3rd Mar 2024

Pro-austerity leaders to retain power in Portugal

  • No one liked Coelho and his bailout reforms back in 2011 and 2012 (Photo: Catarina Larcher)

There’s little doubt who’s going to be celebrating victory in Lisbon on Sunday (4 October) after Portugal’s parliamentary elections.

Every poll in the past two weeks has, surprisingly, started to point to Pedro Passos Coelho, the leader of the center-right PSD/CDS coalition, as well as an amateur baritone singer.

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  • Costa: flip-flops and muddles (Photo: Catarina Larcher)

Coelho came into office in 2011, shortly after Portugal’s creditors - the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - imposed harsh bailout conditions.

Almost unthinkable a few months ago, due to the unpopularity of his reforms, he now has a consistent 5-point lead on his main rival, leaving analysts to wonder how he made the turnaround.

Economic recovery is still fragile.

Unemployment is down to 12 percent, from a peak of 18 percent in early 2013.

But part of it's due to an exodus of 485,000 Portuguese economic migrants - one in 20 of all Portuguese people, many of them among the most highly qualified.

Part of the reason for Coelho’s surge could be Antonio Costa, the new leader of the main opposition party, the centre-left PS of former prime minister Jose Socrates.

Costa, six months ago, gave up his job as Lisbon mayor after taking the PS helm in September 2014.

His critics say he took victory for granted and sent out a muddled message, trying to please both moderate and far-left voters.

He first praised the far-left Syriza government in Greece as a “sign of change”. Then he flip-flopped and began to call them foolish.

Voters say he's inconsistent and unclear.

Luisa Oneto, a 64-year old who worked for the Portuguese central bank, the Banco de Portugal, told EUobserver: “He didn’t have the guts to explain how he aims to implement his programme for the next four years”.

“He preferred to be cautious, probably because he won't be able to do make much of a difference when everything is decided in Brussels and Berlin”.

Crime and punishment

Despite the Coelho surge, Portuguese political analysts, such as Pedro Magalhaes, note the coalition will be “punished” for its austerity cut-backs.

According to one authoritative survey, published on Friday by the Expresso newspaper, the PSD/CDS will win 37.7 percent of votes against 32.7 percent for PS.

This would give it 108 seats - falling short of the 116 absolute majority.

It would also mean, Magalhaes noted, that it would lose one in four of all the voters that it had back in 2011.

Oneto, for one, plans to vote for the socialists despite her criticism of Costa.

“I’m not such a fan of the socialist party, but the left is scattered in a bunch of parties, and every vote is needed to guarantee an alternative government”, she said.

She's not the only pensioner - one of the main targets of austerity - who isn’t happy.

Maria de Lourdes Brito, an 86-year old widow and traditional PSD supporter, says she won’t vote for anybody on Sunday - her first ever abstention.

“It’s out of the question for me to vote in a left wing party and I’m aware that austerity is necessary, but I think Passos Coelho went too far in cutting and I just don’t know who to trust”, she told this website.

Wishful thinking

If PSD/CDS gets only a relative majority, it could, in theory, open the door to a grand left-wing coalition to take power.

“We have an opportunity to make an historical agreement the day after the elections if PSD/CSD doesn’t have a clear vitory”, Rui Tavares, a former MEP from the Syriza-type Bloco de Esquerda (BE) party, said.

Less than one year ago, Tavares and other ex-BE members created Livre - Tempo de Avancar (LTA), which calls itself a new “ecological and libertarian” party.

“The parties in the left spectrum never united before, but they can change that record and make it different this time. Not doing so will eventually have as a result the destruction of the socialist party, as happened in Greece with [the cenre-left] Pasok [party]”, he added.

The grand left coalition is, most likely, wishful thinking, however.

Communists from the PCP party, which want Portugal to exit the euro, would have to take part to make it work. But a communist-Costa alliance is a dim prospect.

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