Portugal’s Communist Party Is Struggling to Return to Past Glories

Since the Carnation Revolution of 1974, Portugal's Communist Party has helped shape its country's destiny and defend labor rights. But the party’s setbacks in last month's general election show how its working-class social base has drifted away from it.

Portuguese Communist Party secretary general Jerónimo de Sousa speaks to the press at the party's Lisbon headquarters regarding the poor results in the January 30 snap elections. (Horacio Villalobos / Corbis via Getty Images)

The general election on January 30 was a major setback for Portugal’s once mighty Communist Party (PCP). Its longstanding alliance with the Greens (PEV), known as the Democratic Unity Coalition (CDU), elected just six MPs to the 230-member parliament, with 4.4 percent of the vote. This followed an already poor result in 2019, when, after four years of outside support for António Costa’s Socialist-led government, it took 6.5 percent and 12 MPs — at the time, its worst score since the turn of the millennium.

The PCP remains relatively large in terms of its activist base and hegemony in the country’s trade union movement, and boasts almost fifty thousand members in this country of just 10 million people. It can still put on events such as the Festa do Avante! — a weekend of music and politics that annually attracts hundreds of thousands of mostly young visitors, thanks to its informal atmosphere and high-quality cultural program. Yet in recent years, the party has been losing militants.

The PCP’s difficulties are particularly brought into relief by the success of the center-left Socialist Party (PS), which secured 42 percent of the vote on January 30. Where Prime Minister Costa had in recent years repeatedly relied on the parliamentary backing of both the PCP-PEV alliance and the anti-capitalist Left Bloc, the snap elections last month awarded him an absolute majority of seats in parliament. Having, since 2015, faced pressure to vote through Costa’s budgets, the PCP now finds its influence greatly reduced.

Remaining Support

Today’s PCP has few active militants who resisted the dictatorship or lived through the revolutionary process of 1974-75. Yet, as a whole, its members are on the older side: as of November 2020, about half of them were above 64 years-old, and only 11.4 percent under 40. The PCP certainly has made great efforts to recruit young people, some of them quickly promoted from the Portuguese Communist Youth up through the ranks of party cadres. But this has not proved sufficient to change the dominant party profile.

Still today, the PCP’s areas of greatest influence correspond to the old industrial belts of Lisbon, Setúbal, and Porto, and to Beja, in the south of the country, which featured greater concentrations of rural laborers. It was here, together with Évora and Portalegre, that the agrarian reform of 1975, breaking up the great landed estates, had the most impact. In the January 30 election, the party’s support was mostly confined to the remaining strongholds of its historical influence — proletarian and “red” Setúbal and Beja, in the heart of the southern Portuguese countryside.

Yet even residual bastions of support are under threat. In the nineteen municipal councils where the Communist-led alliance won the municipal elections in September 2020 — in eleven cases, with an absolute majority — it nowhere won a majority on January 30. There are localities that continue to be red in these regions, such as Couço, Avis, and Vale de Vargo, mainly due to strong roots in an aging population. But even here, a previously overwhelming majority vote today rarely exceeds 30 percent support.

The PCP’s main continuing bases of social and political influence are rooted in the trade union movement and in local administration. It is hegemonic in organized labor, rigidly controlling the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers, the country’s main trade union organization, counting more than 120 unions and 556,000 registered members. Its greatest mobilizing force basically lies in unions of public employees, given the pressure that employers exert on workers in the private sector.

But the PCP has also faced difficulties in responding to transformations in the world of work resulting from deindustrialization and the social reconfiguration of the large urban peripheries. It has also lagged behind debates around new themes and civilizational questions, such as euthanasia, LGBT rights, and climate change. This has prevented it from extending its influence to social sectors sensitive to these new realities, such as in the intellectual world, in new scientific and technology-related professions, and among much of the youth in higher education.

Loyal to the legacy of historic leader Álvaro Cunhal, the PCP today is profoundly different even from the other Communist parties that have survived in Western Europe, such as in Spain and France. This is also the result of its long historical development, since the 1940s maintaining the fundamental characteristics of the Leninist model of organization and functioning — hierarchy, centralization, compartmentalization, discipline, and a culture of secrecy. The PCP resisted the de-Stalinization process that followed the Soviet Communist Party’s Twentieth Congress and rejected Eurocommunism while continuing to defend violence as a possible means to overthrow the dictatorship.

