"Liberalism for All"

Roadmap of the Portuguese Liberals
Iniciativa Liberal

Iniciativa Liberal

© picture alliance / NurPhoto | Nuno Cruz

In Portugal, Prime Minister Antonio Costa and his center-left Partido Socialista party have ruled for many years - since the last elections, even with an absolute majority in parliament. But new forces are also changing the political landscape: the Liberal Party in Portugal is a true success story: only founded in 2017, the "Iniciativa Liberal" has managed to increase the number of its parliamentary mandates from one to eight in only its second attempt. The party has taken up the cause of urgently needed economic reforms and the de-bureaucratization of the state administration, which until recently had been highly stagnant politically. The Liberals succeeded in securing eight deputies. Braga, Porto, Lisbon and Setúbal were the districts in which the party won seats. The Iniciativa Liberal ran in this election based on only one seat in Parliament - Deputy João Cotrim de Figueiredo, who is also party leader.

The Madrid office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) recently had the opportunity to interview Rui Rocha, the leader of the Portuguese liberal party Iniciativa Liberal (IL), who was elected to office earlier this year.

FNF: According to recent polls, the party would get as much as 9.5% of the vote. What are the key factors behind the IL's rise in Portugal's political landscape?

Rui Rocha: Iniciativa Liberal was founded in 2017 with the aim of structurally transforming Portugal, giving citizens more political, economic and social freedom. IL had openly stated in its early political program that the country needed a smaller and more efficient state apparatus that did not unnecessarily burden the pockets of its citizens. IL has opted for an innovative political approach and transparent communication centered on the defense of freedom. The party has always tried to make citizens aware that the life project of each individual can only be realized far from any kind of authoritarianism, social engineering, and a paternalistic and omnipresent state. For example, IL had to withstand a frontal attack from mainstream published opinion when it spoke out against the rampant rules and restrictions on social life in the fight against the pandemic. At the time, the most basic individual rights and fundamental freedoms of citizens were undermined under the pretext of preserving public health. IL managed to withstand the attempt of the two largest parties, Partido Socialista (PS) - the Portuguese center-left party, a sister party of the German SPD, and the conservative Social Democratic Party (PSD), when it came to trying to change the constitution during the pandemic, for example.

IL has also consistently opposed the general discourse that it is impossible to reduce payroll taxes or guarantee the entire population real access to health and education with competition between public, private and social providers - while guaranteeing freedom of choice for citizens. We also stood firm as IL when we were the only ones to oppose the re-nationalization of the Portuguese airline Tap Air Portugal (TAP) and voted for its privatization. In just over five years, IL has built a sustainable political platform, without demagoguery and without extremist ideas. And it is precisely this platform that the Portuguese have joined because they simply reject this triple fatalism of economic stagnation, impoverishment and mass emigration. Today, the Portuguese population recognizes that the political alternative to socialism inevitably points in the direction of IL.

At the end of January, you were elected party leader at the IL party congress. What basic lines of action and goals have you set for your mandate?

I have chosen the slogan "Liberalism for all" for this mandate, because that is precisely my vision for the party and the country. Our goal is to spread liberalism to those parts of the population that are rather alien to liberal ideas or skeptical about them. Thus, IL will grow throughout the country and ultimately put an end to the two-party system that has existed in Portugal since 1976 and that has not been able to guarantee economic growth and prosperity. To this end, IL is currently drafting practical proposals that will improve the daily lives of the Portuguese people. Furthermore, we maintain our main proposals. These include the introduction of a flat rate for income tax (IRS in Portuguese acronym, author's note), privatization, de-bureaucratization and simplification of procedures in the state administration, liberalization of the transport and housing market, but also the search for concrete answers to the problems of environmental sustainability. Portugal has experienced very turbulent times from an economic and social perspective. In the last year, the Socialist Party-led government has brought democratic institutions into disrepute and created a high level of political instability as a result of successive legal and ethically despicable incidents. IL wants to change this. We want to establish ourselves as a political, economic and social alternative to the Socialist Party. IL will participate in all elections to strengthen its political presence. This year we will be elected in the elections to the Regional Parliament of the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira and we are confident that our voice will be heard in Brussels next year, namely when we will win at least one seat in the upcoming European elections.

What do you think IL can bring to the European level and/or learn from other liberal parties, especially in those areas that have traditionally been fundamental to the liberal family, such as education, human rights, the economy and free trade? 

IL is clearly pro-European and a champion of all freedoms. For us, the EU is an immense source of professional, academic, business, cultural and personal opportunities. We believe that the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) must take a central role in the discussion about Europe's place and future in the world. ALDE is a political family in which different sensitivities come together, which are not always easy to reconcile. But we must rise to this challenge. Europeans must perceive ALDE as a coherent and solid platform; a platform with clear principles and unambiguous political, economic and social objectives that are fully in line with the liberal idea. As far as the European institutions are concerned, there is no doubt that only a strengthening of ALDE in the sense of spreading liberalism - and via concrete policies through Renew Europe - can represent a truly liberal and differentiated alternative to other political families represented in the European Parliament. IL is always ready to contribute to the common liberal cause. In this context, we can, for example, share our knowledge and successful experience from Portugal to help parties in other countries succeed and ultimately strengthen the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.

First and foremost, however, we must hold fast to the ideal of freedom. All parties involved in our common project must commit themselves to these goals and push their respective internal political agendas somewhat into the background. Only in this way can we build on the ideas of others and adopt good practices from those countries where the implementation of liberalism is already more developed.

Odilia Abreu is Project Manager for the Mediterranean Dialogue Project at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Madrid.