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Portuguese Socialist Seguro should learn from Bersani’s mistakes

Crisis is palpable in Portugal. In an article on one of Portugal’s most widely read newspapers, former President Mário Soares, one of the most respected political figures in Portugal, said that the government was ‘neither legitimate nor democratic’, publicly urging it to resign. This follows after an estimated 1.5 million people across the country took to the streets on Saturday under the slogan ‘Screw the Troika! We want our lives!’.

Yet while trust in the right-wing coalition government, elected less than two years ago, is fast eroding, the democratic left, under the host of the Partido Socialista (PS), is lagging behind, unable to convince the wider population that it is capable of an alternative. The Socialists’ sluggish rise in opinion polls have led to many publicly questioning the leader, far rarer in Portuguese than in British politics. Just a month ago, the party leader, António José Seguro, faced a very public threat of leadership dispute from the popular Mayor of Lisbon, António Costa, who had coalesced the Third Way and a young, emerging Left current in the party.

In spite of rampant hubris from many members of his team, Seguro has taken in some of the criticism launched at him – as seen in his decision to vote against the budget and endorse Saturday’s protests, great improvements compared to an earlier abstention and other ambiguous positions. Indeed, there are times when Seguro speaks clearly in favour of stimulus and welfare, and rejects the destructive obsession with austerity that is throwing Portugal down a bottomless pit of poverty and joblessness. In contrast to the government’s subservient foreign policy, he has led a comprehensive international agenda, hosting Socialist International and Party of European Socialists meetings and going around Europe to talk to his counterparts. Perhaps for this reason his failure has not been absolute.

But then again neither was Bersani’s. One would think that someone with such a passion for party-political diplomacy would learn from his peers’ mistakes. In his recent article in Left Futures, Ben Folley analyses how Bersani’s ambiguous and conflicting messages on austerity prevented him from connecting with voters struggling with the recession. Despite leads in the polls, Bersani and his PD did not convince voters to turnout for a project which they were uncertain would deliver jobs and growth. In Portugal, Seguro and his ‘intelligent austerity’ also lead in the polls, but might well find the same difficulty, should he not take a more decisive stance on ending the imposed national impoverishment.

If Seguro wishes to affirm an alternative and win elections, he should learn from Bersani’s mistake and take Folley’s advice to the European Left: “The sooner the European left rejects the whole framework of spending cuts and deficit reduction, and stands instead on a new public investment programme, the better.”

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