Nearly two months ago the Portuguese Legislative Elections took place and the centre-right coalition Portugal Ahead (PàF) was the largest party, attracting 38.6% of the vote and winning 107 out the Assembly of the Republic’s 230 seats. As those among you who can count will have noticed, this meant that PàF were short of a majority and were faced with a problem: they couldn’t form a governing coalition as all of the other parties were left-wing. In the month that has followed the PàF couldn’t form a majority but, at the request of the centre-right President Aníbal Silva, formed a minority administration. This did not last.
Opinion polling throughout the campaign was not especially tight as PàF were expected to win around 40% of the vote, which they were just short of, however the reason that the election would be important is that it would be highly likely that the balance of power would be held by small left-wing parties. In the run up to the election the leader of the Socialist Party Antonio Costa declared that there would be no coalition with the other left-wing parties and hinted that he would be open to a grand-coalition or some form of confidence and supply arrangement with the centre-right PàF.
The election came and went, and despite what he had said originally, Costa did exactly what everybody thought he would do: negotiate with the left-wing parties. After negotiating with PàF, Costa declared on 19th October that he rejected their proposals for a coalition of the Socialists and PàF. The following day he ruined any possibility of a centre-right government led by PàF leader Perdo Passos Coelho by stating that when the minority government puts forward its legislative programme, the Socialists, along with the other left-wing parties, would vote against it, thus collapsing the government. On 7th November a deal was struck between the Socialists, the CDU, a coalition of eco-socialists and communists, and the anti-capitalist Left Bloc, to form a majority government.
As I said Portugal gave a strong message in the elections that have just passed and it is the statistics that bare this out. The people of Portugal voted against the PàF and for change, albeit in a very fragmented way. The Socialist Party garnered 32.3% of the vote and won 86 seats; the Left Bloc won its highest ever vote share (10.2%) to take 19 seats; the CDU, won 17 seats with 8.3% of the vote; and the centre-left People-Animals-Nature Party was supported by 1.4% of the electorate to pick up the final seat. Despite the electoral arithmetic, President Sílva, who used to be the leader of the largest party in the PàF coalition, asked the PàF’s leader Pedro Passos Coelho to form a government.
As someone who lives in England it is worth pointing out that this decision by President Sílva has been misrepresented by parties like UKIP in an attempt to portray Portugal as victims of a coup. Although President Sílva decided to ignore the will of the Portuguese people, it is totally consistent with the constitution for him to have acted in the way that he did. UKIP have essentially said that the people of Portugal have voted against austerity and that the European Union had prevented the formation of the government of the Portuguese people’s choice. Indeed Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader and head of the far-right EFDD group in the European Parliament, stood on the floor of the Parliament Chamber in Strasbourg and said “this is the modern day implementation of the Brehznev Doctrine”. Wrong, wrong and wrong again. Although I find it a bit annoying that President Sílva didn’t just ask the Socialists to try and form a government, British Eurosceptics clearly are unaware of how the Portuguese political system works, which is remarkable because its quite similar to how the British system works. The Portuguese President, much like the Queen in Britain, asks the largest party, who in this case was PàF, to form the government; if they cannot, they are thrown out and the second largest party is asked to form a government, which is exactly what would happen in Britain as well. The only differences between the two systems are that the Portuguese system is more formal, in that the Prime Minister has to be sworn in as a minority administration before he is kicked out, and that the Portuguese Head of State that performs this function is elected unlike in Britain.
On 10th November the PàF have had its legislative programme voted down. After this defeat the Portuguese President had no choice but to ask this left-wing coalition to form the government. This, although not as emphatic as the Greek elections, is a victory for the anti-austerity movement; the Socialists ran a campaign based on easing austerity measures, and the CDU and the Left Bloc go even further. With another anti-austerity government in Europe fighting against the neo-liberal consensus of the Eurozone and the IMF, Europe is one step closer to seeing what is desperately needed: a continental debt cancellation conference.
Anti-austerity voices in Europe are continuing to grow in voice and in positions of power and with Spain’s elections coming up in December, anti-austerity voices could be in power in three of the so-called PIIGS (Portugal, Spain and Greece). Ireland is also having elections in April 2016 where the anti-austerity Sinn Féin are doing relatively well in the polls, and Italy has already elected a centre-left government under Matteo Renzi who has publicly endorsed the idea of a debt cancellation conference. French President François Hollande has also come out in support of the idea. We need to stand in solidarity with the Portuguese people who have voted overwhelmingly against austerity and for a new kind of politics that seeks to reshape society for the good of all. The people of Portugal have spoken and change will hopefully come their way.