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Portugal: Left Front government prospect rocks the establishment

by Luis de Sousa Mon Oct 19th, 2015 at 08:08:13 AM EST

"As if we were overthrowing the remainder of the Berlin Wall." That is how António Costa, the leader of PS, described the events of the past two weeks in Portugal. Beyond all the metaphors this sentence may carry, it properly conveys the sense of fundamental shift in the country's politics. Right from election night, events took an unusual course, departing from the traditions instituted since the 1974 revolution.

This note digests the events of these past two weeks and the political choices the country faces. It then reflects on the particularly delicate situation in which the Social Democrats now find themselves, to which there are many parallels at the European scale. I then try to anticipate forthcoming developments.

Update 23-10-2015: President Cavaco Silva addressed the country yesterday evening to communicate his decision to appoint Pedro Passos Coelho as prime minister, leaving the right in power. With an uncharacteristic surly tone, the president made clear he will not accept a left front government, calling such solution "inconsistent". The president now hopes for a rebellion within PS to support his government. If that does not happen, Portugal will remain effectively without a government until next March, when Cavaco Silva leaves office.

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This is a follow-up to a longer preview on these elections posted a few weeks ago. Please consult that previous article for a quick overview of the parties and personalities referred to here.

It is probably best to start by recapitulating the results of this election. In the last few days of the campaign, polls where forecasting a result nigh on absolute majority for PàF, the governing coalition; however, the end result was 38%, representing a loss of almost 800,000 votes relative to 2011. Still, PàF harnessed 107 MPs, with PSD alone remaining the largest party in Parliament with 89 mandates. Just one year ago this result would have not been in the coalition's wildest dreams. PS came out clearly defeated with 32%, gaining just 200,000 votes relative to 2011; it remains the second largest party in Parliament with 86 MPs.

The big surprise of the election night was BE, which more than doubled its 2011 result, surpassing half million votes for the first time (10%). With 19 MPs BE unexpectedly became the third-largest party in Parliament. At 8% of votes, the Communist Party (PCP) ended up under expectations, but with 17 MPs elected still achieved one of its best results ever.

Contrary to my expectations, out of the non-represented parties, only PAN was able to reach Parliament, with one MP elected in Lisbon. PDR and LIVRE withstood heavy defeats, losing much of the votes they harnessed in the 2014 European elections. However, together these smaller parties now account for 7% of the votes.

Before moving on there is an important figure to note, one that starts to explain the course of events. Together, the parties to the left of (or overlapping) PS now account for 23% of the votes. In the 1995 election this figure was just above 10%.


The composition of the new Parliament. Image by Revista Port

It is in face of these results that events start unfolding in an unexpected fashion immediately on election night, the 4th of October. António Costa climbs on the pulpit for the defeat speech already after 23h00 to deliver a remarkably ambiguous address. More importantly, he does not announce his resignation. Traditionally, the leaders of PSD and PS resign after a defeat, making way for renovation in their party, but also providing a start period without proper opposition to the new government. Costa is able to linger in power because there is no real challenge to his leadership. However, pressure builds up on strategy and the party management ends up deciding the following day to meet all other parties represented in Parliament.

Tuesday, the 6th of October, it is time for the President to break with tradition. Contrary to what the Constitution commands, Aníbal Cavaco Silva dispenses formal talks with all the parties represented in Parliament and informally invites the incumbent prime minister - Pedro Passos Coelho - to find a lasting government solution. In a speech announcing his decision to the country, the President implicitly excludes PCP and BE from any government formulation, invoking their opposition to Portugal's NATO membership.

Wednesday, the 7th of October, PS starts the round of negotiations with the remaining parties. PCP is the first on the list and straight away Jerónimo de Sousa drops a bomb on António Costa's lap: the communists are willing to do whatever is necessary to prevent the Right from remaining in government. The secular argument that PS had to support the right - not having alternatives to its left - suddenly stops applying. Costa does not falter and negotiates, progress is swift and soon programmatic details are discussed; according to some press even ministerial places are on the table. At the end of the day many still regard this move as a bluff, but clearly caught by surprise, BE request the adjournment of its meeting with PS.


