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Tuesday, March 11, 2014
- Voters in crisis-stricken Portugal will go to the ballot boxes next Sunday to choose not a government, but something more like delegates who will administer decisions already taken by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.
The new government that will emerge from the Jun. 5 early elections has already been described by analysts as a “board of administrators” delegated by the troika that approved the country’s financial rescue plan.
The IMF, the European Commission – the executive arm of the EU – and the European Central Bank (ECB) are the trio that in early May granted a bailout package of 78 billion euros (116 billion dollars) to stave off bankruptcy in Portugal.
The fragility of the Portuguese economy had already been acknowledged early this year, when the socialist government of Prime Minister José Sócrates introduced the fourth edition of a stringent “stability and growth programme”.
However, the austerity plan, which included even tougher measures than the first three versions, was rejected in parliament Mar. 23 by the opposition, prompting Sócrates’ resignation and conservative Portuguese President Aníbal Cavaco Silva’s call for early elections.
Portugal is facing serious problems on four fronts: financial, economic and social, as well as a poorly functioning justice system. The agreement with the IMF and the EU will address the first two problems, the elections will set the direction for the third, but there is much scepticism about the fourth, because of the absolute power enjoyed by judges and public prosecutors.
Across the country, the Socialist Party (PS) headed by Sócrates and the conservative Social Democratic Party (PSD) led by Pedro Passos Coelho say they want to discuss the pressing problems faced by Portugal’s voters.
But this has not happened so far in either of their campaigns, which are entering the final stretch with the candidates neck and neck, each with roughly 33 percent support in the polls.
If Sunday’s election results reflect the polling data, in order to form a government both Passos Coelho and Sócrates would have to seek the support of the Democratic and Social Centre (CDS), led by Paulo Portas, the most rightwing party in the Portuguese parliament, which is running third in the polls with 13.4 percent of voting intentions.
The CDS, PS and PSD accepted the conditions imposed by the troika, while the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and the Left Bloc (BE), which have a combined 15 to 16 percent support in the polls, rejected them out of hand.
The bailout is conditional on austerity measures that will include a massive privatisation plan, a more flexible labour market that will make it cheaper and easier to fire workers, significant public spending cuts, a freeze on wages and pensions, and tax hikes.
Other measures are cuts in unemployment benefits and income tax benefits and deductions, an increase in value-added tax, and temporary elimination of holiday bonuses, equivalent to two extra monthly salaries a year.
Voters in general were expecting a debate on the harsh measures to be introduced in the short, medium and long term. However, only the PCP and BE have felt free to address these issues, while the three larger parties have stuck to praising their leaders and rehashing past achievements.
Since Sócrates was elected secretary general of the party in 2004, the PS has adopted a clearly neoliberal economic line. During the campaign, Sócrates has argued that Passos Coelho’s programme is different from his own because it proposes even more drastic measures than the IMF itself.
Even Portas attacked the PSD over the weekend, accusing Passos Coelho of being more rightwing than the CDS in social questions.
Writer José Luis Peixoto and playwright Miguel Castro Caldas asked, with irony, “What will our vote be worth on June 5, when there is already a ‘troikan horse’ deciding the race?”
Vasco de Graça Moura, a lawyer and poet, wrote in an opinion column Monday in the Lisbon newspaper Diário de Notícias: “The forthcoming elections are among the most intense, decisive and close-run ever; the country is going through a painful crisis and is longing for sound, lucid leadership that will help it recover.
However, he also posed several questions in a critical tone, in spite of being a well-known member of the PSD: “How relevant are these elections going to be? Hasn’t our future already been decided by creditors like the IMF? Is it even worth voting?”
The campaign speeches lack “any reference to the measures agreed with the troika in the memorandum. One would infer that the parties that signed it came to a gentlemen’s agreement to keep up the pretence and the noise level during the campaign so that any discussion of the measures is avoided,” Graça Moura said.
Another pressing concern among voters that has been ignored by the three main parties is corruption and the dire state of the justice system.
At the end of a meeting of the local Amnesty International chapter Grupo 19 in Sintra, 20 kilometres from Lisbon, the head of the Bar Association, Antonio Marinho Pinto, told IPS that the problems in the justice system prevent a real attack on corruption.
He criticised “the ease with which those with power and money can escape the law,” in a country that would not be in its present crisis if wealthy individuals and companies paid their taxes.
The Portuguese justice system “is mediaeval, boundless in power, power for its own sake, and has not the slightest consideration for persons; there is a frenzy of criminal investigations, serving the need to produce suspects for crimes that are widely covered by the media,” he said.
Marinho Pinto said the situation is “extremely serious,” given that Portugal will not have fully repaid its debt until around 2080. “People who have not even been born yet will still be paying for this bailout,” he concluded.