Portugal’s general election on 4th October looked as if it were headed towards a difficult future for the Eurozone’s ‘star pupil’. However I doubt many predicted the constitutional crisis it seems to have threatened, as the confrontation intensifies between President Aníbal Cavaco Silva and his centre-right ‘Forward Portugal Alliance’ (PAF), and the anti-austerity coalition of Socialists (PS), Communists (PCP) and the Left-Bloc (BE) who hold a parliamentary majority. The real question is how far are the two sides willing to go to defend their convictions over Europe.
A couple of days ago I woke up to find myself confronted by the most bizarre headline from the Telegraph: “Eurozone crosses Rubicon as Portugal’s anti-euro Left banned from power”. And I thought it was only the Sun and the Mail that loved sensationalist headlines. But it meant that I could not remain ignorant of the subject of the Portuguese elections any longer. On 5th October, the Portuguese would have found themselves wondering as to the political future of their country for sure, however I doubt anyone had any inkling as to what was to come. As the FT reported at the time, the situation was relatively calm. Of course the previously ruling party, led in parliament by Passos Coelho, had lost their majority, gaining only 38.2% of the vote, down from 50, but it’s common parliamentary politics to offer the largest party the first chance to form a government. And that’s what conservative President Silva did. PS leader António Costa, though of course disappointed and facing some dissent in his party, having won a mere 32.4% of the vote up from 28% previously, and failing in most people’s eyes to capitalise on the anti-austerity sentiment in Portugal, went ahead and set up some red lines for the Coelho which je would have to steer clear of, should he want to form some form of coalition with the socialist, however pro-European PS. Público, a Portuguese newspaper, reported the situation as an impasse, but this is political talk for the start of negotiations, not an all out confrontation.
And then, in an event as surprising as the fall of the Berlin Wall, Costa decided to reject any possible agreement with Coelho in favour of reconciliation with his leftist cousins, the BE and PCP. Together such a coalition would have 62% of parliament and have a mandate of anti-austerity from the people. Such a move seemed impossible back on 4th October, where the deep divisions in their perspectives on Europe split the mainstream PS from their more extremist PCP and BE cousins. The PS has claimed that any right-wing minority government would be outvoted and brought down immediately, and that it would be a waste of time. And yet President Silva has appointed such a government any way, and on Thursday effectively promised to do everything in his presidential power to keep the left-wing coalition from government, hence the crisis. As if the pro-EU camp didn’t have enough issues with democratic deficiency.
Of course, President Silva has good reasons for being reluctant (to understate the matter) to allow the BE and PCP into power, the former being the forerunner to Greece’s own anti-establishment forerunner formed in 1999. Completely against EU austerity-rhetoric, and having in the past campaigned for the abrogation of the Lisbon Treaty, the Fiscal Compact, the Growth and Stability Pact, as well as the dismantling of the monetary union and the removing of Portugal from the euro. Not to mention wanting the dissolution of NATO. Of course like all leftists who have suddenly found themselves in the public eye after years in the wilderness (I’m looking at you Mr. Corbyn), many of the more radical points have been dropped. However understandably, the anti-austerity rhetoric has not been. It is this which President Silva fears will derail the 4-year programme of getting Portugal’s indebted economy back on track. Seemingly, and certainly in the eyes of the PAF, this programme of cut backs and fiscal rigour has worked, unlike some other south-European nations currently being bombarded with austerity. However, is that a reason to completely ignore precedent, or the idea of democratic legitimacy? I sincerely doubt it.
If anything, this turn of events has been incredibly bad for the EU across the bloc, never mind it’ll do to public opinion inside Portugal. On Friday, Público wrote of President Silva’s TV address, in which he effectively banned the PS-BE-PCP coalition from power, that it was “deeply ideological and at times alarmist”. In fact it has caused such alarm that even right-wing newspapers such as the Telegraph in Britain have picked up the issue, and decided to defend political parties that would make their stomach turn were they British. It’s the strange thing about Euro-politics in Britain. They make time run backwards and defy the laws of nature. The Telegraph, establishment news-piece, pro-Tory and pro-austerity in Britain, sees the plight of anti-EU politicians in Portugal and completely forget every political point it has held since the financial crisis. Were this a situation in which Jeremy Corbyn was involved, I doubt the Telegraph would have immediately jumped to his defence. The moment the EU gets involved in an issue, the anti-EU media in Britain cannot wait to jump on the bandwagon of indignation.
In Germany the acts of President Silva have certainly been watered down, the FAZ emphasising that the President did say the last word would be parliament’s, and that he advised the Left-wing coalition to “consider the government programme in detail, and then to make a conscientious decision, taking into account the national interest”. However I doubt this will hold up in court. Nor will it in the eyes of the Portuguese people, who will now see – as the Telegraph has – an all powerful European interest getting in the way of democracy while it still exists at the national level. This is the fear of all Eurosceptics, such is the nature of our stuck-in-limbo system between actual European politics and intergovernmental cooperation.
Clearly the impact of this on the EU is clear; the EU and Eurozone politicians cannot be seen as condoning this kind of politics in it’s star pupil. It is clearly undemocratic. It’s even wrong I’d say. And if the crisis doesn’t wind up soon, the EU will face the criticism. Furthermore, it’ll embolden anti-Europe and austerity parties in Spain and Ireland as they go into their elections in the coming months, and the EU cannot risk letting the anti-austerity issue become too bound up with the anti-EU issue. I’d have preferred the PS have gone into some kind of agreement with Coelho’s party, however that did not happen. A problem now is that anti-austerity has been further tide to anti-EU sentiment by PS’ decision to throw their lot in with the leftists. My advice to the PAF would be to work out some sort of deal that will bring the PS on board with the government, so as to quickly unwind the crisis and hopefully introduce some anti-austerity politics into the Eurozone. The sooner it is challenged at the state level, the better. This could not work in Greece’s case as they were bound by their debts to follow the wishes of their creditors, however Portugal, free of Troika debt, does not have to follow their whims as much as Britain does not. I’d say this is the best course for the PS as well, as the disagreement on the EU between them and their far-left cousins will return with a vengeance, and I’d bet that most PS voters, as Mr Coelho has pointed out, went with the PS in the knowledge they would not attack Portugal’s place in Europe. One thing’s for sure, I’ll be watching as these events continue and see where they lead in the wider debate on austerity.