Portuguese anti-austerity struggle intensifies

Photo: pedrosimoes7
Anti-austerity protest Lisbon

By Nicky Dempsey

The main Portuguese trade union federation the Communist-led CGTP has called a one-day general strike for November 14 in response to the announcement of the government’s latest austerity measures.

The announcement follows huge mobilisations against government policies, in what were widely described as the largest demonstrations in Portugal since the revolution which overthrew the Caetano dictatorship in 1974.

The demonstrations at the end of September were called in protest at the government’s announced plans to cut social security payments for employers and to hike them for workers. This blatant transfer of incomes from the working class to capital drew somewhere between 650,000 to 1 million out on to the streets in protest, that is up to 10 per cent of the entire population. The right-wing Social Democrat-led government was forced to retreat in the face of overwhelming opposition.

The latest measures announced in October are an attempt to increase taxes by a similar amount. They are accompanied by measures such as a luxury property tax and a ‘Robin Hood’ or Financial Transactions Tax. But, as elsewhere these populist measures are promoted in order to distract from the outright attack on the living standards of the overwhelming majority.

These include an income tax surcharge of 4 per cent and the lowering of tax thresholds which will push most employees into a higher rate of income tax. Government claims that the previous measures were designed to boost competiveness are completely belied by the switch to hitting worker’s incomes directly by increasing income taxes rather than social security payments.

Mobilisations of up to 1 million people have forced the government to retreat on a policy that was also strongly supported by the ‘Troika’ of the EU, European Central Bank and the IMF. This is an important lesson for the entire anti-austerity movement across Europe. Support for the ruling parties combined has halved since the June 2011 general election to 25 per cent. Very little of that has switched to the former governing Socialist Party, which had itself implemented austerity measures.

Instead, both the Democratic Unity Coalition comprised mainly of a current from the former Communist Party and Greens, as well as the Left Bloc have made some advances. This reflects their leadership of and participation in the major anti-austerity mobilisations. Even so, their combined support is barely above 20 per cent in polls, from 13 per cent in the general election. Polls also show the growth of various ‘independent’ forces and increased abstentionism.

Neither the government nor the Troika have caved in. The latest package simply removes the obvious benefit to employers while retaining the reduction in workers’ living standards. Yet the anti-austerity left in Portugal has shown that it can force the government to alter course through huge mobilisations which unify all those opposed to the effects of government policy.

The November 14 strike is an opportunity to build that self-confidence and to begin to develop a policy alternative to the alternating parties of austerity.