The premier of Portugal triumphed in the elections despite the pandemic and the crisis. His recipe? Seriousness, virtuous administration and political creativity
For the European left in government, from Olaf Scholz to Pedro Snchez to Enrico Letta, the absolute majority obtained by Antnio Costa at Portuguese elections a boost of optimism. It means that, even by managing power, you can win, despite the pandemic, inflation and the risk of economic cooling. So everyone to study the Costa model, his fourth way, Lusitanian pragmatism, sardine capitalism. The replicant problem that It costs a single politicianwith objective results that gave him a well-deserved victory, but also the leader of a country with voters as rational as their representatives.
In what other Parliament, at the beginning of the pandemic, did the opposition leader ever say Prime Minister, count on our help, because your fortune is our fortune? Thus spoke Rui Rio, in April 2020, in Lisbon precisely to Antnio Costa. A noble attitude, that of Rio, like his resignation on Sunday night in front of the numbers of the defeat for his conservative party. There is no other country in Europe where the premier (Costa in fact) has Indian origins, but no one dreams of talking about his tan as Berlusconi did for Obama. A country a stone’s throw from Africa, but overtaken by migratory flows because it is too poor, where disciplined people, almost resigned to backwardness, and, instead of protesting, emigrate. A country that Costa inherited in bankruptcy and got back on its feet with a series of creative insights.
Costa’s Portugal accomplished from 2015 to today at least two impossible missions. The first was to convince Europe of austerity, the one that he believed he could get out of the crises only by saving, that Portugal could do differently. The troika (EU, IMF and Bm) had imposed privatizations and cuts in pensions, health care, public employment: a Greece2 with the same potential for social desperation. Costa convinced the debt guardians that he could also raise pensions (slightly), revive health care, hire public employees and the deficit would have dropped anyway. He did this by attracting capital, guaranteeing benefits to foreigners, increasing growth. In 2019, Portuguese finances were in surplus, in 2021 Costa renationalized the airline Tap. The second impossible mission was achieved with Covid. Would an elderly country with convalescent health care survive the virus? Costa (and the opposition) have made Portugal a virtuous example: the most vaccinated country on the continent.
The mediation capacity is one of Costa’s quality. From an electoral defeat (2015) he managed to build a government bringing the Communists to the control room for the first time. In Europe you fought like a lion: is the EU subsidizing agriculture and fighting climate change? So why not give money to Portuguese forests that absorb CO2 and employ farmers? Everyone agrees that Portugal does not burn all summers. Costa seduces, convinces, but he also knows how to raise his voice. Faced with Dutch resistance to shelling out money for the costs of the coronavirus, the Portuguese attacked his colleague: a disgusting and petty attitude that threatens the future of the Union, if someone does not agree, leave the EU as well.
It costs a reformist, shuns theatrical gestures, prefers graduality, but, as soon as he can, he goes left. It has absorbed unemployment (from 18 to 6% to then rise to 8% with Covid) with minimum wages, restarted welfare, but without resolving the structural backwardness. Twenty years ago the Portuguese per capita income was 16 thousand euros, 6 thousand less than the European average. Today 17 thousand, but the distance from Europe has widened to 9 thousand euros. Costa invented romantic weekends in Lisbon all year round, tax-free golden visas for retirees and investors, now he hopes for digital growth to make Portugal a Southern Latvia. Many ideas, some results, perhaps small, but real. The Portuguese continue to be poor, but perhaps the real winners on Sunday are they: they voted for the possible, not for anger.