6 August 2015

The coming political crisis in Portugal

By Bruno Alves

The leaders of Portugal’s main parties must be having a lot of sleepless nights of late. There is a general election coming on October 4th, and if polls are to be trusted, none of them is in good shape.

On July 19th, the Lisbon daily newspaper Correio da Manhã published a poll by polling company Aximage placing the Socialist Party (commonly known as PS, currently in opposition) with 38% of the votes, and the center-right coalition formed by PSD and CDS (which is currently in government) with 37.8%. CDU, the “coalition” between the Communists and their satellite-party Os Verdes (“The Greens”), would get 7.5%, the far-left party BE 4%, and small parties like PDR and Livre 1.4% and 1.3%, respectively.

After four years of austerity under the PSD/CDS coalition, it would be easy to expect that PS would seize the opportunity presented by the growing discontent with the hardships the country has been facing, replacing the coalition’s majority with one of their own. And yet, the Socialists seem to be heading to what is for all intents and purposes a tie, or at best a win with a hung parliament.

Just one month earlier, another poll (by the Catholic University for newspapers Jornal de Notícias, Diário de Notícias, and the state-owned TV network RTP and radio channel Antena 1) offered even bleaker prospects for PS: the coalition was predicted to actually win the election, with 38% of the votes against PS’s 37%. CDU would earn 10% of the votes, and BE 8%. And even though on July 8th yet another poll by a different pollster (Intercampus, for newspaper Público, TV network TVI and radio channel TSF) actually gave PS a relatively wide lead over the coalition (37.6% of the votes against 32.7%), they all point out one thing: neither of the main parties will be able to command a majority in parliament once October 5th comes and the votes are counted.

In June, at a breakfast talk in Oslo held by the Civita think thank, the Scottish historian and political commentator Niall Ferguson made an intriguing remark about how elections in advanced, “Western” democratic states are now very close, and how he was yet to hear a satisfying explanation for the phenomenon. If the Portuguese reality and these polls are in any way indicative of a wider trend in the democratic world – and I think they are – then the answer to Ferguson’s question is clear: elections are so close because political parties represent an increasingly tinier number of people, and are more and more incapable of attracting anyone outside their faithful and clienteles.

All these polls are bad news for the governing coalition, even the one that places it ahead of the socialists: when two parties enter into a coalition ahead of the election, they do so with the single purpose of winning that election – and to win it with an absolute majority in parliament (as the Conservatives recently did in the UK). But after four years in government, PSD and CDS are unable to gather that kind of support. Anyone who has followed their trials in power will instantly understand why: inheriting the country on the verge of bankruptcy, the coalition was forced to adopt a series of austerity measures to merit the trust of creditors and Portugal’s partners in the European Union’s single currency, and those measures necessarily implied a series of unfortunate consequences for people’s wallets and quality of life. At the same time, the coalition cloaked these measures under a veil of reformist rhetoric, claiming it was changing the structure of an outdated bureaucratic State, all the while failing to enact any actual reform. The result is clearly shown by these polls: PSD and CDS are on the receiving end of both the popular anger that reforming efforts always give birth to and the popular anger with the consequences of not having changed anything significant.

But while PSD and CDS aren’t able to earn the trust of much more than a third of the voters, only a similar fraction of the electorate is actually willing to vote for the main alternative, PS, with plenty of them either voting choosing other, smaller parties, or planning to abstain from actually voting at all. The reason for this is also easy to see and transparent in those polls: in the Catholic University one, 63% of the people claimed that the PSD/CDS government has been “bad or very bad”, and yet only 28% of them replied that the opposition “would have done a better job if it had been in power”; and in the Intercampus one, 75% felt that the country was in a “bad or very bad” situation, but 61.8% claimed that the opposition “never” or “seldom” came up with policies that would have been an improvement upon those advanced by the government; 23.9% believed Passos Coelho (the Prime Minister and leader of PSD) was “more truthful” than António Costa, and 27.3% believed the opposite was a more accurate statement; however, 37.4% of the people claimed that Coelho and Costa were both equally untrustworthy.

This lack of trust in politicians on the part of the Portuguese people can’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with the country. Portugal is relatively poor when compared with many of the other countries in Europe. The Social Security system operates as a mandatory Ponzi-scheme in which an ever-shrinking working population pays for the increasingly less generous pensions of an ever larger number of retirees, and both the Health Service and the schools system are centralized, government-run behemoths from which anyone with enough money runs away from. The tax burden is too heavy for a fragile economy to shoulder, and yet it still isn’t enough to cover the levels of spending that governments are keen to hand out to an electorate that doesn’t appear to be willing to part with the benefits that accompany it, even while it may decry the measures necessary to finance it.

