Within a week, Europe will face one of the most serious challenges to democracy it has seen in many decades. On Nov. 10 Portugal’s minority right-wing government will likely lose a vote of confidence, initiating a series of events that will determine whether voters in the European Union (EU) still have the right to a government of their own choosing.
The crisis was set off by the Oct. 4 elections that saw the right-wing Forward Portugal coalition, which has overseen austerity policies that have driven 20 percent of the population below the poverty line, lose its majority in the parliament to three parties on the left: the Socialist Party, the Left Bloc, and a Communist/Green alliance.
Forward Portugal, an alliance of the Social Democratic Party and the Popular Party, lost 28 seats in the election, dropping from 135 seats to 107. The left parties, meanwhile, won over 50 percent of the vote and picked up 25 seats, for a total of 122. An animal rights party won 1 seat.
The Portuguese parliament has 230 seats. A majority is 116 seats.
Instead of asking the left if it could form a government, however, on Oct. 23, Portuguese president Cavaco Silva—a former prime minister for the Social Democratic Party—reappointed the right-wing alliance’s leader, Pedro Coelho, as prime minister.
Silva went further, however, delivering an incendiary speech in which he declared that he would never appoint “anti-European forces” to run the government, and denouncing parties on the left for opposing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the common currency, the euro.
“It is my duty, within the constitutional powers, to do everything possible to prevent false signals being sent to financial institutions, investors and markets,” he concluded.
The speech has set off a firestorm in Portugal, one that is reverberating throughout the EU. It is one thing for the EU and its financial enforcer, the Troika—the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund—to exert pressure on a country from the outside. It has done exactly that in Greece. It is quite another to say that a particular political or economic program is beyond the pale.
Portugal’s austerity program, originally introduced by the Socialist Party, has impoverished the country and driven half a million young people to emigrate. Unemployment, while down from its height of 17 percent, is still at 12 percent, and over 31 percent for youth. One out of five in the population is below the poverty line of $5,589 a year, and Portugal has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the EU. The average household income has fallen 8.9 percent since 2009. Exhausted by austerity, Portugal’s voters turned against the right-wing government and turned it into a minority.
In what is an historic development—one commentator called it a “Berlin Wall moment”—the three left parties put aside their differences and agreed to form a united front government.
While all the left parties opposed austerity—the Socialist Party having finally seen the light—they differed on many other issues. The Left Bloc and the Communist Green alliance opposes Portugal’s membership in NATO and wanted the country to get out of the Eurozone, the group of 19 countries in the 28-member EU that use the euro.
The euro is a controversial issue. It has been a boon for Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, and to the large banks that dominate European finance. But it has had a generally negative impact on many other countries, particularly those in the distressed south—Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal. Since Ireland is also in this same situation, the problems are economic, not geographical.
As far as NATO goes, there are a number of political organizations that argue the old Cold War alliance should be retired and that NATO does more to raise tensions on the continent that it does protect its members.
In any case, opposition to NATO and the euro are hardly opinions that should bar one from government, but that is exactly what the Portuguese president has done.
He has received support for his position as well. Joseph Daul, president of the center-right grouping in the European Parliament, said, “The sacrifices made by the people of Portugal must not be jeopardized by a government composed of anti-EU and anti-NATO parties.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said an anti-austerity government in Portugal would be a “very negative” development.
Some of the comments have an Alice in Wonderland quality to them. Coelho said, “It’s time to say loud and clear that the Socialist Party lost the elections…we’re not going to stand the elections results on their head.” He was joined by the right-wing Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, who warned, “coalitions of losers want to join forces to do away with moderate majorities in our societies, to attain through deals what they didn’t achieve at the ballot box.”
But as the Socialist Party grouping in the European Parliament pointed out in a statement, “Portuguese voters were very clear in the last general election with a strong majority (62 percent) against the austerity policies of the last four years.”
Rajoy, of course, has his own problems. His right-wing People’s Party will probably lose its majority to the Socialist Party and the left-wing Podemos Party in Spain’s upcoming Dec. 20 elections, but it still may be the single largest vote getter. He wants to stay in power and the Portugal maneuver gives him a strategy for doing just that.
What clearly surprised the Portuguese right is that the left could agree to work together. The Socialist Party has long been at loggerheads with the Communists, who accuse it of being too much like the right-wing Social Democratic Party. Indeed, the fact that the Socialists did not win the election outright is in part due to the fact that voters are still angry with the party for introducing the austerity policies in the first place.
But the dramatic gains for the Left Bloc—it is now the third largest in the parliament, ahead of the Communist/Green alliance—clearly convinced the left that it should find issues to agree on. After several meetings, the Left Bloc and the Communist/Greens agreed to temporarily shelve the euro and NATO issues, and the Socialists pledged to end austerity.
There are still major questions to iron out. The Left Bloc and the Communist/Greens want to challenge Portugal’s staggering debt—they have a solid basis for claiming that much of it is illegitimate—while the Socialists have been silent on the subject. Eventually the euro, NATO, and the debt will be on the table, but such disagreements are hardly unique to Portugal. There is virtually no government in Europe without ideological divisions.
In any case, despite their differences, the left parties are on the same wavelength as the majority of Portuguese voters: no more austerity.
If the Portuguese president refuses to allow the left to form a government and Portugal Forward is defeated in the Nov. 10 vote, Silva can appoint Coelho to run a caretaker government and call for new elections. But those won’t be for eight months. Silva’s presidency runs out in January, and new elections can’t be held for six months following the appointment of a new president.
The left has the votes to insure a president compatible with the will of the voters—they have already overridden the right’s candidate for Speaker of the House and put their own candidate in—but there will still be six months before the next election. Eight months is enough time for a right-wing caretaker government and its backers in the EU and the Troika to do considerable mischief. Greece has felt the power of the Troika and seen what it can do to undermine opposition to its policies.
During the recent Greek crisis, German finance minister Wolfgang Schaueble made it clear that what Greek voters wanted was irrelevant. Greece would bow to the Troika or the Troika would strangle the Greek economy, period. In essence, national governments should restrict themselves to things like what color park benches should be painted—provided the paint is affordable.
If this “soft coup” stands, taxes, interest rates, public ownership, investments, and economic strategies to control inflation and unemployment—long the battleground for conflicting ideologies—will no longer be issues to be decided democratically. Unelected bodies, like the Troika, will make those decisions, in spite of the fact that many of the Troika’s policies—like austerity—are highly controversial and have an almost unbroken track record of failure.
Democracy is what is at stake in Portugal, and it is a crisis that cuts to the heart of the European Union experiment. Do people still have the right to make decisions about policies that have a profound impact on their lives? Or do they only get to quarrel about the color of park benches?