Welfare and Social Issues

Portugal: The Crisis and New Actors Against Austerity

Even though new Portuguese anti-austerity, civil society projects or networks succeeded in mobilising civil society between 2011 and 2013; about one year after the Troika has left the country, only some of them remain. The Portuguese social movement-based protest has returned to silence, and mobilisation has almost exclusively become the resort of trade unions.

2011: The Take-Off of Social Movement Activism

In an interdependent world, Portugal was one of the biggest sufferers of the global financial crisis. The socio-economic crisis hit Portugal mainly in 2011, which was a year of great political and social changes.

In March, due to the disapproval of the socialist government proposal of a fourth stability and economic pack by the parliament and due to a large demonstration against the government, named Geração à Rasca (the desperate generation), the Portuguese Prime-Minister resigned. In April, the socialist government required external economic assistance, and soon after the Troika, experts from the European Commission (EC), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) arrived in Portugal.

The Troika negotiated a programme with the Portuguese government based on structural reforms of the financial sector and on improving economic competitiveness. In order to fulfil these aims, a wide range of welfare cuts were imposed on the country: there were cuts in the healthcare and educational systems, the unemployment benefits and incomes in public employment were reduced, etc. Apart from this, there was also a large increase in taxes.

In June, the conservative party, PSD – Partido Social Democrata (Social Democratic Party), won the elections. Since then, by increasing the austerity measures, the government has gone even further than what was stipulated in the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the EC, ECB and IMF.

Within such a political and social context, social movements flourished in Portugal. There was a growth in alternative non-governmental projects, like self-organised centers, forums, platforms, movements and solidarity-based networks, whose general objectives were to fight against austerity measures, precarious work, unemployment and the increase in taxes. They furthermore demanded sustainable economic growth, better life conditions and participatory democracy.

Following these features, we aim to give an answer to the following questions: what are the main social projects or movements in Portugal? What are their targets? What were their action forms? What has been their political and social impact?

 

After years of repression, there was a spread of popular mobilisation and various attempts were made by political parties, trade unions and citizen groups to organise civil society.

 

Geração à Rasca and the Rebirth of Social Movement Activism

In Portugal, strong civil society groups and high levels of political participation are not common. The highest moment of political activism was in 1974-1975, during the revolutionary period that followed the end of the dictatorial regime (Estado Novo). After years of repression, there was a spread of popular mobilisation and various attempts were made by political parties, trade unions and citizen groups to organise civil society.

However, these high levels of political mobilisation and activism were followed by a long period of low participation that ended in 2011, on March 12th, with the protest of Geração à Rasca. With the participation of over 200,000 people, it was the biggest demonstration in Portugal since the Carnation Revolution of 1974. The organisers of the Geração à Rasca protest emphasised its non-partisan, neither right nor left position and later created the Movimento 12 de Março – M12 M (12th March Movement) with the target of having an active and dynamic presence in supporting democracy in all spheres of life, calling for transparency in political decisions and fighting against precarious work.

The Geração à Rasca demonstration was a turning point for structural changes in Portuguese mobilisation: if until this date trade unions had had the monopoly of social mobilisation, for the first time civil society activists managed to organise large public protests independently.

After the success of the demonstration Geração à Rasca, and inspired by Spanish demonstrations, a new group appeared in Lisbon in May 2011, during the occupation of one of the main squares – Rossio Square: Plataforma 15 de Outubro – 15O (15th October Platform). This group, whose objective was to organise the Portuguese protests on a transnational day of action and uniting efforts with other groups around the world, was supported, amongst others, by the Indignados de Lisboa, Acampada Lisboa – Democracia Verdadeira Já, Portugal Uncut, ATTAC Portugal. They organised a demonstration, on 15th October 2011, which mobilised many thousands of people. After some more protest events, 15O lost its importance and some activists created a kind of platform with some similar objectives – the Que se Lixe a Troika! – QSLT (F*** the Troika!). In 2011 and 2012, new activist groups were created, like the Indignados de Lisboa, Movimento Gerações, Movimento Sem Emprego.

 

Que se Lixe a Troika… and the Government!

