A couple of weeks after the October 4th parliamentary elections in Portugal, I met a friend of mine who was visiting the country, and it didn’t take long for the subject to take over the conversation. My friend, whose face Plato must have envisioned when he imagined the Form of adorableness even though she was born only a few decades ago, left Portugal to take advantage of a job opportunity abroad, and living far away from the country she naturally doesn’t follow the day-to-day details of Portuguese politics as closely as someone who persists in trying to survive here. After all that had come to pass since Election Day, the only thing that occurred to her was to ask “what the hell is going on in this country?” She hasn’t been the only one asking this question.
On November 24th, President Aníbal Cavaco Silva, a former Prime-Minister from the center-right party PSD, nominated António Costa, leader of the center-left Socialist Party (PS), as the new Prime-Minister. On October 4th, no one would have foreseen such an outcome. After four years of implementing severe austerity measures, the governing center-right coalition between PSD and CDS emerged from the proceedings with the largest share of the vote (36,8%) and MPs (107 out of 230), while PS and Costa wasn’t able to get more than 32,4% and 86 MPs; the extreme-left party Bloco de Esquerda (BE) managed to obtain 10,2% of the votes and 19 MPs, while the Communist Party (PCP) and their satellite party Os Verdes – ‘The Greens’ – got 8,3% and 17 MPs (the animal rights party PAN elected the remaining one, with 1,4% of the votes). The next morning, the London’s Daily Telegraph reported Portugal had “made political history” for having the first government “in the euro’s five-year lurch from debt crisis to debt crisis” to get re-elected after ‘overseeing a bail-out programme’; The American Interest hailed the result as a “victory of ‘un-populism’”, in which – in contrast to what had happened in Greece – ‘the anti-establishment parties have not been able to present themselves as real contenders for power’. Even the understandably-less-enthusiastic (left-lwaning) The Guardian said “the result shows that Portugal is not Greece” and provided “an opportunity for the two main parties to cooperate”. Yet just a few days later, things changed so dramatically that one could be led to erroneously believe that another election had taken place in the interim.
Even as President Cavaco Silva approached Pedro Passos Coelho (the incumbent Prime Minister and leader of PSD) and asked him to try to form a new government, António Costa announced he was to engage in meetings with both the Communists and BE to form a government with the support of a parliamentary majority. On the right, Costa’s initiative was seen as a coup d’etat, an attempt to climb into power even after losing the election; on the left, the coup d’etat accusations were directed at Cavaco Silva for nominating Passos Coelho even though he was sure to lose a parliamentary vote of confidence. To make matters even more confusing, the (conservative) Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard sided with the latter, claiming the President had “refused to appoint a Left-wing coalition government even though it secured an absolute majority in the Portuguese parliament and won a mandate to smash the austerity regime bequeathed by the EU-IMF Troika”. In fact, PS, BE and PCP were yet to reach an agreement by October 25th, the day Cavaco Silva nominated Coelho to try to form a “stable government”, so there still was no absolute majority that would justify bypassing the party with the largest share of the vote.
On November 6th, just three days before the parliamentary vote of confidence the PSD/CDS coalition would have to face if it were to remain in power, the agreement was closer but still hadn’t been finalized. The Telegraph reported: “Communists ready to assume power in Portugal and topple conservative government”, which wasn’t totally true: the deal in store would not contemplate an actual participation of neither BE nor PCP in the government; they would merely support a Socialist government in exchange for a few policy measures they deemed fundamental for the country’s well-being (public sector and minimum wage raises, tax cuts, cancelling public transport’s privatization). Communists wouldn’t “assume power”; they are propping up PS into power in order to secure benefits they regarded as crucial to the country and the interest groups that support them.
