Prime minister António Costa
Prime minister António Costa Photo: TIAGO PETINGA/LUSA

Turning the page or more of the same? – this is the question

Late on Friday afternoon, Portugal’s two main political parties PS and PSD released their election manifestos: almost at exactly the same time and both with clear similarities in objectives, if not the paths to achieving them.

Over the weekend, six other parties in parliament (Bloco de Esquerda, PCP communists, PAN, Chega, Iniciativa Liberal and CDS-PP) revealed their priorities for the next legislature.

This weekend will see the beginning of a two-week electoral campaign in which the nation will be bombarded with news and views of political interventions day and night.

These are elections in which the vast majority of foreign residents in Portugal have absolutely no say (the only people who can vote are Portuguese nationals) – but they are crucial in that the last two years, irrespective of the pandemic, have seen the current PS executive ‘hanging by a thread’, without the necessary majority to run the country as it would like.

Indeed, the whole impetus for these elections – prompted by the failing of the government’s draft for the 2022 State Budget – was to bring stability in the form of a majority government.

This was the overriding message from President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa in his New Year speech. He wasn’t just talking about turning the page on the pandemic but turning the page on so much political uncertainty that it is visibly thinning the hair and etching the faces of those in the front line of power.

Expresso explains that the ‘fear of the president’ (if not prime minister António Costa) is that the bid for stability – the bid for this elusive majority in parliament – will fail. And if it fails, so too will the billions of euros due to arrive from Brussels be compromised.

Instead of being applied by one strong government, the Brussels’ ‘bazooka’, or PRR (Plan for Recovery and Resilience), could be overseen by three weak ones – the minority executive that has already approved it; the next minority that comes in, and the third executive that would likely follow, possibly again before a full run in parliament.

This is where ‘egos’ seem to weigh over patriotic concerns.

Says Expresso: “For the president, to pass 10 years in Belém, with the country marking time would not help embody his role in history.”

The paper considers Marcelo would be happy with any government in a majority, even if it was a Socialist one (not his own political favourite).

PM António Costa has also said in an interview with CNN Portugal recently that he will resign if he loses the elections – which would almost certainly leave the party going further to the left because Mr Costa’s presumed successor would be Pedro Nuno Santos (the infrastructure minister who has been so keen to ‘save’ TAP at a cost of billions to the taxpayer and is known to favour alliances with the radical left).

So, that is where the country is right now. No-one can tell which way these elections will go – and very few see the likelihood of an absolute majority.

This is where things get interesting: while Mr Costa is entering televised debates with the other parties saying exactly what he will not do (he won’t, for example, countenance a ‘central alliance’ with the PSD, or a new agreement with radical left Bloco de Esquerda), his opponent, PSD leader Rui Rio, is keeping all his options open. “He is creating an image to the public at large”, in the words of one political pundit – an image devoid of ideological arrogance.

It might work: the PSD’s percentage when it comes to national voting intentions appears to be narrowing the margin between PS, and certainly two smaller parties, CDS and IL, are keen to forge agreements that would bolster any minority PSD win and help create a government.

Much hinges on the Costa-Rio ‘head-to-head’ on national television tonight (Thursday); while the next two weeks of campaigning will be relentless.

As to the objectives of the two main parties, they have been minutely laid out in heavy documents.

The PS’s 121-page “Juntos Seguimos e Conseguimos” (Together We Go and Achieve) focuses on demographics (the need to boost them), climate change, digitalisation and the combat of inequality, saying these are the “principal strategic challenges of the country”.

Prefacing their intent, they carry a chapter on ‘good governance’ in which they pledge “credible budgetary policies centered on sustainable recovery of the economy”.

The party equally promises “to power regional autonomy, deepen decentralisation and value sovereign functions”.

In terms of taxes, it promises a progressive reduction in IRS, with increased deductions for dependents and children.

In terms of health, it pledges to construct 100 new health units by 2026; six hospitals (in the Alentejo, Algarve, Coimbra (maternity), Lisbon, Seixal and Sintra); create a national centre for telemedicine and even to integrate dentists in the SNS health service.

There are many other pledges, for education, environment, justice … and when it comes to the economy, the PS wants to see public debt down to 110% by 2026; exports up to 53% of GDP and a 20% increase in average worker incomes.

The PSD, led by Rui Rio, pledges rigor and reform, as well as a revision of the Constitution.

Its 164-page “Novos Horizontes Para Portugal” (New Horizons for Portugal) promises to slash IRS income tax receipts “by more than €400 million in 2025, and more than €400 million in 2026”; reduce IRC (the tax on businesses) to 17%; reduce IMI (property rates) from 0.3% to 0.25% – and for restaurants struggling to survive the ravages wrought by measures to control the pandemic, a temporary reduction in IVA, dropping from the current 13% to 6%. The measure would be in place from July 2021 to December 2023.

The PSD view of the SNS health service is diametrically opposed to that of PS. The centre-right wants to see much more collaboration between the private sector and public. It wants to widen the current SIGIC system so that it can be used to reduce waiting lists for consultations (the SIGIC system right now is used by SNS patients whose operations have been delayed by the SNS inability to keep up, but they could have had to wait months, if not years, for the consultations that sanctioned these operations).

When it comes to the environment, the PS is focused on increasing renewable energies to taking up 47% of the country’s needs by 2030; launching green hydrogen auctions – while the PSD talks of “more green spaces in urban areas” and a “programme of artificial intelligence applied to environmental impact evaluations”.

The PSD’s aspirations for the economy are much more bullish than the PS’s: it wants a higher percentage of exports (60%) by 2023; a higher rate of growth per year (more than 3%) and public debt down to just 80% of GDP by 2030.

Curiously, no media reports mention either manifesto taking a stand on lithium mining – an activity that is being vehemently opposed by the communities threatened by it.

Expresso adds that President Marcelo has already sent a message to the next parliament saying that he wants to ‘reconsider’ the strategy for lithium mining in the next legislature as it demands “a difficult balance between the various and legitimate interests at play”.

It’s a consideration that applies equally to the two weeks ahead: Portuguese voters will have to consider the various and legitimate interests at play and decide which ones really offer the change, the turning of the page, that Portugal needs.

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