23rd Oct 2016


EU-disillusioned Portuguese see little point in voting

  • Jose Manuel Barroso - the Portuguese former PM has been too long out of domestic politics to get tied up in the troika blame game (Photo: Lisbon Council)

Abstention looks set to be the most certain winner in Portugal's European Parliament election, with a majority of voters unlikely to bother voting on Sunday (25 May).

The indifference comes after three years of austerity, imposed by international creditors in return for Portugal's bailout package.

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The result is that although the troika of lenders – the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank – has just left the country, most Portuguese have little reason to cheer.

The risk of poverty is rising while wages and pensions are not, the quality of education and health services is deteriorating and the social welfare system has been severely knocked. Unemployment is still above 15 percent and skilled young people are leaving the country in numbers not seen since the 1960s.

But despite Portuguese voters seeing at first hand how much impact the EU has had on their lives since 2009, turnout is set to be even lower than the 40 percent of five years ago, political analysts agree.

National politics set the EP election agenda

As in previous EP elections, the campaign agenda has been set by internal politics. This time the debate has been about what the government call the "clean exit", the strategy that it says will avoid an additional external loan.

"The most relevant aspect of this campaign is, in fact, not new. As before this one has focused on national affairs, blaming this or that, and individualising responsibility for the crisis," says Paulo Sande, researcher at the Institute of Political Studies in the Portuguese Catholic University.

Candidates have done the usual electioneering. They have toured the country, dined with supporters, dished up carefully planned media sound bites, and chosen the best angle for the shot of the day.

But little time has been left for discussing the EU's present and future.

"No time has been spent on the situation in Ukraine, the banking union, federalisation, solidarity," says Sande.

Meanwhile, the fact that the European Commission was headed by a Portugese, Jose Manuel Barroso, during these last years, has not had much of an impact among voters. A former prime minister, Barroso came to the commission in 2004, so he is long out of the national political scene.

However, a "small well-informed elite" retains some "hard feelings" towards Barroso in particular for not "softening the external intervention", notes Sande.

Although the Portuguese blame national politicians for the current situation, they have also been questioning the advantages of being part of the EU – although not to the extent of actually leaving it.

The country's location on the periphery of Europe and almost half a century of isolationist politics under a dictatorship, that ended only with the Carnation Revolution of 1974, are still strong in the collective memory.

This also explains why Portugal bucks the trend when it comes to far-right parties. There is a nationalist party running for elections, but, so far, it is almost electorally irrelevant.

"There are no signs of an outright anti-EU militancy," says Leonete Botelho, chief editor of political affairs in the daily newspaper Público.

Nevertheless, enthusiasm for the EU is decreasing.

The last Eurobarometer showed the Portuguese as the most unsatisfied with democracy in the EU, with levels of dissatisfaction rising up to 85 percent.

Only one third still believes belonging to the EU is a good thing.

Latest polls

According to the latest PollWatch, the centre-right coalition in government (PSD, the liberal Social Democrats, and CDS-PP, the conservative Christian Democrats) will lose two MEPs.

The centre-left Socialists, who are the main opposition party, are likely to win two seats, having not been able to capitalise more significantly on popular discontent.

These EU parliamentary elections will be remembered for the unprecedented number of 16 political parties or movements that are running for election.

Some of these contest the status quo itself but are not real political players.

"They are niche players who try to benefit from an electoral system that grants them public funds, airtime and media coverage. During the campaign, they have access to a national stage to disseminate their ideas and, in most cases, individual projects," says Botelho.

"Most of them are using these elections as a trial balloon for the next national parliamentary elections," she adds.

Meanwhile voters are expected to vote, as usual, for either one or other of the two main parties.

Traditionally a bipartisan country, "it's almost impossible for a small or new party to impose itself", says Sande.

The polls show that the staunch alliance between Communists and Greens will probably keep its two seats, but this will be an exception on the left political spectrum.

Bloco de Esquerda, a younger left-wing party that caused surprise in 2009 when it got three seats in the European Parliament, is expected to elect only one this time.

Botelho believes "there is still some margin for surprise", reminding us that one of the smallest parties (MPT) is close to electing one MEP, according to a poll, and that the reach of the recently created Livre is unknown.

Even though these questions will not influence the main results, the destiny of some votes is still unclear. Citizen organisations such as the White Revolution Movement, for example, are calling for electors to abstain, vote blank or vote null, in order to show "rejection of the current electoral system".

Portuguese people frequently use the excuse of nice weather for not turning up to vote. This time, just days after the troika's departure, they are more likely to simply say they are tired of empty promises.

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