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International Socialism, July/August 1976


Robin Peterson


The Significance of the Election


From International Socialism (1st series), No.90, July/August 1976, pp.8-11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE first thing that must concern us in the presidential election in Portugal is the part played by the revolutionary left. It is not an abstract question because the working class movement was not killed by the events of 25 November. Still we have the workers’ commissions and still there are hundreds of factories being run without their former bosses. The right may have been able to halt the land occupations but they are not strong enough to evict most of the occupiers. The main attacks are less direct with inflation of up to 50 per cent per month and enormous unemployment aggravated by the displaced settlers from the colonies. This indirect attack is coupled with an erosion of the confidence of the workers – some workers are demoralised by the attempt to build socialism in one factory, and others are sapped by the lack of expertise. At present this ideological attack is far more important than any direct attack upon the organs of popular power. This makes it all the more crucial that we examine the alternatives posed by revolutionaries.

The Extent of Support for Otelo de Carvalho

The UDP, PRP, MES and FSP are definitely supporting Otelo for president – that is all the important revolutionary groups. (Incidentally the MRPP are supporting Eanes.) Many more will vote for Otelo than voted for the total of all the left candidates in the recent elections for the legislative assembly. The support of hundreds of thousands of votes shows us that the working class was only stunned by the events of November 25. In Porto we have had the biggest demonstration for two years, that is since the heady days of April/May 1974. On the 16 May, prior to the launching of the official campaign, there was a meeting of people who were prepared to commit themselves to the Otelo campaign. This meeting was hardly advertised – it was intended as an organisational meeting, and yet more than a thousand people turned up that Sunday afternoon. Incidentally Otelo didn’t attend this meeting, because at the time he was still restricted by the military from taking an active part in political meetings. Nevertheless two days previously Otelo paraded himself at a prominent meeting of leftish, intellectual social democrats (organised by CIS). Many traditional Communist Party strongholds are supporting Otelo. It seems likely that the majority of the people who voted for the PCP in the recent elections will vote for Otelo and not the Communist Party candidate.

Who Is Otelo?

While it is true that Otelo is seen as the chief engineer of the coup which overthrew fascism in 1974, he has not been seen consistently at the side of the workers in their struggle to overthrow capitalism. One of the very weaknesses of the revolutionary process in Portugal is that many of the left did not challenge the Castroite notion of the revolution guided, and indeed undertaken, by the army. When asked if he saw himself as a Marxist Otelo answered no: he would rather see himself as some sort of latter-day Robin Hood. The trouble with Robin Hood is that he hid in the forests and earned his popularity by robbing the rich to feed the poor; he was not out to organise the poor to destroy the rich.

In the summer and autumn of last year there was very little room for compromise between the two major classes. And that is precisely what Otelo did. Let us look at a few incidents.

In early August two captains, perhaps influenced by the Communist Party, deposed colonel Jaimes Neves, the extreme right wing commander of the Amadora commandos. Otelo was instrumental in releasing and reinstating him, the very man who was to serve as the butcher on 25 November and who was directly instrumental in Otelo’s downfall.

In the middle of August a group of nine officers (several of whom were founders of the MFA) released a document which implicitly sided with the reactionary forces and immediately received unanimous support from right wing elements in the armed forces. In response a group of COPCON officers released a document which was not only self-critical about the role of the army, but it also supported and re-affirmed the support for the movement of people’s power and also proposed a series of concrete measures to satisfy the demands of the small peasants, and to guarantee an alliance between workers, peasants, the armed units, and the petit bourgeoisie. The split was fundamental. Yet Otelo was mediating between the group of nine and the COPCON grouping. On 20 August up to a hundred thousand people and at least a thousand soldiers and sailors demonstrated in support of the COPCON programme. Otelo didn’t support the demonstration. An overwhelming majority in COPCON thea dissociated themselves from any attempt on the part of Otelo, the commander of COPCON, to negotiate with the ‘group of 9’.

The group of nine were largely responsible for the overthrow of the fifth provisional government and the imposition of a number of setbacks on the working class. One such attack was on 29 September when the government tried to occupy all the radio stations. Otelo wouldn’t rescind the orders of his troops. At the demonstration called by FUR Otelo spoke from the platform. When introduced as ‘our general’ the shout went up from the crowd, ‘he is not ours’ and also, traitor’.

On 25 November Otelo was perhaps the one person with the authority to establish an alternative chain of command. After all, the excuse of the offensive from the right was the toppling of Otelo from the command of the military region of Lisbon. Instead of organising from the barracks, Otelo went down to the palace of Betem to see the president. And there he was detained.

