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Portugal: the day after

Last night, Portugal joined the ranks of 21 of its fellow European states by electing a right-wing government. Can it lead the country out of its historical crisis?
Sofia Diogo Mateus
6 June 2011

The day after is a sober one: no festivities, no bold plans. A quiet undertone prevails that also marked the speech of PM-elect, Pedro Passos Coelho. After all, Portugal is amidst its biggest crisis ever since becoming a democratic country, some 37 years ago.

Not that you’d have noticed this during the campaign. Any issue was up for debate during the campaign, anything except the elephant in the room: the bailout. It was and is much more comfortable to pretend that the austerity measures are not the next and only thing on the Portuguese agenda – but they are, and they would have been even if the Social Democrats had not won.

There are a couple of things to take into account. The first is how much of this is a Socialist loss, namely of former Prime Minister Sócrates and how much is a Social Democratic victory.

Such a swing traditionally underscores a wider discontent with a government in office, and this case is a perfect example of that. There was, of course, some merit in the campaign of the right-wing parties: it presented an alternative to the Socialist’s narrative in its calm albeit half-hearted honesty about how bad the next years will be. But the fact that it will take a coalition for the Social Democrats to form a majority government indicates a wider discontent with the mainstream political parties.

Doubt has also been cast on the newly-elected prime minister’s abilities. Much of his career has been in the political sphere, as the head of the youth branch of the Social Democrats and despite some time as a businessman he’s widely seen as member of the establishment. He has compared himself to Tony Blair, David Cameron and even Obama, in an attempt to gild his lack of experience.

It remains to be seen though if the Social Democrats were indeed elected, as many claim, for their capability to implement the IMF/EU austerity measures. Despite the fact that the party’s program goes further than the agreed plans with the EU/IMF in certain areas, such as constitutional and electoral reform, many of those require a two-third parliamentary majority, for which the Social-Democrats need Socialist votes – whether they will cooperate depends not only on the issue at stake but also on the new Socialist leader.

Hence, the race for the Socialist leadership has already begun. Mr Sócrates has announced his resignation both as the party's secretary general and from politics in general in order to clear the way for a clean start in the opposition, though he will no doubt be offered some position abroad. Two main contenders for his succession have emerged: António José Seguro and Francisco Assis, parliamentary leader during the last government. António Costa, the mayor of Lisbon, may also run.

Another interesting result of the elections is the massive loss suffered by the Left Bloc, the second biggest force on the left. The party lost half its seats, leaving what once stood as a left-wing alternative to the Socialists as a fractured group of ideologues.

Regardless of all political bickering and shouting over the results one worrying outcome trumps all: abstention. No party has been able to gather as many votes as those that were not cast. And although many speak of hundreds of thousands of "ghosts" in electoral lists - dead people, immigrants, prisoners - it is remarkable that more than 41 percent failed to cast their votes. It is a disturbing sign of a feeble democracy in which the divide between politicians and voters keeps growing.

The political bubble in which many of these politicians operate is a different country from the one in which a great part of the population lives. And although ‘guilt’ can never be one-sided, it is ultimately those who are elected as representatives that must make an effort to reflect the voters' will.

Many calls have been made for change. In all likelihood the austerity plan will be followed and things will get better, at least market-wise, by 2013. Whether small-scale clientelism and corruption, a system of favours and patronage within the political arena, which ultimately controls almost everything, will disappear, is another question altogether.

It remains to be seen whether this government has the power to implement the reforms that set Portugal on a promising path for the future. If they can stay in power for the full four years, that is.

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