Candidates go head to head

As election campaigns go, Portugal’s have this far been an unmitigated disaster. From the minute the “Maratona Portugal à Frente” (‘Portugal First’ Marathon) took to the streets in Braga, national media has reported that prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho and his deputy Paulo Portas have been “booed, heckled and pushed” with innumerable “attempts at aggression”. Doing their best to paper over the mayhem by suggesting this is “people expressing themselves in a democracy”, the bottom line is that this is a pantomime in which both sides have “nothing to lose”. The next government will either be a continuation of the PSD/CDS-PP coalition – the “good pupil of the troika” whose policies of austerity have sent public debt and unemployment spiralling, but which guarantees that Portugal is on the right path – or it will see a return of the PS Socialists, who claim they are fighting to save the very social fabric of the country.

In the middle of all the rhetoric stands “the people” – the crowds who used to smile and shake politicians by the hand. But this year there is a dearth of happy faces.

Violent outbursts began months ago in the form of protests by the “indignant” – the hundreds of small investors who lost their shirts in the BES banking scandal – and the mood has simply escalated.

Whether it’s teachers, fishermen, farmers or taxi drivers, “the people” are fed up and ready for change.

Tackled on Monday in Setúbal by a furious pensioner by the name of Augusta, Passos Coelho admitted he would rather lose the elections than make promises he cannot keep.

The problem is that after four years of austerity and ever-increasing taxes, people are looking for promises.

TV debate re-energises Portugal’s opposition ahead of the election

Viewed from every angle, the election – now just over two weeks away – remains “wide open”. Polls that had been putting both main parties practically neck-and-neck widened slightly after last week’s much-publicised TV debate between Passos Coelho and António Costa, the former mayor of Lisbon who hopes to lead the PS to victory.

As Peter Wise writing for the Financial Times in Lisbon put it, the debate has re-energised the opposition.

Far from being “electric”, it was in effect just another episode of Punch & Judy politics – but “Costa emerged the winner”, said analysts – not just because he went on the attack, but because he did not mention the name of disgraced former PM José Sócrates 12 times.

Passos Coelho – in what TV commentator Marcelo Rebelo e Sousa described as a “technocratic management” of the debate – fell into the trap of trying to justify his government’s actions and policies – always alluding to the “legacy” inherited from Sócrates, and the “fear” people have of returning to those dark days.

“Families are filled with anguish by the possibility that what has been achieved will be put at risk,” he said. “For most Portuguese, António Costa represents uncertainty,” while the PS itself is the personification of “profligate overspending”.
It was a watered-down version of the rabble-rousing technique of his deputy Paulo Portas – a politician who could audition for Mr Punch without recourse to any theatrical make-up.

But was it what people wanted to hear? And this is where Costa won hands down. He has since gone on from the TV “head-to-head” to widen his appeal to “all those who are not PS and who have never voted PS”.

In defence of the Social State

This is what Costa feels is at issue in the elections of October 4.

Whipping up sympathy in Matosinhos on Monday, he said:“The Social State is a common heritage of European social democracy, of Christian European democracy, of the communist movement, of the labour movement and all those that affiliate themselves with the social doctrine of the Church and, as Pope Francis recalls, all those who knew to reconstruct Europe after the devastation of the war under a fundamental value, which is the dignity of the human person.”

Reaching out to everyone who had never before been aligned to his party, “namely communists, Christian democrats and social democrats”, he suggested they were all “with the PS, as they know the PS defends the Social State”.

There is a “clear line”, he added, “between those that defend the Social State and those who, without the troika, want to destroy it – attacking state schools, dismembering the National Health Service and privatising the income of Social Security”.

As Costa cranks up his internal combustion engine and the coalition continues with its checkered “marathon” through the nation’s towns and cities, Portugal’s own marathon heroine Rosa Mota, a bit like Judy, has joined the fray, making all the right noises supporting her party of choice.

Timing now is crucial. Can the PS maintain its so-called “energy”? Can the coalition pull anything out of its hat other than grim forebodings of what a return to Socialism could bring?

Foreign Policy in Focus carried a web article last week explaining how the results of Portugal’s election, along with those of the looming elections in Greece, Spain and Ireland, will “go a long way toward determining whether the 28-member organisation (of the European Union) will continue to follow an economic model that has generated vast wealth for a few, widespread misery for many, and growing income inequality for all”.

The choice, says the website, “is between an almost religious focus on the ‘sin’ of debt and the ‘redemption’ of austerity”, as opposed to a “re-calibration toward economic stimulus and social welfare”.

Looking at Portugal in what then was three weeks before the election, columnist Conn Hallinan suggested there is “a strong possibility that the conservatives (PSD-CDS) will fall and that the centre-left and left opposition will form a coalition government. Together these parties control 98 seats. They’ll need 116 to form a government”.

Hallinan wrote his article almost a week before Costa “reached out” to all those who had never previously voted for his party.

Thus, as October approaches we are on a countdown to a process that couldchange not just our own social fabric, but the fabric of a Europe that is already writhing under pressure from the arrival of legions of migrant refugees.

By NATASHA DONN [email protected]