Sunday, June 5, 2011

Portugal's deceptive shift to the right

It's a clear majority on paper, but messier in reality.

The polls in Portugal have been closed for an hour, and it is already clear that the Socialist Party led by Jose Socrates have been thrown out of office with its worst showing since 1987, and that a centre-right coalition of Social Democrats (PSD) and the People's Party (CDS) will form a majority. It is a sign of Portuguese politics that the social democrats are on the political right. You might wonder who is actually a conservative. That would be the People's Party in this coaltion. They got 10.86% of the vote at the time of writing.

A notable part of this election is that voters, especially young voters, appear to have boycotted the election, while others took an extremely long time to arrive at the polls. By mid-day, when polling stations normally would have already registered a 60% participation, only 20% had voted.  At the end of polling, the number of voters who had stayed away from the ballot box was more than 44%, a 10% rise over the last election. The main reason for people staying home is that there is a sense of despair that voting won't change anything, that whoever is elected will simply do what the foreign powers of the Troika (the trio of IMF, the European Commission and the European Central Bank) tells them to do. The despair amongst left-of-centre supporters is immense.

Another notable part of this election, is that, somewhat like Obama's election in the United States in 2008, that the victors campaigned for change, but apparently with few details, as the CDS made clear in an interview today. As the CDS and the PSD negotiate the terms of their coalition, people will find out kind of program they actually elected.

It is possible that Portugal's new government will turn the ship around, but more likely that the country is in for a period of internal strife over its future. Those on the left who stayed home today are more likely to turn to the streets tomorrow. The voters who want economic austerity the most make up only 10% of the votes cast (for the CDS). They are concentrated in the cities, as the CDS had no luck in the politically important countryside. All of this means that the constituents supporting the incoming government are unlikely to support an iron-fist approach to austerity that one might expect from the CDS. Flip-flopping and backtracking are likely, especially now that Portugal is still shrinking economically. The austerity measures, if agreed and implemented, will drive the collapse of the economy even further.

Portugal has shifted to the right on paper, but there are very few constituents and voters who really support economic austerity. That should give the new government pause for thought, as well as the IMF and the EU. Some will say "Look! We've got a shiny new mandate to cut borrowing and spending. Let's get started!"

But the lower turnout means they speak for fewer Portuguese. There will be foot dragging. There will be backlash. And there will be reminders that this was the election that wasn't.

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