I have been getting back, up to speed, with my internet sources of juicy tid-bits.
After reading Bill Mitchell’s latest article on his blog: “The tale of two nations – democracy dies in Portugal and lives in Canada“, I realise that I was being just a little bit too glib and off-hand about the recent elections in Portugal in my post yesterday. In fact, I got myself a little back to front with my comments. In addition, it appears that more than one version of the same events can be found and all the stories are presented as “factual” or “as they happened”. The problem is not made any easier because most of the stories that can be found in English are translations from Portuguese.
So be warned. Take what is written here, there and everywhere as “a version of the facts, subject to verification and correction”.
It was not the elections themselves that was the fiasco. The elections, in fact, were a roaring success. Err…for the anti-austerity parties that is. Only it took them a while to realise what the electoral arithmetic really meant in reality (obviously there are no mathematical wizz-kids like Varoufakis in the Portuguese political scene). But, to be fair, let’s go through what happened, one step at a time.
So, the centre-right wing coalition, Portugal Ahead, obtained the highest number of parliamentary seats (16 seats more than the next major party, the Socialist Party). This entitled them to be the first party to be given the opportunity to form the new government. So far, so good. However, the disadvantage they faced was that their total number of seats were not sufficient for a parliamentary majority.
Portugal Ahead (PaF) was really just a re-manifestation of the older Portugal Alliance, which had been formed to contest the 2014 European Parliamentary election. Prior to the Oct 2015 elections, the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the People’s Party (CDS-PP) decided to participate as a combined coalition that they named Portugal Ahead. Their stance is pro-Euro and pro-EU and they have pledged to continue the EU’s unpopular austerity measures in the face of mass opposition from the average working person.
The opposition parties consist of the Socialist Party (PS), the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), the Greens (PEV) and the Left Bloc (BE). The Communists and the Greens had already been collaborating together for some years in a coalition called the Unitary Democratic Coalition (CDU).
It must be noted that the PS is a bit of the odd-man out in this grouping of so called opposition parties. The PS, centre-left wing, was in power when the first economic crisis hit Portugal in 2011 and they proposed the introduction of the austerity policies in conjunction with the Troika in the first place. However, when the entire opposition voted against the government on these measures, the PM resigned and snap elections took place. Predictably, the PS lost badly in the 2011 elections and they were replaced with a coalition of the the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the People’s Party (CDS-PP). This led to a big shake up in the PS and the party is still struggling to maintain its electoral support. In addition, the public’s trust in the PS has continued to waver and many consider the PS to be a bit of a “go-with-the-flow” party (like Syriza has turned out to be). Maintaining the trust of the public was not made any easier when the ex-leader (and ex PM) of the PS was jailed on corruption charges last year. Their stance is also pro-Euro and pro-EU, but they have announced that they will pursue policies of anti-austerity as well. Maybe many Portuguese know clearly what the PS stands for and what the PS position is on many subjects. However, I am still not totally clear on these points, so I will not try to attempt any further clarification here.
Just before the elections, there was a widely held view that the centre-right coalition (PaF) and the centre-left PS would most likely “join forces” to be able to form a pro-EU, pro-Euro majority government. However, for reasons not yet clearly understood, the leader of the PS has embarked upon a different course of action, placing his party in opposition to PaF.
OK, so far? I must apologise for deviating a little off track here. It became difficult to logically place today’s events into context without having some historical background. Let’s continue.
Shortly after the elections, the PS must have added up all of the numbers and realised that the ingredients existed to turn the Portuguese political status quo up-side-down, if they were to be smart enough and bold enough to go for it. After a little bit of wheeling and dealing, haggling and trading had gone on (the details of which we will, no doubt, eventually get to hear about), the PS announced that the CDU (the coalition of the the Communists and the Greens) and the Left Bloc (BE) had agreed to form a “historic” triple alliance with the PS. This would then give them sufficient seats to allow them to form a majority coalition government.
The PS leader António Costa declared, “We believe that conditions from the Socialist Party’s side are in place for a solution that has majority support in parliament and that guarantees political stability and what the Portuguese expressed in the October 4th election, which is a desire of a political change.”
The Portuguese President was then made aware of this “triple alliance” agreement. And this is when the fiasco occurred. He chose to ignore the arithmetic!
A few days later, on 22 October, the Portuguese President announced in a speech that he would first call upon Portugal Ahead to form the new government.
