By Tom Gill
Yet another European socialist party has bitten the dust as Portuguese voters punished the Government of prime minister Pedro Socrates for the country’s economic crisis.
The country is now in the hands of the right-wing PSD – which garnered 38.6 percent, resulting in 105 seats in the 230-seat national parliament – and the smaller right wing People’s Party (CDS-PP) – which gained 12% of the vote.
The three largest parties agreed to demands by the EU, IMF and the European Central Bank that ahead of the election they sign up to the €78 billion EU-IMF bail-out programme – and with it massive cuts to health, education and pensions in a country with faltering growth and 11% percent unemployment.
So the Portuguese were not given a great deal of choice.
No surprise then that the biggest winner of the night was the party of abstention: those who did not vote climbed to 41.1%, an historic high.
Voters did in fact have an alternative in the shape of an alliance between the Communists and Green Party in the CDU, and the Left Bloc, comprising , ex-maoists, Trotskyites and ‘eurocommunists’ These Left parties maintain that the demands of the EU-ECB-IMF ‘troika’ is an unacceptable intervention in the affairs of a sovereign state. And both opposed the bail-out and the devastating strings that are attached.
However, the CDU, barely saw an increase on the last election, from 7.89 to 7.9 percent, giving it just 16 seats, while the Left Bloc saw its support fall to 5.2 percent from its previous high of 9.85, giving it eight seats.
Voters lost faith in the Left Bloc, which had been on an upward trend since it was founded 12 years ago, was punished for being too close to the Socialists at times, according to some pundits.
The PCP, in a clear sign of relief that it had outperformed its rival, Left Bloc, was upbeat, although it only gained one MP. It’s failure to make any further gains was blamed on the media for “silencing” and “disregarding” its message, and “the lies and dissimulation of all those who, up to the very last moment of the electoral campaign, never disclosed their true programs and political intentions”.
PCP leader Jerónimo de Sousa says his CDU coalition is determined to continue arguing inside and outside parliament for an immediate “renegotiation” of the national public debt as “the only real alternative that can avoid irreparably jeopardizing for many decades to come, the country’s future, its sovereignty and any prospect for its development”.
A recent Bank of Portugal report warned of “particularly severe” economic hardship over the next two years with an “unprecedented” drop in family income. The Troika’s plan will see a contraction of 4% in GDP and a 5.4% cut in purchasing power in 2011/12 . Already one in five Portuguese can’t keep up payments on their mortgages.
Many economists believe further austerity will make it harder for the country to service its debts and this makes it more likely that there will be a sovereign debt default. Portugal’s credit rating is the second worst in Europe after Greece.
Upon his victory, PSD leader Pedro Passos Coelho, immediately moved to assure markets. “We will do everything possible to honor the agreement established between the Portuguese state, the EU and the IMF to regain the confidence of markets,” he said.
The election was called in March when premier Sócrates resigned after failing to get his own budget cuts through parliament. Coelho and his party opposed the measures at the time because the spending cuts were not deep enough.
Portugal is torn between resistance and resignation. A general strike in November bought as many as three million workers out onto the streets. 300,000 mostly young people descended on Lisbon’s Rossio square on March 12 in an example that inspired the movement of ‘indignados’ two months later in Spain.
The Socialist’s share of the vote fell to 28.1%. Apart from a brief period under the PSD then led by Jose Manuel Barroso, now the president of the European Commission, and his successor, Pedro Santana Lopes, from 2002-05, the Socialists have been in power since 1995.
The loss of Portugal represents yet another blow to European social democracy, which is at its lowest ebb for decades. The right continues its march across Europe in the wake of the economic crisis stemming from the meltdown in financial markets in 2008. Socialists are now only in government in Austria, Cyprus, Greece, Slovenia and Spain. Madrid is on course for a right turn next year, after a humiliating defeat of in local elections last month.