Elections in Portugal, because the model country in Europe for the management of Covid is again on the verge of instability

from Andrea Nicastro

Ten million Portuguese called to parliamentary elections today. In the exit polls, Costa’s socialists have the advantage and the extreme right is growing

About ten million Portuguese are called to parliamentary elections today. there 15th time since the 1974 Carnation Revolution. From the first exit polls, the Socialist Party of the outgoing Prime Minister Antonio Costa has led the way, and Chega’s far right is also growing. Antnio Salazar’s Estado Novo (New State) had lasted 40 years, democracy has now surpassed it in resistance, but Portugal’s problems are still linked to those decades of isolation and autarky. The bleeding continues: in the last 25 years of dictatorship 1.8 million Portuguese emigrated, in the first 20 of this century 1 million. Less, but not enough to think of a country capable of walking on its own two feet. Portugal is trailing behind the European welfare rankings for an insufficient production system with no prospects.

Lisbon the fascinating showcase of a transformed country. The gearbox was for the better, there is no doubt, but still not enough. Portugal is no longer the parasitic anachronism of the twentieth century at the expense of the last colonial domains, it has now found its identity in the tertiary sector, especially in tourism. The offer is varied and competitive, the season stretches all year round, the structures are of high quality and have redeveloped large urban areas that would otherwise be dilapidated. However, Portugal has not gone through its own industrial development capable of absorbing the labor liberated from subsistence agriculture of Salazar’s time. Hotels, cruises, low cost flights, beaches and art are not enough to feed all Portuguese. There aren’t enough restaurants to hire everyone as waiters. The most prepared, ambitious, capable young people emigrate.

Of today’s ten million potential voters, a quarter are resident overseas. Of these, very few will put their choice in the ballot box today. At home it is no better. Discouragement and the lack of prospects risk translating into 50% of abstentions. This is the eighth time (in democracy) that Parliament dissolves early. The crisis mode did not help to give confidence neither in politics nor in the future. The most likely outcome of today’s vote is an unstable government ready to fall at the first international jolt. Responsibility for early voting lies with the choice of the left of not approve the 2022 budget drawn up by the socialist government of Antonio Costa. The premier who passed from mayor of Lisbon to prime minister in 2015, at the height of the international financial crisis, with a country in bankruptcy.

Since it has always increased its GDP points with summits of 7/8 per cent per year and the consensus for his Socialist Party, an Atlanticist and reformist center-left. He made it through a policy that respects European constraints, the market, competition and budgets in order and without a hint of neoliberal fury. His pragmatism and his heart on the left have led him to raise the minimum wage (from 500 to 700 euros), reopen hospitals, restore fuel to police cars, heat schools, retirees retirees. He looked for the money in the crevices.

It has opened the country to European pensioners who can live and spend in Portugal without paying income tax. It opened to real estate funds that they kicked the old residents out of the center of Lisbon to get hotels and apartments for short-term rent, but they also have so absorbed unemployment and generated a tourist flow of various points of GDP. Costa did everything he could, unemployment dropped from 18 to 8%, but it was not enough for the radical lefts who supported him for six years. The 2022 budget was rejected, 48% of the parliamentary seats available to the socialists were not enough and Costa has resigned.

The polls, with the prospect of 50% abstentions, are worth even less than usual. The Portuguese electoral system rewards the two major parties, the socialist (Ps) and the social democratic (Psd) who in reality is a classical European conservative, in the German CDU or DC style of Italian memory. The first place therefore a competition between the socialist Costa and the conservative Rui Rio. Like Costa, Rio was also mayor of Lisbon and the decisive votes are often taken from the capital. Different polling institutes give different results, the majority still see Costa excelling, but for some, Rio will prevail. The challenger was a loyal opponent, never poisonous, concerned for the good of the country and largely in favor of the rival’s policies. With Rio in the premiership, the government’s intention should not change.

What both leaders will have to solve the problem of an absolute majority. How to get it? Socialist Costa should in theory address the same parties (Communists and Left Bloc) that derailed him, but which are now declining. If it gets close to 50%, it could be satisfied with two or three deputies from animal rights or local parties who generally pass the percentages of the barrage in some constituencies. That is the new Costa government would be as vulnerable as the outgoing one. The risk then, if Costa comes in second, that the prime minister resigns as party leader and the PS changes political orientation, losing a wealth of governance that all of Europe has long envied.

Rui Rio’s difficulties in the event of a non-absolute affirmation of his PSD are similar. Since it is impossible for the radical left to support him, Rio would have to ask for votes from the new populist right invented by sports journalist Andr Ventura. In the absence of immigrants on which to direct popular anger, Ventura built his Chega! (Enough!) Around the fear of gypsies. Ventura a PSD defector, university professor, successful journalist, great communicator, a true anti-system without a proactive program, but very good at identifying what is not working. Rio’s center-right said it was willing to govern with the votes of Chega !, but only as external support.

Leaving unchanged the classic political scheme of bipolarity between center-left and center-right, the risk that Portugal will vote again very soon. In the meantime, it would fail to implement any of the structural reforms the country finally needs stop the haemorrhage of 100 thousand skilled emigrants a year. A government with sufficient strength to carry out profound reforms to the productive system and exploit European funds for a long-term plan can only emerge in three cases: absolute majority of socialists, absolute majority of conservatives or grand coalition between the two.

The personalities of Costa and Rio would seem compatible. They cooperated on the pandemic in an exemplary way. Portugal has long been a European model in the management of Covid and has achieved the highest vaccination rates in the world, a sign of a cohesive and responsible political class. Rio’s attitude to the opposition was constructive even beyond the health emergency, the ideology of the two parties with them at the helm is not so different. The great coalition between Costa and Rio is a possibility, perhaps an opportunity. The votes will decide whether it is practicable or not.

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