Crisis-hit Portugal gears up for key elections | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 04.06.2011
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Crisis-hit Portugal gears up for key elections

Following months of economic and political turmoil, Portugal is to elect a new government on Sunday to put in place the demanding program of reforms agreed with the EU and IMF in exchange for a massive bailout deal.

Portugal's interim Prime Minister and Socialist Party leader Jose Socrates, left, shakes hands with Pedro Passos Coelho

Socrates (left) will be running against Pedro Passos Coelho

Many political observers have been rubbing their eyes in astonishment in recent weeks. On the one hand, Portugal is mired in one of its deepest crises in recent decades. The country is no longer able to pay its debts without external assistance, and its economy is shrinking. On the other hand, the current election campaign has been more superficial than most campaigns of years past.

Rather than look for the causes of and solutions to the economic crisis, the nation has preferred that its major parties and top candidates discuss minor matters and deal in shallow campaign slogans.

Apathy over enthusiasm

Portugal's Interim Prime Minister and Socialist Party leader Jose Socrates (r)

Socrates (right) faces a significant challenge winning government

Most Portuguese have been apathetic with regard to the campaign, and morale has been raised at only a handful of campaign events. The Socialist Party (PS) even took the measure of bringing in immigrants by bus to fill such events.

That fact that the ruling Socialists still stand with around 32 percent approval after six years in power still surprises many observers - and this despite the economic crisis and rising unemployment, which currently stands at around 13 percent.

At least in part, the tactics of incumbent Prime Minister Jose Socrates seem to have worked. In his speeches, he has warned against further privatization and more cuts to the welfare state.

"What the opposition really wants is an education system for the poor and another system for the rich, just as it was before the Carnation Revolution in 1974," Socrates has said.

The leading candidate of the opposition Liberal Democrats (PSD), Pedro Passos Coelho, meanwhile, has campaigned amongst voters for change. The credo of the PSD has been that the state must retreat from many aspects of Portuguese life. The PSD last reigned in the 1990s with market-oriented policies.

'Lead by example'

Pedro Passos Coelho (c)

Pedro Passos Coelho (center) will need to form a coalition government

If the PSD comes away from the election victorious, it says it will move to privatize many key Portuguese companies, among them the national bank, the state water utility, one of the two public television channels, the nation's railways, as well as its subway and bus networks in Lisbon and Porto. In addition, the PSD says it will stop work on high-speed train networks and reduce the state apparatus.

"If the state must save in order to afford more, than the government must itself set a good example," Passos Coelho said recently. "It must work more and better with fewer people, with a smaller structure, with fewer advisers, with fewer assistants and less waste."

Coalition likely

If pre-election polls are to be believed, the PSD could receive up to 37 percent of the vote come Sunday. If this is the case, then Pedro Passos Coelho will be the country's next prime minister. The PSD would, however, still need a coalition partner.

This could come in the form of the conservative People's Party (CDS-PP). According to surveys, the CDS-PP is sitting in third place with around 13 percent support. The party's leader, Paulo Portas, has already announced his preferred coalition partner would be the PSD in a center-right coalition.

In any case, the scope of the future government will be severely limited. After all, support from Europe comes at a price. The troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund has required that Portugal undergo numerous reforms. These include the sale of the national airline, TAP. Regardless of which of the three major parties are in the driver's seat, their policy options will be limited.

Left calls for alternatives

Francisco Louca, the leader of the left wing party BE

Francisco Louca, the leader of the left-wing party BE, also wants Portugal's debt deal renegotiated

The only parties to have deviated from this seemingly national consensus have been the two left-leaning opposition parties - the traditional Communist PCP party, which is to team up with the Greens in a coalition, and the reformist communists of the Left Block (BE).

Both parties opposed the reform package and called for a restructuring of the country's debts. They argued that the EU-IMF package would only serve to benefit the banks and would damage the welfare state.

PCP party head Jeronimo de Sousa has therefore called for a renegotiation of Portugal's debt.

"The conditions of the financial package are not sustainable," he said. "We should renegotiate now, and not when our country, economy and output are worse off."

But according to pre-poll surveys, the two leftist parties have only around 5-7 percent support. It seems a significant proportion of the population views the EU-IMF bailout as unavoidable.

This has been an election campaign in which most candidates have tried not to discuss the deep crisis affecting Portugal, and many citizens have been left largely disappointed by their political representatives. There remains a high number of swing voters and many who do not intend to vote - more than one in four, according to recent surveys.

Author: Johannes Beck / dfm
Editor: Toma Tasovac

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