Back on October 4th, the chattering classes hurried to interpret the coalition’s then-still-regarded-as-such victory, and many believed that, faced with a still looming uncertainty and far from being safe from financial difficulties, the Portuguese electorate put aside their poor opinion of the coalition and voted for the devil they knew: they might decry the austerity that had been imposed on them, but they were reluctant to empower the Socialists (who had been responsible for the near-bankruptcy that brought austerity on) for that would carry with it a degree of uncertainty that looked frightening to them, considering the country’s yet-to-be-overcome predicament. I might be mistaken, but it seems to me that Costa was one of the people who held this interpretation of the election results. It seems to me that Costa believes that the reason why PS failed to take advantage of all the anger against the incumbent government (two days before the election, a poll revealed that only 19,7% of the people thought PSD/CDS had improved the country’s condition) was that people were gripped by a conservative fear of the unknown, and that if PS managed to get into government and had the opportunity to introduce a few popular measures easing austerity, that same impulse to go with “the devil you know” would hurt PSD/CDS instead of the Socialists in a future – probably early – election.
Costa, like the Telegraph, The Guardian, The American Interest or my friend, didn’t understand “what the hell is going on” in Portugal. The result of the election showed two things: first, a huge dissatisfaction with the job the coalition had done; and second, an even more significant lack of trust in PS as a credible alternative. Going into government after it failed to look like a preferable choice than a failed government, PS would likely also fail to overcome that pre-existing distrust: Costa’s every decision would be confronted with the same lack of credit he and his party merited in the election; even the “popular” measures he plans to introduce would in all likelihood be regarded as shameless attempts to buy votes, policies “too good to be true” that would end up costing much more in the near future with another bail-out programme than they would pay in the short-term, and instead of propelling into the electoral victory that escaped him this time around, it would cause him to suffer an even more resounding defeat whenever his government were to face the voters’ judgement.
Costa has seriously misjudged the nature of the crisis afflicting Portugal’s political system: far from resulting from a simple – and circumstantial – lack of a parliamentary majority, it consists of a structural lack of trust in every available political alternative by a huge chunk of the electorate, that even after rescinding their support from one party neglects to transfer it to the main opposition party, instead choosing either to vote for a protest party with no chance to win or to stay at home (the turnout in this election was the lowest ever in a parliamentary election in Portugal). As with many of the problems the country faces, it is a situation caused by the inability of every government of any party to tame the Leviathan that is the Portuguese State.
Passos Coelho’s government inherited and –despite its rhetoric – kept a statist monster that suffocates Portuguese society: the State keeps spending half of the wealth created in the country; the services it aims to provide are largely ineffective; the supposed egalitarianism of a “Welfare State” that aims to provide everything to everyone – to those who need the helping hand of the State and to those who don’t – turns into an unfair system that – precisely because it wants to provide for those who need it and those who don’t – ends up giving too much to don’t who don’t need it and not enough to those who do; and to make matters worse, the State needs to extract more and more wealth from the pockets and bank accounts of its taxpayers in order to feed this Behemoth.
People naturally dislike this situation and what it means for their daily lives. And yet, about 60% of them are (according to estimates by Henrique Medina Carreira, a former-Finance-Minister-turned-commentator) directly or indirectly dependent on State money to conduct them. That, in turn, results in a seemingly unsolvable puzzle: people are simultaneously dissatisfied with the status quo and opposed to its reform; every government, whether it chooses to keep things as they are or to fight the interest groups opposed to reforms, is then doomed to be punished with the electorate’s wrath. And the lesser the electorate at large supports any political alternative, the more every main party becomes dependent on those interest groups that are dependent on the status quo, thus making reforms even less likely, the consequences of this ever more grave, further marginalizing a large part of the electorate and consequently deteriorating the country’s condition.
Come to think of it, maybe my friend is the one who fully understood the mess Portugal is in, and was wise enough to go live somewhere else.
Bruno Alves lives in Caxias, Portugal, but sometimes wishes he didn’t. He writes about politics, film and TV for O Insurgente, is an op-ed contributor to the Lisbon daily Diário Económico and a weekly commentator for its cable TV channel ETV, and has written for the American online film magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room and for the British website CapX. Bruno welcomes both writing job offers and insults at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can also find him on Twitter @ba_lifeofbruno.