And therein lies the crux of problem. The way things work in Portugal doesn’t in fact work all that well, but there are too many people that depend on them staying relatively untouched. The size of the public sector offers the parties in government (always either PSD or PS, occasionally in coalition with CDS) plenty of opportunities to employ party members. And the extent to which the government has a final word in the undertaking of any endeavor means that plenty of interest groups are intersected with those parties, in turn needing and supplying a “helping hand” from and to one another in their respective fields of activity. The same occurs at the municipal level, where governing structures and the intersection between them and private operators create a network of rent-seeking clienteles that both depend on and support those parties’ local departments (there’s a reason why the memorandum imposed on the country by the troika included a reform of the municipal authorities, and there’s a reason why the government neglected to enact it). Wherever you look in Portugal, there is always the more or less visible hand of the State pulling the strings or filling the pockets of their clienteles, hoping to get some votes in return.

In fact, Henrique Medina Carreira, a former Finance Minister now turned TV commentator, usually claims that 60% of the population is directly or indirectly dependent on tax-collected money for their income. Even if the two traditional governing parties were not just the vote-grabbing machines intent on winning elections in order to have the means to distribute the spoils of democratic victory amongst the faithful that they are, it would be hard for any one of those 60% of Portuguese men and women to accept that it should be them, personally, to bear the brunt of the sacrifices that the much needed reforms must imply, instead of their neighbour in a similar situation.

But with the current state of affairs being unsustainable and bringing in constantly diminishing returns, and elections being what they are, parties like PSD, PS and CDS find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place: keeping the status quo creates a growing discontent with the results brought about by that unsatisfying status quo; reforming that status quo threatens the welfare of the vast number of people it sustains. And because they need to obtain the support of those very people they are bound to anger, politicians choose to try to wiggle themselves out of this trap by lying to them, promising the electorate more than they they will be able to deliver if and once they get elected.

Ever since 2002 – at the very least – that there hasn’t been a Portuguese Prime Minister that didn’t follow his ascension to power with a series of policies amounting to the exact opposite of what they said they would do during the campaign that got them there. José Manuel Durão Barroso, two years before abandoning his position in order to exile himself in the cosy chair of the European Commission’s Presidency, got himself electing by promising to cut taxes and enacting a series of reforms, like privatising RTP. The first thing he did was to raise taxes, and RTP actually ended up creating an extra channel. In 2005, PS’s José Sócrates ran a campaign promising reforms and lower taxes, and left office in 2011, with the country on the verge of financial collapse, with higher taxes and needing the same or a higher number of reforms it needed before he convinced people to vote for him. He was obviously followed by Passos Coelho, who promised not to enact further salary cuts for public sector workers and did exactly that, and who, as was previously mentioned, adopted a reformist rhetoric without practising what he preached.

Faced with such a depressing sequence of events and would-be saviours, who can blame the Portuguese people for doubting the word and intentions of any person who begs them for a vote?

This practice has had serious consequences for the health (or lack thereof) of the Portuguese democracy: because the policies a government does indeed enact are different from what they ran with in the campaign, those measures are seen and felt by the electorate as lacking in legitimacy, as policies they did not choose nor consented to. In effect, PSD, PS and CDS have all been governing behind the electorate’s back. And in ever growing numbers, their back is precisely what voters are turning towards those parties, choosing not to endorse any of them or participate in the electoral process.

Some spirits of a more cynical disposition than my own might argue that there is nothing particularly damaging in this; that however small – relatively speaking – the number of voters in a given election, and however close their results are, some government will necessarily be formed, even if it takes a Belgium-like amount of time to do it. The problem is that those low turnouts, close calls and hung parliaments are a symptom of the inability to form governments with the support of more than just a given party’s membership and rent-seeking clientele – in other words, with the support of social forces that can go beyond those that are intrinsically opposed to the much needed reforms that parties cannot promise, much less enact.

By marginalizing the relatively large section of the society that doesn’t fit with the more politicised voters that blindly vote in this or that party no matter what they do, or the interest group networks that depend on the government’s favour to make a living in exchange of support in taking and holding on to political power, governments – of any party – make themselves hostage to those anti-reform groups, always feeling the need to respond solely to their concerns and fears, without ever trying to find a solution to the problems that worry and afflict the rest of society.

Some people fear that this makes Portugal ripe for the rise of a populist extremist party, like Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain. But I think that the almost universal hatred for politicians makes that close to impossible: people are so distrustful of politicians that they will not fall for the empty promises of even the most skillful of demagogues.

And yet, if it can save the country from a Syriza-like catastrophe, this feeling will be powerless to prevent the slow rotting of the Portuguese political system. The country’s democracy has entered a vicious circle of which it will be immensely difficult to get out: as more and more regular voters mistrust politicians of any party, the more those politicians depend on the support of those groups that are opposed to the very measures that could help out the rest of the population, thereby provoking higher levels of dissatisfaction with the work of politicians, making them increasingly dependent on the support of those who vote for them no matter what or are a part of their particular clienteles, further marginalizing everyone else, and so on and so on, forever and ever.

The coming election won’t just likely end up in a hung parliament. It will also signal how Portugal is facing a severe – if slow-burning – political crisis, in which the country itself, not just its Parliament, will be left hanging out to dry.

Bruno Alves lives is journalist based in Portugal. He writes for O Insurgente and is an op-ed contributor to the Lisbon daily Diário Económico.