THE SUMMER is the silly season for politics and the party season for politicians. The sun shines and no one wants to read about serious problems. The best summer story of the last 20 years was in the early ‘90s when Santana Lopes, now the outgoing Mayor of Lisbon but then the Secretary of State for Culture, dismissed Maria José Nogueira Pinto, then his under secretary and now the Popular Party (PP) candidate to be Mayor of Lisbon. She had made an order to close part of the Sporting football stadium because the canopy was dangerous, and she refused to budge even when the Sporting president, Sousa Cintra, put pressure on Santana Lopes to have the order rescinded. In the final shoot out, it was Maria who had to go and the order was rescinded, but the story ran right through July and August.
What fascinates me about the party season is the public socialising in the Algarve of politicians, business people and so-called jet-setters. Everyone is on holiday and no one is too concerned about who is seen with who. The dress code is smart casual.
In my early days in the Algarve, I was once invited to a red and white ball and, in keeping with the spirit of the event, wore a white jacket with a red tie. All the other men arrived in blazers with open neck shirts and I was perhaps fortunate to be mistaken only twice for a waiter!
But the summer this year is different from usual. There are no silly stories in the papers, everyone is being deadly serious. Going into an autumn where the economic outlook is weaker than ever, the country is going through one of its periods of deep pessimism, fuelled by yet another wave of forest fires and the now standard criticisms of the government’s failure to prepare, train and co-ordinate the fire services.
A casual read of the daily newspapers on a single day in August threw up some typical comments. “The horizon is heavy with clouds,” declared Francisco Sarsfield Cabral in the Diário de Notícias, while in the opinion of Fernando da Costa of O Diabo, “Our country has lost the rose and is in the course of gaining very sharp thorns.” Fernando Sobral in the Jornal de Negócios was clear who was to blame: “The system and the party machine are to blame for everything that’s wrong with the country.”Nuno Sampaio, writing in the Diário Económico, had the same idea: “The choice is simple: either we want to continue to be busy with the mediocrity and internal games of Portuguese politics or we want to make this into a relatively normal country.”
Others referred to the fires but their message was similar. “The land is burning, the police are rebelling, the civil service is showing its claws and the crisis of the government could well cease to be just a rhetorical expression,” wrote Alberto Gonçalves in the Correio da Manhã. On TV, Miguel Sousa Tavares declared that, “We have a coastline that is being vandalised, rivers that are polluted, abandoned agriculture and forests that are burning. Every year, the identity of the country is being devastated.”
For anyone in business here, it’s difficult not to be affected by the pessimism. We would happily pay higher taxes if we thought that it would do any good, if we did not expect the government to go on wasting most of the money it raises. So many reforms result in more independent commissions, more bureaucracy, more paperwork. Nuno Sampaio said as much in the Diário Económico: “The worst thing is that there is definitely no cure for Portugal.”
Politics and history
Yet, historically, the Portuguese have always thought this way about their country. The classic novel Os Maias by Eça de Queirós, written at the end of the 19th century, is full of pessimism about current politicians and dreams of revolution as the only way out. In response to a banker’s statement that the country’s bankruptcy is inevitable, Ega, one of the lead characters, exclaims: “Bankruptcy would, of course, be followed by revolution. A country, which lives off loans that it doesn’t repay, takes up the cudgel. Their first concern is to sweep away the monarchy that heads the swindle and, with it, all those crass politicians. And when the crisis is over, Portugal would be free from the old debt, the old people, that grotesque collection of animals.”
Later, Ega goes on to advocate a Spanish invasion. “Obviously, it would not involve a complete loss of independence…Nobody would let the beautiful coastline of Portugal fall into Spanish hands.
“Portugal might lose some provinces and Galicia might extend down as far as the Douro, but such a catastrophe would result in a revival of public spirit and would galvanise Portugal. Beaten, humiliated, downtrodden, destroyed, we would have to make a desperate effort to survive. And what a splendid position we’d find ourselves in. No monarchy, that pack of politicians gone, that mushroom of the public debt ended. We would be brand new, clean, polished like a piece of cutlery that’s never been used. And a new history could begin, a different Portugal – a Portugal that would be serious and intelligent, strong and decent, studious, thoughtful, contributing towards civilisation as in earlier times.”
Since those words were written, Portugal has had two revolutions and the country is still wondering, 95 years after the first, what difference it makes. The faces have changed, the system is nominally democratic, but many of the essentials have remained the same, whatever the regime, whichever the party in power. The Spanish have arrived, but life goes on, politicians come and go and, as I write, the sun is shining and it does not seem so bad to live in Portugal. I can, at least, go on holiday and know that everything will be pretty much as usual when I get back.