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Letter from Lisbon: Portuguese voters elect new government

Vote comes amid greatest economic crisis in three decades, and represents a shift to the political right

LISBON – They say: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if it IS broke, fix it. And fix it fast. One of the fundamental ideas behind democracy is that if the government is doing a bad job, the voters can – and will – give it the boot. On Sunday, the Portuguese people did just that. They went to the ballot box and voted for “mudar,” or change, as promised to them by the party of Prime Minister-elect Pedro Passos Coelho. His center-right Party of Social Democrats, or PSD, received twelve percentage points more than the Party of Socialists, or PS, of now-former Prime Minister Jose Socrates. It was not enough to give the PSD a clear majority – it will have to form a coalition with the rightwing CDS. But it was enough to send a clear message to the left: it’s been broken, and you didn’t fix it … now go home.

It’s not entirely fair to blame the PS and Jose Socrates for Portugal’s economic woes. In truth, things started going downhill many years ago, shortly following Portugul’s economic haydeys in the 1990s when it hosted the world expo in Lisbon. Socrates became prime minister in 2005. He was preceded by leaders from the PSD, among them Jose Manuel Durao Barroso. Time to connect the dots: this is the same Barroso who currently sits as the president of the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union … which just approved $112 billion dollars in conditional aid to Portugal, money that will now be managed by the PSD (the party Barroso formerly led).

Portuguese election worker outside a Lisbon polling station gathers data for exit results, which predicted that the center-right PSD would secure victory on Sunday. (photo: Roee Ruttenberg)

I’m not a conspiracy theorist by nature, but it is easy to understand why some people found the cycle suspicious, and found the election to be a farce. One day before the vote, a group calling itself “Democracy Right Now” was removed – by force – from Lisbon’s Rossio Square, after fifteen days of consecutive camping-out. The group says Portugal’s economic sovereignty has been violated, and that leaders in Portugal are effectively puppets of the European Union. Some went even further. One referred to the Portuguese vote as “a regional election” (as opposed to a national one). Another suggested the vote was as much a referendum on the Prime Minister of Portugal as it was a referendum on the Prime Minister of Germany (a reference to Angela Merkel’s dominant presence in the Europe Union). It should theoretically help Portugal that its new Prime Minister is from a party that is political aligned with Merkel’s.

Shortly after losing, an emotional Jose Socrates stood before supporters and did what was expected of him: resigned as head of his party. The move gives more junior PS members an opportunity to reignite a party which now morphs into the opposition, an arguably less attractive but much more comfortable seat. It’s unclear if the PS’s new policies will be any different than their old policies. But they will now have the advantage of being able to play “good cop,” while PSD struggles to play “bad copy.”

Portuguese voter emerges from a classroom polling location in Lisbon after casting his ballot on Sunday morning. (photo: Roee Ruttenberg)

And indeed, after the enthusiasm dies down, the hard work has to begin. Passos Coelho knows that, his party knows that, and his supporters know that. If he fails to deliver on the change he promised, voters will likely send him packing in the next election, and effectively invite back to government the lady-in-waiting Party of Socialists. Again, one of the foundations of democracy is the ability to evict one government and replace it with another. But there’s clearly only so many times one can swap X for Y and Y for X without feeling the urge to just get rid of the whole alphabet and bring in a new one.

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    1. Philos

      Well, democracy in liberal-capitalist state’s serve as a mask for political practices of oligarchy and financial practices of oligopoly. Marx only got it half-right; the other opiate of the masses is the illusion of democratic control over the political apparatuses of the state.

      Sadly this delusion is widespread. One only has to look at the Spanish youth who were brutalized in Barcelona so that FC Barca could have a nice party. If the citizens wanted to show control and dissatisfaction with the system then they shouldn’t vote at all. If a government is elected into power on the back of an electorate consisting of, say, 20% of the adult population there is no real claim to political legitimacy only legal. It would expose the utter fabrication of democracy that governments elected by electoral minorities wield vicious power

      If anything Israel is a good example of how democracy serves only the interests of a few. It doesn’t matter who elected whichever coalition into office because every Israeli government subsequently ignores its electorate and its election platforms once in government. Yet, time and again Israelis turn out in quite high numbers to vote… And the only parties that are effective in the Israeli system, the religious ones, are the political parties with most shallow democratic values

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ben Israel

      Actually, voter turnout in Israel has been declining for years. Up until the 1980’s, the turnout was always over 80%. It has now dropped to around 60%.
      However, there is a way to express dissatisfaction with the elections other than by not voting, and that is by voting for a party that you know will not pass the electoral threshold, which I think is now 2.5%. I have done that myself.
      There is also yet another way increasing dissatisfaction with the political parties has manifested itself. When I first came to Israel in the 1980’s, many people would volunteer to work for free in the campaign for their favorite party. Many people would put signs in their windows or stickers on their cars promoting their party. I am ashamed to admit that I volunteered myself on more than one occasion. I was also a poll watcher for a particular party which enabled me to be involved in the vote count in my precinct, which taught me how easy it is to make a mistake in tallying the vote with Israel’s primitive paper slip method of voting.
      Anyhow, in the last two elections, the signs and stickers have completely disappeared along with the volunteers. Only paid workers participate now. I would never volunteer again for this. ( I worked for Sharon because he said he would never give up Gush Katif). Although people still vote, they have much less enthusiasm than they did in the past.

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    3. max

      Democracy is a tool, not a solution to problems. If people have an idea for a solution, democracy lets them run with it.
      is this any different in non liberal-capitalist democracies?
      Israel didn’t develop (yet?) a culture of personal activism. In the rare cases in which groups do something, they tend to be like +972: critique with no alternative and fighting for personal views and not for politically possible compromises. Obviously not a political alternative.

      Reply to Comment