The ruling Socialist Party was severely punished in Portugal’s parliamentary elections on June 5, evidently because voters blamed it for the massive economic crisis which the country has been undergoing, including 12 percent unemployment, and even more for the harsh austerity measures that Socialist Prime Minister Jose Socrates has been carrying out in response to demands from the banking and financial elites of the European Union. But the Social Democratic Party, which in Portugal is right-wing in spite of its name, and its Christian Democratic allies, who were the main beneficiaries of the Socialists’ defeat, are likely to be even more aggressive in trying to impose austerity measures than the outgoing government has been.
Mr. Socrates has been functioning as a caretaker prime minister since he lost a vote of confidence on the austerity measures in March, and was thus obliged to call an early election. After it became clear that his party had lost the recent election, he announced his resignation as head of the Socialist Party.
In the last parliamentary elections, in 2009, the Socialists got 36.6 percent of the vote, the Social Democrats 29.1 percent and the alliance of the Christian Democrats and People’s Party (also right-wing) got 10.4 percent of the votes. In that election, the Democratic Unity Coalition, which combines the Portuguese Communist Party the Greens and the Democratic Intervention, got 7.9 percent while another left-wing alliance, the Left Bloc (BE) got 6.1 percent.
This time around the Socialists lost heavily, getting only 28.1 percent of the vote, while the Social Democrats swooped to gather in 38.6 percent of the vote. The Christian Democratic and People’s Party alliance got a slight boost, to 11.7 percent. The Communist-Green Democratic Unity Coalition got 7.9 percent once more. But the BE was severely chastised, getting only 5.2 percent.
Turnout was exceptionally low and some early estimates show as many as 40 percent of the electorate may have voted, many fewer than in recent elections.
After the vote of no confidence in March, the Socialist Party rebuffed an offer by the Portuguese Communist Party for an alliance on the basis of a rejection of austerity measures and a demand that Portugal be allowed to restructure its debt. Rather, the Socialists signed a pact with the Social Democrats and other right-wing parties to carry out the austerity measures being imposed by the “troika” of the European Union, the Central Bank of Europe and the International Monetary Fund in exchange for economic help for Portugal. This seemed to some as not only harmful to the mass of the people, but also a betrayal of Portugal in the interests of foreign banking elites.
Pedro Passos Coelho of the Social Democratic Party is likely to become the new prime minister once the actual total of parliamentary seats for each party is known, and coalition details are worked out.
These results should surprise nobody. While the communists and other leftists had been trying to tell the population that there were other ways to deal with the crisis than brutal austerity measures, the Socialists, along with the right-wing parties, were sending an opposite message. The social base of the conservative parties got an upbeat, though profoundly misleading message, while the base of the Socialist Party got a depressing one. Yet voters were evidently not ready to move away from the Socialist Party to the Communist, Green or BE parties. Results are not in yet, but it seems likely that a good part of the Socialist Party base stayed home.
Communist Party Secretary General Jeronimo de Sousa told the press on Sunday that the Portuguese people would not accept the austerity measures the new government will push. This suggests that many more large-scale street protests, which have been shaking Portugal as well as Greece, Spain and other countries, can be expected. He announced that the communists are going to hit the ground running in the new parliament, presenting legislation calling for a renegotiation of the national debt. “The only real alternative capable of not irremediably compromising, for decades, the future of our country, its sovereignty and its possibilities for development,” he said, as well as legislation to defend wages, pensions, social services and workers’ rights.