in his resignation when an envelope containing money, a payment from Angolan authorities to his chief of staff, was found in his office. So, we are to have new elections.
I must emphasize that this political crisis is only understandable when examined within the framework of the government’s disastrous actions in the social sphere, namely in housing and health. The neoliberal policies led to a disintegration of the National Health Service (the very weekend of this interview, a twenty-hour wait in a public hospital in a major city for an urgent case to be attended to is a common occurrence). As a consequence, social mobilization, in particular for health and housing, has brought thousands of people to the streets in a mounting rejection of neoliberal policies.
What are the main problems addressed by your party in this election?
The political problem is that an absolute majority of the PS was an absolute disaster. The party itself even recognized the problem, since the prime minister and leader of the PS was soon replaced, and another candidate is now leading it. We want to prevent any new majority of a single party in order to bring in new policies that will drastically change the approach to public services, to investment, to well-being and working conditions.
This social issue is the core of our campaign: we aim to defeat the neoliberal approach that, for instance, promoted the success of the housing market, meaning the highest prices in Europe – it is more expensive to rent a house in Lisbon than in Madrid or Milan; we aim to restrict private health firms and rebuild a public service that is capable of giving a high-quality, inclusive service to our population; we will fight for wages and pensions to reduce poverty, and to obtain better conditions for workers. In a country with 40% poverty, only half of which is mitigated by social benefits, a new impetus is required for popular action; mobilization; solutions for workers and pensioners’ incomes; for lowering the cost of housing and promoting public education, public transport and culture; as well as for effecting an energy and environmental transition. We call this the struggle for a good life for all, meaning fighting against capitalism and its inherent generation of inequality, and promoting a socialist alternative that leads to tangible changes in our people’s lives.
How do you analyze the growth of the extreme-right?
The moment that Trump came to power, the international political landscape changed for good. It will not return to what it was. The traditional right is being transformed into an extreme-right, with its classic trumpist themes; immigration, women's rights, and other forms of hate. This is being conducted by a new group of people who closely resemble Trump, Bolsonaro, Milei, Meloni, Le Pen and others: they are buffoons who base their political ability on the fact that they are incapable of addressing the problems of the population, and so divert attention to discrimination of the poorest or the most vulnerable. The same is happening in Portugal: from a system of a major and a minor right wing party, both allied and aligned with EU discourse, in all its hypocrisy, we are moving to a system in which the second right-wing party, although not far from the traditionally dominant one, is now extreme-right. This changes the discourse, social perceptions, and the fight for common sense. As a consequence, the left is obligated to mobilize, defend and expand the social rights that define democracy, while those buffoons are engaged in dismantling it. Make no mistake: the nature of politics is changing, conflicts will be more dramatic, this trend will shift the narrative, the EU will suffer further contradictions, and the fight for the upper hand will be more aggressive.
The current leader of the Socialist Party is presented as someone eager to establish bridges with the left-wing parties. Indeed, he was part of the negotiating team that led to the agreement signed by the PS and the Left Bloc, as well as the Communist Party, from 2015 to 2019. Considering that history, what is the Left Bloc proposing or ready to do in order to prevent a right-wing government?
We signed an agreement in 2015, which changed the political scene in Portugal and which, although quite limited, was respected. As I said, the Socialist Party rejected this alliance in 2019 and disaster followed, leading finally to the collapse of the government. Now, we are pretty sure that no such majority is reachable by the PS. This means that if there is a centre-left majority in parliament, the PS will be forced to approach the parties on the left, to block a government of the right and extreme-right wing, in all it’s social vengeance. The challenge is to achieve a platform of effective action in difficult areas, housing and health being the salient examples. The left will fight to achieve this sort of drive for change.
We need a new majority and it will not be possible without the Left Bloc, but it will exist only if effective policies are adopted to solve these weighty social problems, namely those created or aggravated by the last PS government.
And how does the PS and other parties address that issue?
For the moment, the new leader of the PS is claiming he will only act after the composition of the new parliament is clear, and will eventually negotiate any agreements after the elections - implying that he would avoid these measures if he gets another absolute majority, which would be incredibly damaging for Portugal as well as being quite implausible, as the PCP is saying that it will not join any partnership. Both responses are unsatisfactory and damaging for the population. We, on the contrary, are not waiting: the population deserves to know what we are voting for, and requires brave political choices to counter neoliberal strategy. So, we are pressing the parties to reveal not only their programs, but also how ready they are to share common policies on the main issues, or instead to indicate that they will reject this approach. This would be quite unpopular with these parties, but a demand like this does tend to provoke a defensive attitude. Indeed, as we record this interview, a large number of people, dozens of presidents of trade-unions and factory committees, two generals, a bishop, very well-known singers and artists, directors of faculties and twelve ex-ministers and junior ministers of the Socialist Party published a call for an immediate consensus among the left-wing parties in proposing concrete solutions for the main issues facing the population.
Take housing: to beat market trends, which have caused prices to skyrocket, with devastating impacts on neighborhoods; tenant evictions, displacement of young people to town and city peripheries, and loss of community, we need to build and rebuild more than 100 thousand apartments. We need to use all possible public resources to do this, including but not limited to old buildings, and military barracks, fix a maximum price for rents, ban sales to investment funds and non-resident foreigners, and abolish the unsustainable tax advantages from which these speculative operations benefit.
We are ready to do this and to have this battle – that attitude is the core of our campaign, assure people: that the thousands demonstrating for housing will win the day, as will those pressing for better wages or pensions, or for social rights. This is the core of democracy, choosing people’s lives over profits and high rents. That is our aim.
Mariana Mortágua, 37, born in Alvito, in the Beja district in the south of Portugal, is an economist. She has a PhD from London University, and currently teaches macroeconomics and political economy at ISCTE (University Institute of Lisbon). A three-time re-elected member of Parliament since 2013, she rose to prominence for her accomplished participation in several Public Inquiries on financial scandals. She was elected coordinator of the Left Bloc in 2023 and heads the party’s electoral lists for the general elections to be held next March 10th 2024. In this interview, she was asked to present the principles and intentions of the Left Bloc.
Andrea Peniche is a feminist activist, member of the collective A Coletiva, which helps to organize the International Feminist Strike in Portugal. She frequently writes for several publications as author and co-author on themes of feminism and political philosophy. Instagram: kollontai.ponto