António Costa and Jerónimo de Sousa face off. It is unclear if Costa was caught by surprise with the proposals set out by PCP; rumours emerged during the campaign of secret negotiations between both parties. Image by Público

It is perhaps time to unveil a bit of the historical rift separating PS and PCP. After the 1974 revolution Portugal elected a Constituent Assembly (basically a Parliament invested with powers to draft a new Constitution) with a provisional government managing daily policies. PS and PSD dominated Parliament, while PCP largely controlled the government. PCP was on a drive to move Portugal away from NATO and closer to the USSR's sphere of influence; PS, PSD and CDS were for a European-style democracy within NATO and with eyes set on the EEC. Things unravelled into a series of violent events throughout the summer of 1975, eventually ending with a failed coup by PCP and the revolutionary parties (some of which where the seed of BE) on the 25th of November. Hop on to the articles at Wikipedia for more details; what's important to note here is that a chasm was open between PCP and the other traditional parties. For 40 years PCP was never willing to reach out from its stronghold position, never willing to compromise on its programme, never willing to support any sort of government. Until now...


Jerónimo de Sousa was one of the representatives elected to the Constituent Assembly of 1975 and is one of the very few still active in politics today. Remarkably, it is an actor of the summer of 1975 that is willing to close the chasm opened back then. Image by Expresso

PS meets PàF on Friday, the 9th of October. The meeting is largely inconclusive, never reaching the detail discussed between PS and PCP. António Costa would describe it as "useless". The prospects of a Left Front government slowly settle; at the end of the day Sérgio Sousa Pinto, a mid-level figure in the PS management, resigns his post in protest against the negotiations with PCP. The country goes on the weekend in suspense, waiting to see how BE may react to this unfolding redrawing of Portuguese politics.

PS has a busy calendar on Monday, the 12th of October: in the morning it is to meet BE, then PAN in the afternoon and Costa is to meet the President in the evening. The suspense is undone at lunch time with BE playing along the Left Front government hypothesis. Costa calls the meeting "interesting", while Catarina Martins rotundly claims an end to the right-wing government.


Catarina Martins and António Costa lead the meeting that would confirm the possibility of a Left Front government. Image by Rádio Renascença

PS meets PàF again on Tuesday, the 13th of October, once more without reaching a compromise. Mutual suspicion builds up between both political forces, PàF accuses PS of make-believe while PS vents concerns that the government is hiding negative budget figures. Meanwhile technical discussions multiply behind closed doors between the three left parties towards a common governance basis. Along the process PS also conducts fruitful meetings with the smaller parties: Greens and PAN.


The PàF and PS leaderships start what would be another inconclusive meeting. Image by Vai e vem

PàF puts an end to negotiations with PS on Wednesday, the 14th of October. Pedro Passos Coelho "calls the bluff", so to say, and declares he will request a mandate from the President to form a minority government with outside support. While PS pretends to still have a door open to negotiations with PàF, it now becomes evident that any remotely lasting government solution can only come from the Left Front: PS, PCP and BE.

The following days the country dives into a sort of psychosis. A visceral reaction emerges to the prospect of having Marxists and Trotskists in (or supporting) government; few are those willing to manifest for the Left Front. The media employs diffuse or subjective arguments against a Left government: it was PàF that won the elections, Costa lacks political legitimacy, anti-NATO parties should not be allowed in government. The industry arguments with economics: interests on sovereign debt will rise, confidence will sink, and so will investment. The establishment is frightened.

Out of a defeat, António Costa unexpectedly emerges as the key player, retaining the initiative from day one. But this new-found protagonism does not mean a happy ending for PS. The internal division of the party is becoming ever more evident, even if no one is yet willing to challenge Costa's leadership. On the one side are fears that enabling a government on the right with an austerity programme may definitely alienate the political space to the left of PS. On the other side there is great mistrust on a coalition with PCP and BE, a risky strategy that can end up pushing the electorate at the centre towards PSD. The problem for PS is that both points of view are correct. There is no easy way out, damned if you do, damned if you don't.