Even so, some weeks later, on the very day he was imprisoned, he was quoted as saying that he was correct in finding some compromise between the group of nine, his jailors, and the COPCON grouping.

What Political Programme

There is no evidence of this particular leopard changing his spots. His programme is extremely vague. Nevertheless Otelo is the only candidate who is standing in defence of the organs of popular power, the base organisations of workers and for the unity of the working class. His is not a programme of demands, of activity. Let us take the attitude towards the army as our litmus test. While it is correct to say that ‘the military can’t go back to being a toy in the hands of the new senhores of politics, puppets for inspection duties and parades, or even less police at the service of the half dozen owners of the country ...’ he has nothing to say about the organisation of the soldiers in the army. He has nothing to say about democracy in the barracks, and the decrease of the enormous differentials between the pay of the officers and the ranks. (It’s no coincidence that Otelo said that there was no need for SUV, the rank and file movement which mushroomed in the forces in September.)

Otelo’s Election Programme

Indeed Otelo said

‘I accept the rules of the constitution of the democratic game ... I accept the defence and acting out of the constitution ... But I want to say to the Portuguese people, whose power is consecrated in the constitution that it was their determination and will which permitted the most sensitive gains of the 25 April ...’ (Extracts from Pagina UM, speech given to Setenave workers).

This grovelling for respectability is reminiscent of the Communist Party, whether at its most subservient, in Chile in Allende’s time, in Portugal and Italy at the moment and in Britain for the last twenty years. Many right wing reformist groups have a fiery revolutionary programme. What distinguishes a revolutionary programme is not the propaganda but the activity and the demands raised.

The weakness of the programme is actually a reflection of the uncritical attitude of revolutionary groups involved in the campaign. This in turn is a hallmark of the struggles of Portuguese workers. While the struggle of Portuguese workers has been without doubt the most important and political battle of workers for decades it has not fought against the millstone of Social Democracy as the fever of transitional demands were not used.

The very political nature of the movement hindered the change of tack needed after 25 November. Now the top item on the agenda is not workers’ power, but a whole series of partial and immediate demands in order to hold the movement together.

The position of the PRP

The PRP were making preparations for backing Otelo before the elections of the legislative assembly and long before any other groups. The eventual publication of the daily paper, Pagina UM, dominated by the PRP, was entirely oriented towards the Otelo campaign. Indeed the PRP has had some sort of special relationship with Otelo for some time. The elections are the first the PRP have participated in and they mark an important outward turn. But there is the worry that they are expecting too many doors to be opened – especially as this is their first campaign – and because it is the first, the roots they have sunk cannot be very deep.

Yet another lesson from Portugal is that popular support is no substitute for revolutionary organisation. Although it is possible, and very important, to bring thousands out onto the streets there are no short cuts to building revolutionary organisation. We have a recent example of Bernadette Devlin who represented a large movement, and yet she has been unable to build a revolutionary organisation. History has thrown up many populist figures who have attempted to ride to power on the back of the workers’ movement. Take Peron from Argentina for example: when he got back into power he turned and bit the hand that helped him.

Influence and special relationships are not part of our armoury. Undoubtedly the PRP had great influence amongst the left wing officers before 25 November. But what was necessary was the disciplined bond with a revolutionary organisation.

Political bonds cannot be built of uncritical support. The PRP press was given only one faint glimpse of Otelo’s weakness, when they replied to a letter in Revoluçao about the ‘hesitations’ of Otelo. The reply pointed out that it was not the man but the moment that counted, and in the case of Otelo, he was aware of his own record of hesitations and contradictions.

Should revolutionaries not have nominated Otelo for president? The future of the workers’ movement in Portugal cannot lie with a military figure, especially one as dubious as Otelo. To us, outside Portugal, it is crystal clear that the reason the Portuguese revolution has faltered is precisely because of the illusions in the left military and in the failure to fight for a political alternative. In our view if the PRP had backed Isobel de Carmo, for instance, the campaign would have been much more rooted in the workers’ movement.

Given that there are no other candidates worth voting for, the question is do we abstain or support Otelo. Undoubtedly we support the campaign. If Otelo gets a very low poll the movement will suffer in confidence. The campaign is an opportunity to talk and argue revolutionary alternatives to the widest possible audience.