In the revolutionary process of 1974–75, which did fell that regime, the PCP passed, without particular jolts or crises, from a small party of cadres to a mass force enjoying exponential rates of growth. It became hegemonic in the trade union movement and bore considerable influence in the military sectors that rose up on April 25, 1974, as well as among segments of the central and local state apparatus.

Yet, defeated in the process of the institutionalization of democracy, the PCP had to retreat. Instead of its previous insurrectionary course, as partly realized in the 1974 revolution, it committed to a more parliamentary approach, continuing to resist on the front of mass social struggle and making the 1976 constitution a platform of resistance. Defending this platform, despite its successive revisions, remains at the center of the PCP’s political tactics even today.

“The Most Pressing Problems”

This platform was put to the test in 2015–19, as the PCP granted its backing to Costa’s administration on the basis of a signed policy agreement, and then over the last two years on a more ad hoc basis. Indeed, it was the collapse of negotiations over the 2022 budget — with the left-wing parties ultimately voting against the prime minister’s plans — that ultimately prompted January’s election.

In the talks for this budget last fall, the PCP had put forward a vast set of proposals, including wage raises, the reversal of the worst labor law reforms of the austerity era, an expansion of preschool education, higher investment in public services, and greater tax justice.

However, as the negotiations became tougher, the PCP made its vote dependent on three fundamental issues: the minimum wage, pensions, and greater financing for the National Health Service. The government refused all of these proposals. PCP general secretary Jerónimo de Sousa, a seventy-four-year-old former metalworker with extensive parliamentary experience, explained, “What the PCP proposed to the government was not to give everything to everyone. It was to respond to the most pressing problems.”

The PCP gave the impression that the acceptance of at least one of these proposals was enough to make the budget viable, even by abstaining. This did not happen, and the Central Committee decided to vote against, despite their internal differences. Costa’s government had closed all doors to further progress, and, in voting against the budget, the PCP dragged along the Greens to join with the Left Bloc. This, together with the votes of the Right (albeit governed by different assumptions and intentions), was enough to bring down the government, and soon prompted snap elections.

Who Wanted Early Elections?

The ruling Socialist Party had been showing itself increasingly intransigent on budgetary and legislative matters since the end of its first term in office, even from around 2017. In particular, António Costa’s government did not want to counter pressure from employers’ organizations and the country’s major economic and financial groups. In the wake of the pandemic, it insisted on injecting the greater part of the European recovery funds into the private sector while also submitting to the terms of the European Fiscal Compact, whose low borrowing limits largely restrain public social policies.

Unable to bend the PCP to its will in the negotiations for the 2022 budget, Costa’s party instead forced new elections, seeking to free itself from the negotiating pressures of its parliamentary partners. The prime minister was quick to blame the PCP and the Left Bloc for the crisis and the resulting instability, and used this to emphasize the need for an absolute majority for his own party. The PCP Central Committee retorted by calling this a distortion; Costa effectively attempted to blackmail it into submission.

However, Costa’s propaganda also had an inevitable effect on swing voters torn between his party and the parties to its left in the face of the right-wing threat. The PCP thus headed into these elections needing to deconstruct this narrative as well as to assert its own program. Yet it also faced added difficulties, owing to the fact that the reflux of social mobilization in recent years limited the directly political impact of union organizing and movements defending public services.

The “Patriotic and Left-Wing Alternative”

On December 13, the Communist Party presented an electoral pledge essentially based on the proposals it had taken to the negotiations of the previous weeks. This was a development of its 2019 program, in turn stemming from the political resolution passed at its Twentieth Congress, in 2016, which had established the “patriotic and left alternative.” This was defined, in a “Eurosceptic” key, as

a policy that by its patriotic dimension, inscribes national sovereignty and independence as a central objective, affirming the inalienable right of the Portuguese people’s power of decision on the options and guidelines indispensable to achieve them, and the prevalence of that sovereign will over any and all external constraints and impositions.

