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Portugal faces a political crisis, but it’s the same one facing governments everywhere

- October 28, 2015
Paulo Portas (C), leader of the Popular party (PP), arrives for a meeting with Portugal’s President Anibal Cavaco Silva (not pictured) in Lisbon, Oct. 20, 2015. (Hugo Correia/Reuters)

2015 has not been a good year for Europe. If one is to believe social media, it has been a year of “crises” and “coups.” The first half of the year was dominated by “the Greek crisis,” which after a referendum and an alleged coup led to a third bailout for Greece. As soon as that was settled, Europe entered “the refugee crisis,” which is still going on. Alongside that we’ve seen the rise of far-right parties, both traditional ones like the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and Swiss People’s Party (SVP), and new ones, like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Hungarian Civic Party, or Fidesz, and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice (PiS) party, the big winner of the weekend’s elections.

Amidst this crisis and change, Portugal has been an exception. It was hard hit by the economic crisis and austerity measures that came alongside the country’s 2011 bailout by the European Union and International Monetary Fund (IMF). But no strong left or right populist party emerged. Portugal’s recent parliamentary elections saw only modest gains for ‘radical’ parties.

Consequently, Portugal remained the forgotten child in Southern Europe, crowded out by the more tumultuous politics in Greece, Italy and Spain.

Until last week.

Here are the election results.

Portugal held elections, as scheduled, on Oct. 4. To the surprise of many, Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho’s right-wing bloc “Portugal Ahead” of the misnamed Social Democratic Party (PPD-PSD) and the CDS-People’s Party (CDS-PP) remained the largest party in the Assembleia da República with 107 of the 230 seats in the parliament. However, Portugal Ahead lost 24 seats, whereas the opposition Socialist Party (PS) came second with 86 seats, an increase of 12. The biggest winner was the radical Left Bloc (BE), more than doubling its number of seats from eight to 19, while the radical left Unitary Democratic Union (CDU), a coalition between the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and the Ecologist Party “The Greens” (PEV), gained one additional seat, bringing its total also to 19. Finally, the animal rights party People-Animals-Nature (PAN) entered parliament for the first time with one seat.

Socialist leader Antonio Costa claimed to have the support of a parliamentary majority for a triple-left coalition government among his center-left PS and the more radical BE and CDU. But Portugal’s president Anibal Cavaco Silva instead turned to conservative premier Coelho, who was only able to form a minority government.

Then came social media’s overreaction.

The reaction in social media and the more extreme corners of the news media was extreme. “Eurozone crosses Rubicon as Portugal’s anti-euro Left banned from power,” headlined the British right-wing euroskeptic The Telegraph. Its point of view was echoed by euroskeptic darlings of the right, such as the British conservative member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan, and left, like Guardian columnist Owen Jones.

Many on social media called it a “coup,” just as when Greek premier Alexis Tsipras was “forced” into the third bailout — which led to the trending of #ThisIsACoup on Twitter. But all this was sensationalizing.

First, as the British political scientist Chris Hanretty explained in an excellent column, this decision is perfectly legal and within the president’s constitutional powers. In the Portuguese semi-presidential system, the president has the prerogative to “appoint the Prime Minister after consulting the parties with seats in Assembly of the Republic and in the light of the electoral results” (Art. 187). It is further perfectly logical that the leader of the largest faction in parliament gets the first stab at forming a government, although it is less common that a minority government would be chosen when a majority government is possible.

Second, there is no evidence that the European Union helped keep the euroskeptic left in Portugal from power.

One thing did stand out: the official justification President Silva gave for his decision. He referred to the left-wing parties as “anti-European forces” and stated:

This is the worst moment for a radical change to the foundations of our democracy. (…) After we carried out an onerous programme of financial assistance, entailing heavy sacrifices, it is my duty, within my constitutional powers, to do everything possible to prevent false signals being sent to financial institutions, investors and markets.

With this statement the president sent a strong signal to socialist leader Costa to, join a coalition with (under!) premier Coelho and continue the austerity measures — or be excluded from political power.

But there is a real political crisis — and it’s a common one.

And yet Silva’s statement has thrown Portugal into a political crisis. Coelho has the support of the president but not of the parliament. Costa has the support of the parliament but not of the president. Unfortunately, within Portugal’s semi-presidential system, a prime minister needs the support of both.

The Portuguese political crisis is a perfect example of the tension between “responsiveness” and “responsibility” that the late Irish political scientist Peter Mair discussed in his posthumous book “Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy.” As had many politicians before him, President Silva had to choose between being “responsive” to the Portuguese electorate and “responsible” to the domestic and international business community. This tension has intensified in our interconnected world, in which many countries have, wittingly or unwittingly, surrendered part of their national sovereignty to international and supranational organizations.

This tension is strongest in the European Union, and particularly within the euro zone, but also exists in other regions of the world, often as a consequence of loans by the IMF and the World Bank.

The tension between responsiveness and responsibility faces governments worldwide.

The tension between responsiveness and responsibility is feeding political dissatisfaction around the world, which has lead to the rise of old and new political challengers. In many cases, these challengers present themselves as political outsiders and use a populist discourse, exalting the people and demonizing the elite. Domestic and foreign elites attack them as “irresponsible,” an accusation they often claim as a badge of honor. The challengers promise to give the power back to the people — or, in other words, to put responsiveness over responsibility.

The most extreme recent example is undoubtedly the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, who started a frontal attack on the “responsible politics” of the so-called Washington Consensus, a program of neoliberal economic development and market reforms closely tied to the IMF and World Bank. His critique of U.S. capitalism and foreign policy, in his eyes enforced by the IMF and World Bank, found support among several other left-wing populist presidents in the region — most notably, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. All of them promised to put the interests of their own people over the demands of the “responsible” institutions of global finance.

While many European challengers have promised this in campaigns, few have had the power to do so, as the parliamentary system forces them into coalitions with more responsible parties. The notable exception is Greece, where a coalition of populist parties came to power at the beginning of the year.

What happens when even populists choose responsibility? 

So what happens when populists come to power — and then succumb to responsibility? That’s what happened in Greece, earlier this year, when left-wing populist premier Tsipras ignored the majority of the Greek people, who had voted against austerity in the “Greferendum.” Under huge international pressure, Tsipras signed the “Agreekment,” which included a third bailout and ongoing austerity.

Greece’s September elections, which returned Tsipras to power, weren’t a real test yet. Tspiras called elections before the Greek people were confronted with the consequences of the bailout. Opposition parties were still in disarray. The next elections, undoubtedly within a year or two, will show whether voters go back to voting for responsibility (i.e. the conservative New Democracy party) or even further to responsiveness, with an old or new political ‘outsider’ promising the impossible.

Cas Mudde is an associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia in Athens. He is the author of “Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe” (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and the forthcoming books “On Extremism and Democracy in Europe” (Routledge, 2016) and (with Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser) “Populism: A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford University Press, 2016). He tweets at @casmudde.