Elections throw future of Portugal’s right wing government in doubt

Portugal had legislative elections on Sunday, Oct. 4.  At writing, the question of whether Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho will stay on, and on what basis, is the subject of intense negotiations.

The ruling right wing  coalition  of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coehlo got 38.5 percent of the vote (as compared to 50.4 percent in the last election, in 2011) lost 23 parliamentary seats in the 230 seat parliament or Assembly of the Republic, thus also losing its slender majority, but still got the largest number of seats in total, at 104.

 The Socialist Party, which earlier looked to be overtaking the governing parties, faded toward the end but still picked up 11 seats in the 230 for a total of 85, with a popular vote of 32.4 percent compared to 28 percent last time around. 

On the left, the United Democratic Coalition, composed of the Communist Party and the Ecologist (Greens) Party, more than held its own with 8.3 percent of the vote (compared to 7.9 percent in the 2011 election) and picked up an additional seat for a total of 17.

The Left Bloc, BE in Portuguese, surged at the very end and swept past the Communist-Green alliance for a total of 10.2 percent of the popular vote, and 19 parliamentary seats.  With a few races still to be decided, six seats were won by smaller parties, and none by groups to the right of the government.

Media in the United States misleadingly reported the Portuguese election results as a “victory” for Passos Coelho’s government.  In fact, it was a major setback.

What happens now is that the coalition government, because it won more seats than any one other party, consults with the mostly ceremonial president, Anibal Cavaco Silva, who will probably ask Passos Coehlo to form a new government.

However, this is not automatic.  The parties of the left and left-center outnumber the ruling coalition with 121 seats to 104.  As both the Communists and the BE quickly pointed out, this leaves the Socialist Party in the position of kingmaker, depending on whether it moves to support Passos Coelho’s continuation in power, or to block it. The combined Socialist, Communist and Left Bloc government could vote “no confidence” in the government and cause its demise.

This election was fought on the subject of austerity and the subordination of Portugal to the dictates of the “Troika” of the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank.  This austerity was imposed, as in the case of Greece, in exchange for a financial bailout of $87 billion.

In the 2011 election, the Socialist Party, then in power under the leadership of former Prime Minister Jose Socrates, was severely punished by the voters for having acceded to the Troika’s demands and imposed austerity, and this brought in the right wing government of Passos Coelho, a coalition between the Social Democratic Party (in Portugal a right-wing party in spite of its name) and the Democratic and Social Center-People’s Party. 

However, Passos Coelho continued to implement austerity measures including wage and pension cuts, firing of public sector workers, dismantlement of social welfare programs,  measures to weaken the unions, and onerous tax hikes, leading to widespread suffering on the part of the Portuguese working class and ordinary citizens.    The government was the target of many mass protest actions led by the labor movement and the left, and as the election season got underway it looked as if it would be swept from power.

But the Socialist Party had to deal not only with the opprobrium of having implemented austerity, of not having opposed it strongly once in opposition, and with scandals involving ex Prime Minister Socrates.   

When Socrates resigned as Secretary General of the Socialist Party he was replaced by the Mayor of Lisbon, Antonio Costa, whose initial statements indeed seemed to signal a move toward the left.  

What brought about the surge of the Left Bloc at the last minute will be a matter of much speculation.  At its founding it brought in organizations connected to the politics of Leon Trotsky’s “Fourth International” and other far lefts, however it has moved away from those origins in recent years.

What happens now that Passos Coelho does not have a majority any more?  The Socialists, Communists and Left Bloc don’t have a recent history of working together.  Both the Communists and the Left Bloc express skepticism as to Portugal’s continuation in the Euro currency group and other European Union institutions, but the Socialists are committed to remain.

 So far it looks as if Passos Coelho will continue as prime minister, and this will be clinched if the Socialist Party ultimately decides to join in a coalition with him.  But this is a risk for the Socialists as they will be blamed all the more for continuing austerity. They will have to bear in mind the fate of the similar PASOK party in Greece, which joined the right in a coalition and as a result has been reduced to marginality.

The General Secretary of the Communist Party, Jeronimo de Sousa stated that his party would vote in parliament against the continuation of the present government and called on the Socialist Party to do likewise.               

Meanwhile, Catarina Martins, head of the Left Bloc, guaranteed to their supporters that her party would not lend itself to any arrangement that would allow the right wing government to continue in power or implement more austerity policies.

If Passos Coelho cannot put together a viable parliamentary coalition or finds it impossible to govern, another election will have to happen after a constitutionally required minimum period of six months.

Photo: Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho picks up his ballot to vote.   |   AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.