On Sept. 29, the people of Portugal had a chance to respond to the austerity policies carried out by the right-wing coalition government of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho, in elections for mayors, municipal chambers and municipal assemblies. The chambers are executive bodies which include the mayors; the assemblies are legislative bodies.
The outcome was a blow to the parties in power, a small boost to the opposition Socialist Party, and a big boost to the Portuguese Communist Party and its allies.
Passos Coelho's own party, the Social Democrats (which in Portugal is a right-wing party) dropped 6.1 percent in the popular vote for mayors and municipal chambers, ending up with 814,730 votes. Its coalition ally, the right-wing Social Democratic and Social Center-People's Party, also took a 2.1 percent loss in the popular vote, ending up with 379,137. The two ruling parties between them lost 138 municipal chamber seats and 34 mayoralties.
The biggest vote went to the Socialist Party, which racked up 1,810,744 popular votes (actually down 1.4 percent from the last election). The Socialist Party held its own in municipal chamber seats, but picked up 17 mayoralties.
The biggest proportional advance, though, was that of the Democratic Unity Coalition (CDU), which consists of the Portuguese Communist Party, the Greens and several smaller groups. It got 552,506 votes, or 11.06 percent, an increase of 1.3 percent since the last election in 2009. It elected a total of 213 municipal chamber members (up 39 since the last election) and 34 mayoralties (up 6), putting it in third place nationally.
A similar pattern was seen in the vote for municipal assemblies in which the Democratic Unity Coalition got 11.98 percent of the vote.
More or less all commentators attributed the results to voters' desire to punish the government parties for the excruciatingly painful austerity program it has imposed in order to conform to the demands of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, in exchange for a $78 billion bailout loan in 2011. Unemployment in Portugal now stands at around 17 percent of the workforce overall and has been high for several years. Essential human services have been cut to the bone, and many workers have been laid from both private and public enterprises. In Europe, only Greece is in worse shape. Passos Coelho and his government have been inflexible; the prime minister has responded to the complaints of chronically unemployed young people by suggesting that they go and live in some other country.
As in Greece, there have been numerous massive demonstrations and strikes organized by the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (CGTP) and others, including several planned mobilizations for October, culminating in a large scale mobilization on Oct. 19.
Jeronimo de Souza, secretary general of the Portuguese Communist Party, hailed the election results, saying that the governing parties' defeat and the victories of the Democratic Unity Coalition demonstrate that "the loss of votes by the [Social Democrats and Democratic and Social Center-PP] is inseparable from the condemnation by the Portuguese people and workers of the policy of ruin and impoverishment that are dragging [down] the country and the life of the Portuguese".
The left sees Sunday's results as indicating trouble for Passos Coehlo's coalition, which nearly collapsed earlier this year when several ministers resigned, in the next national parliamentary elections scheduled for June next year.
Photo: "Dude just wants to be free," says a wall painting showing the symbol of the Portuguese Communist Party, in Coimbra, Portugal, 2009. moacirpdsp CC 2.0