15th September 2012 is the date of the biggest demonstration in Portugal so far: more than 500,000 people took to the streets of Lisbon and other cities of Portugal. This mass protest, as well as the one on March 2nd 2013, was organised by a group whose slogan was Que se Lixe a Troika! Queremos as nossas vidas! (F*** the Troika! We want our lives!) – known simply as Que se Lixe a Troika! (QSLT) – a set of people who already knew each other from other social platforms and decided to get together to organise this demonstration.

Based on the same internationalist principles, such as gender equality, sustainable growth, environmental policies and homosexual rights, this group used some national historic symbols of protest, such as the symbolic song of the Carnation Revolution, Grândola, Vila Morena, to create a real sense of belonging to these struggles.

Similarly to M12 M and 15O, the QSLT has defined itself as a non-partisan group. The terms right or left were not mentioned and there were many expressions of political autonomy and independence. However, its ideological position was evident given the personal overlap of many QSLT activists being also active in the trade union Confederação Geral dos Trabalhadores Portugueses – CGTP (General Confederation of the Portuguese Workers) and in two left Portuguese political parties: Partido Comunista Português – PCP (Communist Portuguese Party) and Bloco de Esquerda – BE (Left Bloc).

 

Precários Inflexíveis: Continuity of Political Activism Beyond the Wave of Large Protest

If the great majority of the social groups mentioned above have been losing strength and some have even ended, Precários Inflexíveis (PI) has been a force on social activism in Portugal since its foundation during the activities of May Day 2007. This group was already concerned with precariousness in the labour market, a multilevel phenomenon that has been a reality in employment in recent decades, mostly in Southern European countries, and decided to use this event to raise awareness. In 2012, PI changed its organisational nature from an informal group into a formal association, Association against Precariousness/Inflexible Precarious, but without changing its aims and principles. Besides fighting against precariousness, it also supports other struggles, e.g. against xenophobia and LGBT discrimination and supports animal rights and ecological policies and leads a cultural centre with public debates around political issues.

 

Portuguese society is resistant to new forms of mobilisation. Traditional actors, such as labour unions and left-wing parties have always had the key roles in helping and sustaining mobilisation, which shaped activism during the entire democratic period.

 

The political targets, the way PI operates and a large number of members of BE leave no doubt that this movement can be classified as a left-wing association. This location in the political spectrum makes it easier for PI to build bridges with other left-wing social networks, trade unions and political parties, in order to cooperate in the denunciation of precariousness or to march together in larger manifestations against austerity, the Troika and the government. In this sense, PI has had an important role in organising the protests in Lisbon and all over Portugal. Regarding the 12th March 2011, PI helped to organise it, but was not directly involved in the call; instead, four young people initiated it, via Facebook. Nevertheless, in the other demonstrations – 15th October 2011, 15th September 2012, 2nd March 2013 and 1st June 2013 – the strategy was different. The calls were either launched in the name of a platform of various groups, putting just the name of the platform or they were launched in the name of individuals – well-known names from political parties, trade unions, academia, culture or activist groups.

 

Leaving the Field to the Trade Unions

The levels of social movement activism and the number of social groups spread in 2011, when the Troika entered Portugal and the austerity measures began to gain importance in Portuguese politics. The Troika has already left the country, but the austerity measures remain. However, the number of demonstrations and protests led by social platforms has been declining since 2013.

How can this be explained? Portuguese society is resistant to new forms of mobilisation. Traditional actors, such as labour unions and left-wing parties have always had the key roles in helping and sustaining mobilisation, which shaped activism during the entire democratic period. After the short period of experimenting with new forms of social movement activism inspired by protests abroad, a high level of contention in the country and the hopes to change politics, many of the people who participated in the protests in 2011-2013 lost interest in this form of political activism or refrained because of the lack of political consequences.

The trade unions remained more successful in organising protests because they have different organising principles based on membership and professional or job-related interests that are more specific and easier to organize. In 2014, for example, we observed a lot of profession-specific protests organised by trade unions, like the protest of the teachers, the policemen or the strikes of the public transport workers, while the broad issues of 2011-2012 – e.g. real democracy, or general claims against unemployment or precarious lives – disappeared from the street protests.

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