The crossroads faced by PS is not merely circumstantial, it is the fruit of the deep crisis European social democracy fell into. Tony Blair's Third Way, i.e., insisting on liberal economic programmes while in parallel fighting for collateral flagship themes such as same-sex marriage or abortion de-penalisation, is no longer viable. The flagship fights are won and in the present economic context liberal economic policies are producing results in the social plane that are at odds with traditional values of the Left. It is the moment of truth, PS (and many other European social-democrat parties) can no longer rest in no man's land.

Beyond the governance of the country, Costa has in hands the ultimate survival of his party. A bridge too long between Left and Right might end up breaking.

What happens next? The new political realities of the country are finally sinking in for President Cavaco Silva and he has decided to formally listen to all parties before appointing a prime minister (as required by the Constitution). In all likelihood, he will choose Passos Coelho for the job by late Tuesday. After forming a government, the latter should present a budget to Parliament by the end of this month or the beginning of the next. If the Left Front holds until then, this budget should be refused, with the PàF government entering into care-taking mode. This situation could drag on until a new President takes office in the beginning of 2016.

Throughout these two breathtaking weeks many other interesting things took place. The Presidential election acquires now a whole new meaning and four relevant personalities presented themselves during these weeks: Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa (PSD leader in the 1990s), Maria de Belém (minister in various PS governments), Marisa Matias (BE MEP) and Edgar Silva (from PCP in Madeira). The former Socialist prime minster José Sócrates was freed after a court ruled his arrest unlawful; no charges have yet been filed against him.

This is the most interesting period I ever witnessed in Portuguese politics, and possibly, it is only starting.

This is a crosspost from AtTheEdgeOfTime.

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In all likelihood, he will chose Passos Coelho for the job by late Tuesday. After forming a government, the latter should present a budget to Parliament by the end of this month or the beginning of the next. If the left front holds until then, this budget should be refused, with the PàF government entering into care taking mode.
I don't get this. Isn't the new government required to win a vote of confidence by the parliament? Does the budget court as such a vote? And what happens if the government does not have the confidence of parliament?

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Oct 19th, 2015 at 12:16:18 PM EST
Let me take this apart: 1. The government is appointed directly by the President, the Parliament is not involved at this stage and a confidence vote is not required. 2. Any parliamentary group may require a confidence or un-confidence vote at any time. If the government is defeated it is left in office with limited powers (care taking government). After such situation usually the President calls an early election and dissolves the Parliament. 3. In order to effectively govern, the government needs Parliament to approve a budget every year. If a government in office fails to pass a budget in Parliament it again enters care taking mode. 4. The President is not obliged to call early elections and may leave a care taking government in office until the following regular election.

You might find me At The Edge Of Time.
by Luis de Sousa (luis[dot]a[dot]de[dot]sousa[at]gmail[dot]com) on Mon Oct 19th, 2015 at 12:37:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Appologies for the bad formatting.

You might find me At The Edge Of Time.
by Luis de Sousa (luis[dot]a[dot]de[dot]sousa[at]gmail[dot]com) on Mon Oct 19th, 2015 at 12:38:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
So in theory a presidential republic. But if I understand you correctly, in praxis it has been more or less a parliamentary republic, with the president as a formal role rather than a power role? And now the outgoing president is likely to set aside praxis?
by fjallstrom on Mon Oct 19th, 2015 at 04:22:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It is not a presidential republic because the President has no executive powers, and the budget must approved by Parliament. In essence, a successful government emerges out of an equilibrium between President and Parliament.

