Government outnumbered as Portugal votes with its feet

After last Sunday’s “Alice in Wonderland” election reports, the truth has finally settled. The centre-right wing crowing of “clear victory” is in fact a hung parliament that would almost certainly not last six months. As Europe’s media spotlight beams down on Portugal – with many suggesting the only way forwards is a deal with the Socialists – ratings agencies Fitch and Moody’s have warned of the growing risks now threatening the country’s fragile recovery. Coming in from the wings, the IMF has reiterated its fears of the country hitting its deficit target this year. With parties of the extreme left threatening to pass a motion to block the PSD-CDS coalition from even forming a government, Portugal’s political shambles could hardly be worse.

It is ultimately a case of what happens when smoke and mirrors come up against reality. Portugal’s “fragile recovery” still sees frightening levels of unemployment, a business sector lacking confidence, a pensions system on the point of collapse and, more importantly, an electorate that on Sunday showed it had no faith in the coalition government’s policies of austerity.

Leaving percentages aside, the bottom line of Sunday’s “win” for the Portugal à Frente coalition is that record numbers of people turned their back on voting altogether, and those that did in the main voted for left-wing parties.

The coalition ‘victory’ that actually saw party members chanting “Portugal, Portugal” within hours of the polls closing may give it the most number of seats in parliament (104) – but if one combines all the left wing MPs elected (PS – 85, BE Left Bloc – 19 and CD – 17), the PSD-CDS is outnumbered by 17.

To this end, President Cavaco Silva has appealed for “dialogue between the various political forces”.

Portugal needs a “long lasting, solid government”, he stressed on national television on Tuesday night after a meeting with Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho. “Now is the time for compromise,” he added.

But national media wasted no time in explaining that Cavaco “put to one side the hypothesis of forming a left-wing government” – which has understandably riled the far left which feel this is exactly what the country wants.

For now, it is a question of watch and wait, as Passos Coelho reaches out to PS leader António Costa who has consistently stressed he has no interest in propping up a minority executive.

As ratings agency Moody’s warned on Tuesday, even though Costa may be open to supporting the government “in certain cases to ensure Portugal’s political stability”, it is not at all clear that the coalition and PS could reach an agreement on the reform of the state pension system.

And that reform is vital. It was long delayed in the run-up to the elections as the coalition throttled back on its policies with clear intention of returning to them with a vengeance once it returned to power.

Jornal de Notícias reported in April that the government was “insisting” on “cutting pensions in 2016”, quoting Finance Minister Maria Luís Albuquerque on “a measure that would save €600 million”.

And it was this point that PS leader Costa returned to again and again during his election campaign, affirming that the PS was “working with great rigour to construct a reliable alternative that categorically refutes any cut in pension payments, and which seeks to guarantee the future sustainability of Social Security by diversifying its sources of finance”.

Thus the next days are crucial, and initial media reports that Passos Coelho had “made eurozone history by being re-elected despite imposing savage cuts” could not have been wider off the mark.

Election results – the numbers

With abstention rates at an all-time high (43.07%), the PSD/ CDS-PP coalition clinched 38.55% of the vote (2,071,375 ballot papers) translating into 104 seats in parliament.

The PS Socialists got 32.38% (1,740,300 votes) which gives them 85 MPs.

BE (Bloco Esquerda) more than doubled their slice of the pie after an impressive campaign by leader Catarina Martins and has now become the country’s third political force with 10.22% of the vote and 19 seats in parliament.

Following close behind is the CDU communist party led by Jerónimo Sousa, with 8.27% of the vote and 17 seats.

Another surprise of the elections was the arrival of PAN to parliament, the party representing People, Animals and Nature. With more than 74,000 votes, PAN now has one MP in the unenviable position of being courted by all those with an eye to power.

Algarve goes Socialist

Meantime, the Algarve went Socialist. After the 2011 elections, in which the entire region went “orange” (PSD), it is now almost totally pink (PS) – save the central areas of Albufeira, Loulé and São Brás de Alportel.

The reason, affirms national media, is the government’s insistence on tolls on the A22 Via do Infante highway – despite EU rulings that they are illegal and despite the endless litany of death that dogs the only alternative, the EN125.
Taken as a whole, the country has been almost totally divided – with areas north of Lisbon almost all orange, and areas south either pink (PS) or red (CDU).

As voters of both sides have been heard to lament, “it is as if half the country has been brainwashed”. It just depends on where one stands as to who one considers has been nobbled.

By NATASHA DONN [email protected]