After a lengthy wait, Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva has finally agreed this morning to have the Secretary General of the Socialist Party and former mayor of Lisbon, Antonio Luis Santos da Costa, form a government with the support of the Communist, Ecologist (Green) and Left Bloc deputies in the national parliament.
This government replaces the right wing regime of now ex-Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho. The coalition headed by Passos Coelho, consisting of his Social Democratic Party and the smaller People’s Party, lost its majority in the Portuguese Parliament in the election of Oct. 4 this year, ending up with 107 seats in Parliament to a total of 112 for the combined forces of the Socialist Party, the Left Bloc, and a united front of the Communist Party and the Ecologist, or Green Party.
The defeat of the Passos Coelho government came as a result of austerity policies it had enacted as a condition for an $83 billion bailout loan from the “Troika” of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The resulting layoffs of state employees and cuts in wages, pensions and social services including health care and schools, have angered millions of Portuguese.
Portugal’s unemployment rate is still high, especially among young people. At one point Prime Minister Passos Coelho had “suggested” to young Portuguese who could not find jobs that they should simply leave the country and go and live in the former Portuguese colonies of Angola and Brazil. This not only angered young people but also created diplomatic friction with Angola and Brazil, whose governments had not been consulted.
In the past the Socialists had feuded with the Communists, Greens and Left Bloc, but on this occasion Mr. Costa was able to work out an agreement with them whereby the Passos Coelho government would be ousted, as a shared priority of all of them.
Cavaco Silva, who belongs to the same political party as Passos Coelho, the Social Democrats – in Portugal a right-wing party in spite of its name-had expressed extreme reluctance to appoint a Socialist Party government, on the grounds that its reliance on Communist, Green and Left Bloc votes for a parliamentary majority would antagonize investors and thus harm the Portuguese economy. Initially re appointing the Passos Coelho government, Cavaco Silva had made red baiting statements about the prospect, even though the Communists, Greens and Left Blocs had agreed to take demands such as leaving NATO, the Euro Currency and the European Union off the table, and did not ask for ministerial positions in the new government. As the Secretary General of the Communist Party, Jeronimo de Sousa, repeated numerous times, the left’s goal was to oust the Passos Coelho government and fight for the reversal of its austerity measures. In the left’s agreement with Costa, items emphasized are restoring wages, pensions, and health and education services, defending rights of workers and unions, stopping privatization and reversing bans on abortion and adoption by same sex couples.
These demands alone are enough to enrage Portugal’s right wing and the European financial establishment, so the new government will have a tough fight on its hands. But it is in somewhat better shape than Greece whose left wing government was forced to accept a continuation and intensification of austerity measures earlier this year.
President Cavaco Silva finally gave in when the Socialists and the left were able to vote no-confidence in the government and elect a socialist as speaker of the parliament, without dissention within the Socialist Party that the president had hoped for. So Cavaco has now appointed a Socialist-led government rather than appointing a caretaker government under Passos Coelho, which would not have been able to get any of its bills passed because of its lack of a parliamentary majority, pending a new election in June at the earliest.
Meanwhile, Portugal has a presidential election on Jan. 24 of next year, with a second round on February 14 if no candidate gets a majority. If Cavaco Silva had blocked a new government that has majority support, it could have affected the chances of the Social Democratic Party candidate for president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. Although Rebelo de Sousa is polling well so far, the candidates of the Socialists, Communist-Green Alliance (CDU) and Left Bloc and others are in full campaign mode already.
The new Socialist Prime Minister, Antonio Costa, lost no time in naming his cabinet. The new occupant of the all-important position of Finance Minister, Mario Centeno, has made statements to reassure Portugal’s creditors so far. One of the first African descended people to be appointed to a Portuguese cabinet, Francisca van Dunem, who was born in Angola and was involved in that country’s struggle for independence against Portugal, will be the new minister of justice.
Photo: Portuguese Socialist Party leader Antonio Luis Santos da Costa addresses the parliament in Lisbon during the debate of the government’s four-year policy program, November 10. Armando Franca | AP