A left-wing policy that, without hesitation, embraces the rupture with the right-wing policy and the interests of big capital, and includes as its objective the advancement of the rights and income of workers and the people, the raising of the living conditions of other classes and anti-monopoly layers, and the promotion of justice and social progress.

This amounted to a call for a break with right-wing policy and the end of submission to the euro and impositions of the European Union. It sought to reverse Portugal’s political course, including the influence of the European troika, by relying on the driving force of the working class allied with all other sectors and social groups affected by these policies. The aim was to use alliances within the existing party-political framework to create a “patriotic and left-wing” government. For the PCP, this “alternative” sat within the framework of an “advanced democracy” — the current stage in the struggle for socialism — giving continuity to the April Revolution of 1974.

It was based on this “patriotic and left-wing alternative” that the PCP participated in negotiations to support the new Socialist-led government already after the 2019 elections. However, it did so from a position of weakness, unable to force the government to accept its proposals on wages, the upgrading of public services, or the extension of social rights. Moreover, the conditions were not in place for the construction of formal political alliances among further-left forces. The PCP’s implicit dispute with the Left Bloc for hegemony in this field implied a certain demarcation between these forces, even if it was subtle and contained.

The PCP’s Twenty-First Congress, in November 2020, confirmed this orientation, even as some in the party’s ranks criticized its lack of correspondence with reality. Jorge Pires, from the Political Commission of the Central Committee, implicitly recognized this when he declared that “the affirmation of the alternative is a complex and long process, not only necessary but also possible, which requires from all of us an intervention without pause, without impatience, without fatigue.”

With elections already called for January 30, the PCP insisted that its strength in parliament would be decisive for “combating right-wing policy and opening the way to one determined by the interests of the workers, the people, and the country.” In this sense, its campaign aimed to prevent not only a victory for the Right but also an absolute majority for the PS. It popularized social measures that Costa’s administration had taken under PCP influence, like the reduction of public transportation fares and free school textbooks.

Yet there were also severe setbacks. In mid-January, general secretary Jerónimo de Sousa, the first candidate for the Lisbon constituency, was forced to undergo an emergency operation and was replaced by two young leaders often considered his successors — João Ferreira and João Oliveira, both from the Political Commission of the Central Committee, coming from the Communist Youth. The return of De Sousa in the last two days of the campaign may have strengthened the spirits of the PCP’s members, but they presented a tired leader still recovering from ill health.

An Electoral Defeat

Both in absolute terms and symbolically, the party’s score on January 30 was a terrible result. The PCP parliamentary group was halved in size and its Green ally in the CDU coalition failed to elect a single MP. Some of the Communists’ best personnel in parliament, such as António Filipe, head of the list for the Santarém constituency and an MP since 1987, and João Oliveira, president of the parliamentary group, missed the cut.

On election night, hours before the final results were known — but with the basic picture already foreseeable — De Sousa acknowledged the defeat of his party and the coalition he led. He attributed this to the two-sided polarization between the PS and the center-right Social Democratic Party. Faced with the threat of a tie or even victory for the Right, a wave of “pragmatic” choices saw voters from the left-wing parties rally behind Costa’s PS.

The result brought both an absolute majority for the PS and the electoral advance of the most savagely regressive proposals from the right wing of Portuguese politics. Yet surprisingly, in his election night address, the PCP leader insisted that “the PS has the choice of reaching agreements with the [center-right] or making left-wing agreements with the CDU” and that “at the very least it should acknowledge a decisive and important role for the PCP and the Greens.” Such declarations of openness to convergence with the PS seem insufficient and even quite out of touch with reality in view of the collapse that actually took place.

At the meeting of the Central Committee on February 1, two days after election night, the PCP emphasized the difficult circumstances in which the elections were held and acknowledged the poor result, but also praised the party’s performance during the campaign while proclaiming that the mass social movement must be at the center of political struggle going forward.

In the new political conditions resulting from the elections, a fight against neoliberalism, a radicalized Right, and the PS majority government’s lukewarm submission to EU diktats all seem unavoidable. The big question is on what basis a weakened PCP will be able to wage this fight, and with what allies.