A country turned upside down

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An upside down flag? It sure is the sign of times, 2012

Since the “Carnation Revolution” of 1974, which overthrew a 48-year long dictatorship, there have not been many moments in the political history of Portugal as exciting and filled with possibilities as the present one. After 4 years of intense austerity measures that followed an IMF bailout, leaving large segments of the population unsatisfied and many on the verge of poverty, this year’s legislative elections were much awaited. On the one hand, the conservative coalition headed by current Prime-Minister Pedro Passos Coelho (PAF, meaning “Portugal Ahead”) reaffirmed its commitment to international responsibilities and praised the achievements of austerity, criticising what was described as irresponsible political experimentation on the part of the left-wing opposition. On the other hand, the Socialist Party (PS) stood firmly against austerity and promised to fight soaring unemployment (12%) and mass emigration. From the beginning of the campaign, PS’s leader António Costa, former Mayor of Lisbon, refused any kind of cooperation with the conservatives.

After a widely scrutinized debate, broadcasted on all major channels, but which turned out to be more about technocracy and old political ghosts than concrete alternatives for concrete national problems, voters were still torn. Although polls had for a while indicated a victory from the right, it actually came as a surprise – at least if one considers the political directions taken by other countries that underwent economic adjustment programs – that PAF managed to get the majority of seats in parliament on the general election of October 4th (general might be an overstatement here, if we consider the 40% rate of abstention). “A country with Stockholm syndrome” or “The Portuguese have the government they deserve”, were common expressions of discontent from the left. Yet, the fact that despite all social dissatisfaction and disregard towards the current government, PS still lost the elections, made one thing very clear: Portuguese voters do not see current day PS as the “True Alternative” it claims to be.

However, very few would have predicted what happened next. With 12 seats short of a majority in parliament, PAF’s performance in the ballot was not exactly stellar. PS rose to 32%, while the radical Left Bloc doubled its votes, passing the Communist Party. Indeed, more people voted for left wing alternatives than the ones who did not. The Portuguese tradition that the President invites the leader of the most voted party to constitute a Government has become set in stone in the minds of politicians and voters alike, even if not enshrined in law and despite the common practice of post-election coalitions. Moreover, for historical, programmatic and leadership reasons, an understanding between the different left wing parties was never on the horizon after 1975. It might have remained a dream for some, but it has rarely been more than a joke in the eyes of the majority of the left identified Portuguese population. Now, the natural assumption that PAF would continue in power had been challenged in light of the unprecedented negotiations between PS, the Left Bloc and the Communist Party.

Captura de ecrã 2015-10-24, às 23.50.15

Deputies elected in this last Election

In a national speech held on October 22nd, President Cavaco Silva chose to continue the tradition of appointing the most voted party leader as PM, despite PAF having no parliament majority. Although the President did act according to his powers and constitutional procedures, the remarks that followed the naming of Passos Coelho were probably the most unfortunate and shameful our democracy has seen. In a last resort to appeal to an agreement between the two most voted Parties/Coalitions, PAF and PS, the President declared he would not appoint someone supported by Eurosceptic and anti-NATO parties which threaten democratic valued and whose victory would displease “the markets”. In other words: “I know 1 million Portuguese voted for left-wing parties in a democratic way, but sometimes democracy has to take a back seat for the sake of the markets. These parties cannot be considered a viable option and thus PS should reconsider its decision”.

In what many are now calling a boomerang effect, any last hope for an agreement between the two major political groups seems to be gone. The Left came out of this speech more united than ever and the government’s program is now almost 100% certain to be rejected. The following weeks will be of the utmost importance to our country’s political situation and will be remembered by the next generations. For the time being, two questions remain: “Can the dream of a united left finally be realized?” and more importantly, “Could this have happen as a result of a common effort to guarantee that the brutal effects of austerity no longer take their toll on the weak?”

Filipa Pestana, 2015 Graduate of Democracy and has studied International Relations/Middle Eastern Studies.

Luis Carvalho, 2015 Graduate of Democracy and an Economics Student

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