The problem that Portugal Ahead will have is that when we add up the seats of the centre-left/left wing coalition, it comes to 122 seats, 20 more than the PaF. Anyone see a problem looming here! The first clash is expected to be in about 10 days time when the new government’s program for the country must be brought before a vote in parliament.
The online, Lisbon-based newspaper Observador published a detailed account of the speech made by the President Cavaco Silva on October 22, 2015 to justify his extraordinary decision – Críticas, dúvidas, subentendidos. 9 chaves para perceber o discurso do Presidente.
The President said that he had rejected the vote of the people because (paraphrasing from the Portuguese):
1. Portugal needs a governance solution that ensures political stability including honouring international obligations.
2. The left-wing parties programs are not compatible with the strategic objectives of Portugal.
3. The new government had to maintain the targets on public debt and the structural deficit and maintain a commitment to the euro.
4. Compliance with the commitments under the Euro Zone is decisive and absolutely crucial to the financing of the economy and, consequently, economic growth and job creation.
5. Exiting the Eurozone would be catastrophic.
6. The PS is proposing a coalition of extremists and in the 40 years of democracy, no government in Portugal has ever depended on the support of anti-European forces … or have parties that campaigned to abrogate the Lisbon Treaty, the Fiscal Compact, the Stability and Growth Pact, as well as the dismantling of the economic and monetary union and to advocate the exit of Portugal from the Eurozone and the dissolution of NATO of which Portugal is a founding member.
7. After having introduced a demanding financial assistance program, which involved heavy sacrifices for the Portuguese people, it is my duty, within my constitutional powers, to do everything to prevent wrong signals to be transmitted to financial institutions, investors and markets, which would undermine the confidence and credibility outside of the country.
Wow….riveting stuff! Sounds just like Greece. What a coincidence!
So the President has provided the explanations why he cannot let the Lefties, led by the irresponsible Socialists, come into power. Notwithstanding the fact that their coalition would have the most (and majority) seats in parliament and, but why should this matter, that this coalition has the vote of the citizens.
In some ways, I can sympathize with the Portuguese President and his dilemma (but only for a second). The Left Wing parties in Portugal sound like Syriza on steroids. And they are not making any contradicting promises to their voters either. Their battle lines are clear and they are not filled with lots of promises of a new utopia. In a last ditch effort to avert a catastrophe, the EU Masters have told the President what needed to be done.
Goodbye Democracy! And we thought the book, 1984, was a work of fiction.
But wait a minute. Why is none of this being flashed across our TV screens? Well, it is at times like this that I smell a rat.
With only a superficial and basic knowledge of Portuguese affairs, have I got my story wrong or, at least, are any of my conclusions too far fetched?
In the run up to the first Greek elections this year, my knowledge of the Greek economic crisis, the effects of austerity and the power play in Greek politics was being added to, daily. Stories about Greece, who was to blame and what should be done were being splashed around liberally. Anywhere and everywhere you looked, there was a story about Greece.
And now, how does this compare to events in Portugal? If it were not for bloggers like Iglinavos and Bill Mitchell, this story might just slip quietly past us. Surely the support and encouragement that many of us gave to the Greeks when they faced their difficult choices, we should now be giving to the Portuguese?
“Workers, rise up. The revolution is upon us!”…………..OK, relax, relax. It’s just me getting a bit carried away.
Seriously, though. I am no longer an advocate of the break-up of the EU or the Eurozone. So choosing sides in Portugal is not that easy to do. But the people are fed up, the politicians in power are paralyzed and nothing improves. People are losing hope that anything will change for the better. 40 to 50% of voters do not even bother to vote in most elections in the Southern European countries. We cannot go on like this for much longer.
Yanis Varoufakis has been quietly (is that possible?…only kidding) beavering away at some plans which the more enlightened and better informed might have suspected were in the offing.
However, events on the ground may be about to overtake the more sensible approach to sorting out or at least re-arranging the economic mess that we are in. This has always been the high risk stakes being played out by the EU elites. And the risks just do not diminish. Spain is waiting in the wings.
Remember, during the second world war, one of the Allies brightest and best generals (yes, OK, he was actually a Field Marshal and lets not start a whole debate about whether he really was that bright or indeed one of the best) went a bridge too far. Just a little bit too cocky, over-confident and with a point to prove and it can all end in tears very quickly.