4 Things You Need to Know About Portugal’s Political Crisis

by David Ferreira

25 October 2015

Since the general election on 4 October, the so-called ‘good student of Europe’ has played host to a surprising and unprecedented situation. With rumours of an anti-austerity majority taking power still circulating, David Ferreira clears up what’s happening in Portugal.

1. The recent history.

The election earlier this month gave the centre-right coalition of PSD and CDS (running collectively as Portugal à Frente – ‘Portugal Ahead’) a relative victory with just over 38% of the vote.

The Socialist Party, which just months earlier was widely expected to win, modestly improved its 2011 results with 32% of the vote.

Left Bloc became the election surprise when it doubled its vote to 10%; a strong result for a party written off as dead following poor performances in local and European elections in 2013 and 2014.

The Communist-led Democratic Unity Coalition won over 8% of the vote; an improvement in both percentage and parliamentary representation despite the dramatic surge by Left Bloc.

2. A rapprochement within the Portuguese left.

While a left majority was elected to parliament, political and historical divisions between the Socialist Party and forces to its left – Left Bloc and the Communist Party – were so significant that most expectations were for the conservatives to negotiate a minority government with the Socialists.

These expectations were upended when all three left parties expressed a cautious willingness to negotiate an alternative government. Each party on the left stated their ‘red lines’: the Socialists their commitment to Europe and international agreements, the left parties their desire for a political programme that defends wages, pensions, employment and services.

This dialogue can be explained in part out of an urgency to prevent a continuation of conservative rule. The Socialist Party faces Pasokification if it supports a conservative government and the continuation of austerity.

The election result also facilitates dialogue as the Socialist Party result was relatively weak while parties to its left won a significant 18.5% of the vote. Had the Socialists finished ahead of Portugal à Frente, they may have preferred a deal with the conservatives which permits more flexibility on economic policy. With this result however, the Socialists have little choice but to make substantive concessions to the Communists and Left Bloc.

3. The intervention by the Portuguese president.

What escalated the situation from an embittered right complaining about its popular defeat to a genuine political crisis was an intervention by the Portuguese president, Cavaco Silva.

With all normality, Silva invited the leader of conservatives, Passos Coelho, to form a government. However, he then dedicated the rest of his speech to attacking the left and expressing his objections to the Communist Party and Left Bloc being included in any governing solution, given their opposition to NATO and Europe’s austerity regime. The 1m people who voted for these left-wing parties could be simply disregarded. It was a speech worthy of both the cold war and Europe’s age of authoritarian neoliberalism.

The speech polarized the country, and it raised the possibility of a constitutional crisis in which the left has a workable majority in parliament but the president resists giving it a mandate in an anti-left crusade which threatens the functioning of Portuguese democracy.

Cavaco Silva’s term is nearly up and the country will have the first round of presidential elections in January. If the standoff lasts until then, the contest for the presidency could be turned into a proxy referendum on whether the left should govern the country.

4. Dangers for the left.

The polarization between left and right in Portuguese politics puts pressure on the Left Bloc and the Communist Party to finalize an agreement with the Socialist Party.

While both leftist formations will seek an agreement with the Socialists on what the economic programme should look like over the next four years, European authorities can threaten this pact should they decide to enforce sanctions on any deviation from budget targets.

Should the Socialist Party maintain its commitment to ‘European rules’ the pressure will be on the Left Bloc and the Communists to stand by the Socialist Party or be blamed for fracturing a fragile ‘left unity’.

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