Portugal’s ruling coalition reelected, despite austerity policies

Portugal's Prime Minister and centre-right leader Pedro Passos Coelho gestures to supporters. [Reuters]

Portugal’s opposition Socialist leader Antonio Costa conceded defeat in a general election on Sunday (4 October) after exit polls and partial tallies put the ruling centre-right coalition ahead.

“I want to congratulate (Prime Minister Pedro) Passos Coelho and (deputy prime minister) Paulo Portas,” he said. “The Socialist Party did not reach its objectives.” 

Portugal’s election this weekend appears to be a rare case of a bailed-out eurozone member reelecting a government which pushed through tough austerity measures.

Four years after a sovereign debt crisis, Portugal’s finances are slowly recovering, and the final opinion polls showed the ruling conservative coalition on course to win Sunday’s general election, but likely to lose its parliamentary majority.

With Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho, 51, and his 54-year-old Socialist rival Antonio Costa preparing to hold their final rallies in the capital on Friday night (3 October), the outgoing government was on average five points ahead, according to the last three polls.

A victory for the right is a huge turn up for the books, with Costa – a popular former mayor of Lisbon – ahead in polls as late as July, and Passos Coelho himself admitting that he expected to be the fall guy for anger at the drastic cuts demanded by the country’s creditors.

>>Read: Popular Lisbon mayor steps down to run in general election

The only other comparable instance is Greece, where Alexis Tsipras and his left-wing Syriza party were reelected last month, after his government agreed to introduce yet more economic reforms in return for the nation’s third bailout deal in five years.

Syriza did lose some of its more hardline figures before being reelected.

On Friday, Costa told thousands of supporters gathered in the heart of Lisbon: “Every vote counts, the majority of Portuguese want the government to change!”

One poll late on Thursday (2 October) put his centre-right Social Democrats and their conservative Popular Party partners at 38% of the vote, with the opposition Socialists at 32%.

The survey by the Catholic University estimated that the ruling coalition would win between 99 and 114 seats in the 230-member parliament, short of the 116 needed for an absolute majority.

Another poll, for the Eurosondagem institute – which had made the Socialists slight favourites over the summer – had the governing coalition winning between 102 and 108 seats.

>>Read: Portugal: Sunday’s elections will be no earthquake

Portugal has not seen such a tight election race since it became a democracy in 1974, after nearly five decades of dictatorship.

Poverty and emigration

Western Europe’s poorest country is still recovering from its 2011 economic crisis, when it became the third eurozone country after Ireland and Greece to be bailed out.

It left the bailout scheme in May 2014, but only after implementing stringent austerity measures that saw a fifth of incomes fall below the poverty threshold of €500 a month.

Passos Coelho has benefited from a modest lift in the economy this year, and has warned that his rival’s plans to lower taxes and ease austerity would set the country back.

His campaign has hammered home the slogan that a vote for Costa would mean a “return to the old populist politics which pushed the country to the brink of bankrupcy”.

The message seems to have gotten through. “Financial rigour was a necessary evil and now confidence is coming back,” said Frederico Leite, a 37-year-old salesman, who has seen his own income fall by a fifth.

Vanda Pereira, however, is not convinced. “It is clear that we have not come out of the crisis,” said the single mother, who earns €550 a month working 13 hours a day in a hotel.

“I am not even going to vote,” she said. “And if I didn’t have a 12-year-old daughter I would have left the country.”

Portugal has lost nearly half a million people in the last four years – most young and highly-educated – as huge public spending cuts helped push unemployment to a high of 17%.

Although immigrants do retain the right to vote, few are likely to use it, with the abstention rate likely to top the record of 42% set at the last election in 2011.

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