New Year elections: only President Marcelo appears not to want them

With today being ‘decision day’ for the survival of the 2022 State Budget, the truth is that ‘everyone in parliament’ seems to want early elections.

Political commentators are agreed: the current government is ‘dead in the water’. It has lost its ‘allies’, left wingers Bloco de Esquerda and PCP communists – which themselves are still smarting from catastrophic results in September’s municipal elections.

Pundits suggest that the Bloco and PCP’s insistence on voting against the State Budget, and effectively bringing down the government, is much more to do with ‘damage control’ than any valid objections to what the budget is actually offering.

Writing in tabloid Correio da Manhã this morning, PS MP Marcos Perestrello explains the two parties “simply want to topple the government now because they realise they will be electorally penalised (if they wait any longer) by their connections to the PS if they sustain it. 

“The results of the municipal elections were the impetus that gave fundamentalists in both parties the strength to force a pulling away from the government – and the moment is convenient, as difficult times are coming for all world economies”, he suggests.

Echoing the convictions of his leader, António Costa – who has no intention of resigning even if the budget collapses later today – Marcos Perestrello claims this ‘unpopular budget’ is in fact the one that has gone further than all those in the previous years since 2015 in accepting the ideology of the left.

There is more finance for the health system, for education; there is a reduction in IRS for the majority of families ‘for the first time in years’; salaries are increasing, pensions too; there is a new level of support for infants in the form of free creche places – and there is no money being paid over to banks.

In other words, the brouhaha and criticism that the budget ‘doesn’t go far enough’ is expedient, in his (and many others’) opinion: interests which have nothing to do with those of the country are paramount.

And there’s the nub of the whole sorry drama: politicians are thinking about their own futures while Portugal gently slides into a new financial ‘hole’ with record public debt and very little in motion to pull it back before Brussels reimposes ‘budgetary rules’ in 2023.

The centre-right meantime is in such a ‘mess’ that early elections can only work to the PS advantage: PSD leader Rui Rio is being undermined by ‘pretender to the title’ Euro MP Paulo Rangel, while the youthful CDS leader is in the same position, under attack from Euro MP Nuno Melo.

Explain reports, Monday night’s emergency meeting of the Council of Ministers saw consensus that early elections are the way to go.

Coincidentally, the ‘difficult times’ have contributed to this mindset: ministers believe “the later elections come, the more the risk of fuel prices increasing, the more the risk of social unrest – and the PSD would be given time to ‘reorganise itself’ from all the internal power-play.

Only President Marcelo is reluctant to take this sitting down: again, because he doesn’t want to see his second term tarnished with political crisis.

Thus his efforts have been to divide the centre-right, says Correio da Manhã – by encouraging Madeiran MPs (all three of them) to change their intention to vote against the budget, and instead vote for it.

The ‘deal’ would see Madeira getting a number of ‘guarantees’ that would benefit the region – all of them ‘costing money’ – and would have to involve changing the minds also of PAN, PEV and non-inscribed MPs… (at midday today, it seems this plan has fallen flat: Madeira’s president Miguel Albuquerque has confirmed the MPs will be voting against the budget after all…)

But again, the overview suggests ‘everyone is trying to protect their own corner’ in  power-struggles that has barely seem mindful that Portugal’s public debt has steadily increased since the PS ‘seized power’ in 2015 – with the help of Bloco de Esquerda and PCP Communists – and is now at a level where it needs to reduce way beyond the forecasts of this budget (and possibly any other) in order to satisfy Brussels’ parameters.

Speaking this morning in parliament as the second day of the debate gets underway ahead of voting later this afternoon, finance minister João Leão said: “We are presenting a budget that focuses on economic and social recovery, with significant advances in structural challenges. It’s all this without taking anything away, without going backwards on what was accomplished in 2016 (when the deficit was temporarily reduced)… continuing to go forwards, with a sense of balance, without giving margins for setbacks which would be dramatic for the Portuguese”.

“Our debt is the problem: we have to reduce it so that there are no ‘dark clouds on the horizon’. The country does not want, or need, to go back to where it was not happy”.

The reality, warn political commentators, is that whatever happens in parliament today, Portugal could indeed be on the way back to where it was not happy.

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