Portugal's endgame?

The collapse of the Sócrates administration is yet another example of how petty politics sustain the country's perpetual crisis.
Sofia Diogo Mateus
26 March 2011

Portugal has once again entered campaign mode. Although President Aníbal Cavaco Silva has yet to officially accept Prime Minister José Sócrates’s resignation while striving to guarantee that any future government will have a solid majority, a decision is be expected by early next week, as soon as the parties agree on a date - either May 29 or June 5.

This means that exciting days lie ahead, filled with campaign promises of “getting the country right”, “grassroots change” and “putting the interests of the country first”, phrases that were first heard Wednesday night when the political crisis surfaced. If you are not familiar with the political class in Portugal, you may actually believe this to be unique – or even avoidable given the country's dismal situation.

But such reasoning would be far off the mark. This crisis has been waiting in the wings since the elections in September 2009, when the Socialist Party formed a minority government that requires support from the opposition for virtually everything.

However, for some reason José Sócrates believed he could take the fourth austerity measures package to Brussels without such approval or even without discussing it with anyone else, be it the president, parliament or even the population. Two weeks ago, in the midst of the largest nationwide protests the country has witnessed since the post-revolution era, came the news of yet another round of belt-tightening.

There is no way a government could credibly deny knowing that such conduct would be unacceptable for parliament as well as the wider public. It matters very little what Brussels or Berlin say: politicians in Portugal may have little control over what happens to the country nowadays, but they won’t just give away the little influence they have by nodding yet another austerity package through.

Over the last ten years, every single Portuguese prime minister has quit, left or been forced to resign. The country and its population now suffer the consequences, while none of them has suffered a setback in his career.

The government has made people believe that the choice was either a fourth package of austerity measures or direct oversight by the IMF. Exactly the same alleged lack of alternatives was used roughly a year ago when the first package was brought through parliament, or late last year when the government secured billions after the successful sale of sovereign bonds. None of those measures has made a real difference or stopped Portugal's economy from deteriorating: interest rates have constantly been reaching all-time highs for about a year, public debt has skyrocketed and unemployment continues to rise.

At this stage, polls say it is unlikely that any one party will be able to form a majority government after the next elections - and until that happens, the country will suffer from a perpetual political crisis. Business as usual then, where power grabs are more important than successfully running a country on the verge of failure.

Expect a couple of nasty months ahead, where what we will see is not a discussion of ways and means to fix Portugal, but the usual blame game of who got the country into this predicament in the first place. José Sócrates will secure votes and divide the country by stating that he was the one acting responsibly while the opposition rejected what the EU had already accepted and what could have saved Portugal.

The consequences of this for the rest of Europe will, no doubt, be felt. But don’t be fooled when the prime minister says that this political crisis was caused by ‘a negative coalition’. It was caused by several coalitions playing petty politics, in a country where that seems to be all that truly matters.




Image copyright: Daniel Mota and Sara Diogo Mateus. All rights reserved.

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