One cannot underestimate the isolation and pressures that revolutionaries in PRP and MES feel. Although the direct assaults upon the workers’ movement are still isolated, we must take into account the fact that an offensive has taken place on all fronts, and there is an enormous subjective demoralisation that has to be taken into account since 25 November.

The Communist Party and the Election

For the first time since 25 November, the left have significantly dented the authority of the Communist Party. For once it is the Communist Party who are being seen as the splitters. The Communist Party got into this position as a result of their steady drift to the right and their dominant strategy of entering into government by forcing the Socialist Party to take them into alliance. Eager to show their respectability, and not to rock the boat, the Communist Party were prepared to back General Ramalho Eanes. Let it be said that Eanes is known as the man of the 25 November and was recently linked with the stories about Spinola re-organising his secret fascist army. The Communist Party is currently attacking him as being implicated in the 11 March effort by the right. Yet they are also saying they would have backed Eanes if the right, the PPD and the CDS, were not backing him.

All this was valuable ammunition for the supporters of Otelo. The Communist Party was in terrible disarray, there being reportedly, a split between their functionaries and the central committee. The functionaries got their way. and the Communist Party fielded its own candidate late in the day. The person they eventually chose was a member of the secretariat of the Intersindical, Octavio Pato.

There is a long history of mistrust between the Communist Party and Otelo. The party has been forced to resort to a bitter campaign against Otelo, which has discredited it even in the eyes of some of its own members. There is a report of how the Otelo support commission in Cacem was attended by PCP members, who were then suspended by the party. Some refused suspension and tore up their membership cards. And there is the example, already quoted, of the party members in Evora who refused to distribute leaflets attacking Otelo. Unfortunately the Communist Party have been able to make some fundamentally correct criticisms of Otelo (which is a case of the rat sniffing out a smaller rat) and the left have not been able to answer because of their uncritical support and also the lack of a real alternative programme.

The Future

The international press is not giving much coverage to this election. The predicted turnout will be lower, partly because the result is a foregone conclusion. The alliance of the Socialist Party and the right wing forces will win the day. However the whole process is a very important part of the stabilisation of Portuguese capital, and much more important, creates the conditions in which international capital, especially German capital, can descend and take the pickings.

The President is likely to play a far more important part in consolidating the recuperation of capital than the recently elected National Assembly. This is because Portugal’s new constitution places the head of state at the fulcrum of a fragile set of relationships between the government, the parliament and the military leadership, and endows him with potentially enormous powers should this arrangement break down. It seems in the immediate future that neither fascism or socialism is on the order paper. There is an attempt to create a ‘social democracy’ – in the name of the people, the breakdown of class differences, national independence and democracy, the battle of production and so on.

There is no chance of building a secure ‘social democrat’ order. There are two outstanding reasons – the strength of the proletariat – and the pressures of the economic crises. When the traditional social democracies of Northern Europe are having to be more and more repressive to maintain their fragile orders what chance is there in Portugal? Of course, Portuguese social democracy is going to have to be very aggressive – that is oppressive. But also, the right wing are trying to use social democracy in exactly the same way that the Labour government is, in times if crisis, a much better policeman than the Tories. And given the instability, one particular gyration cannot be ruled out – that of including Otelo in a future permutation of government.

Undoubtedly the movement wilt take courage from the fact that there is still some sort of mass base. And also, some will take courage from the fact that the different groups are able to work in a common campaign there is no way of fighting the being wasted. MES and the PRP have not developed an independent and critical campaign of support. Without a critical campaign there is no way of fighting the danger that Otelo is using the workers’ movement.

Part of the same parcel is the subordination of the politics of the different groups to the campaign. In this respect the UPD have less hesitation of declaring their colours, and although they may be sectarian they will be spelling out how a revolutionary party relates to such electoral alliances. Because of this they will be able to build.

There are still many lessons and developments that have to be learnt before the revolutionary party is built in Portugal. Perhaps the involvement in the Otelo campaign will clarify the differences between popular front and united front activity. Perhaps members of the PRP will be more readily able to appreciate the fact that fighting elections is essentially a tactical question, and how important it is that revolutionaries seize all opportunities to argue to their audience. And in Portugal, it is still the case that the audience is very large.

The analysis in this article, written before the election, has been confirmed by the results. The Communist Party got just under 8 per cent of the vote (compared to 15 per cent in the Assembly elections) to Otelo’s nearly 16 per cent. The right-wing victor, Eanes, polled 61 percent – nearly 15 per cent below the combined SP-PPD-CDS vote for the Assembly – indicating a shift of SP voters to Azevedo, Otelo and abstention.

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