You might find me At The Edge Of Time.
by Luis de Sousa (luis[dot]a[dot]de[dot]sousa[at]gmail[dot]com) on Tue Oct 20th, 2015 at 03:05:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Ok, but is appointing a PM against the will of the parliament's majority not a break with tradition?
by fjallstrom on Tue Oct 20th, 2015 at 02:23:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Not only is it a break of tradition, it is also a pointless exercise. It will simply result in a care taking government without a budget to execute. With the 2015 budget unravelling and the 2016 budget already delayed, this is a very bad option.

You might find me At The Edge Of Time.
by Luis de Sousa (luis[dot]a[dot]de[dot]sousa[at]gmail[dot]com) on Wed Oct 21st, 2015 at 02:21:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
While such a government can't do much, it can certainly stop the other side from doing anything either.

Which certainly is of great value if the president doesn't like the other side...

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.

by Starvid on Sat Oct 24th, 2015 at 10:46:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
European Tribune - Portugal: left front government prospect rocks the establishment
It is the moment of truth, PS (and many other European social-democrat parties) can no longer rest in no man's land.

From your keyboard to God's ear.

I used to be afew. I'm still not many.

by john_evans (john(dot)evans(dot)et(at)gmail(dot)com) on Tue Oct 20th, 2015 at 01:44:22 AM EST
The prayers of the atheists are with you.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed Oct 21st, 2015 at 02:21:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]


A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Oct 21st, 2015 at 06:59:00 AM EST
Thanks for pointing this out. I actually do not have a Twitter account. I find this whole social media business mighty distracting.

You might find me At The Edge Of Time.
by Luis de Sousa (luis[dot]a[dot]de[dot]sousa[at]gmail[dot]com) on Wed Oct 21st, 2015 at 10:08:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A difficult situation for PS. Of course I support a left wing coalition, but even if they manage to overcome old grievances, what are they actually going to do?

The ECB has proven many time now that it is will use its gouvernment bond buying program to punish left wing gouvernments.

by rz on Thu Oct 22nd, 2015 at 01:43:19 PM EST
There are relevant legislative issues introduced by the right that may rolled back (labour law, etc). They can also avoid or delay privatisations that would come at the worst of moments.

But in essence yes, if the ECB wishes so, it can easily leave Portugal between the wall and the sword, as it did with Greece.

You might find me At The Edge Of Time.

by Luis de Sousa (luis[dot]a[dot]de[dot]sousa[at]gmail[dot]com) on Fri Oct 23rd, 2015 at 11:45:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Left wing in name only seems to be quite acceptable to them.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Oct 25th, 2015 at 11:10:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A matter of weeks?

"Portugal's opposition Socialists pledged on Friday to topple the center-right minority government with a no confidence motion, saying the president had created "an unnecessary political crisis" by naming Pedro Passos Coelho as premier."

http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/23/us-portugal-government-idUSKCN0SH0XV20151023

If they have brought in a no confidence motion, shuoldn't this be over in some weeks?

by IM on Sun Oct 25th, 2015 at 07:58:30 AM EST
Can the president then renominate Coelho after that?
by gk (gk (gk quattro due due sette @gmail.com)) on Sun Oct 25th, 2015 at 09:00:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, perhaps. But only after he is forced to resign first.
by IM on Sun Oct 25th, 2015 at 12:50:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"The Socialists and two leftist parties quickly showed that they control the most votes when parliament reopened on Friday, electing a Socialist speaker of the house and rejecting the centre-right candidate.

"This is the first institutional expression of the election results," Mr Costa said. "In this election of speaker, parliament showed unequivocally the majority will of the Portuguese for a change in our democracy."

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/portugal-left-vows-to-topple-government-with-no-confiden ce-vote-1.2404969

So this should be a clear situation

by IM on Sun Oct 25th, 2015 at 08:14:23 AM EST
From what I read, the president can still leave the current conservative prime minister in office. No matter what.
by rz on Sun Oct 25th, 2015 at 11:20:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Fortunately the President's term expires in March. How is his replacement chosen?

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed Oct 28th, 2015 at 09:13:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There is a Presidential election early next year. (Wiki)

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Oct 28th, 2015 at 10:21:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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