Portugal: Europe’s Weak Link?

There was much elation on the left, in the United States and Europe, following the October 4th, election in Portugal when a center-right coalition of Social Democrats won the popular vote, but failed to win a majority in parliament. A left-wing insurgency, under the leadership of Socialist party (PSP) Anthony Costa combined with the radical Left—Block (BE) and the Communist party (PCP) and took power. The left alliance had rejected an austerity program proposed by the social democrats forcing it to resign.

A great deal of the euphoria on the left, surrounding this leftist coup, has subsided- tempered by the political realities of Portugal’s highly fragmented party structure and conservative political culture As an example, in the aftermath of Portugal’s 1975 democratic revolution, the socialist party was to endure a great deal of tumultuous rule through the seventies and eighties. Portuguese socialists proved to be unable to present themselves as a credible force for economic and social reforms. In fact, following the Antonio Salazar dictatorship none of the Portuguese parties that emerged, with the exception of the Communists party, had any organization and were virtually nonexistent.

Compared to Alex Tisipras in Greece and Podemos’s Pablo Iglesis in Spain, Costa’s rhetoric is far less inflammatory, but his pledge to turn the page on austerity is unequivocal Nevertheless, divisions do exist as to what extent Eurozone policies should be reversed. The pro-Europe socialists advocate at least partially adhering to the E.U.’s spending targets in an effort to assuage Brussels, but the Euroskeptic coalition partners would prefer to expand spending programs.

Modern Portugal is still struggling to free itself from the heavy hand of the past. A past rooted in paternalism, and the vestiges of the Salazar’s regime’s corporatist ideology. The latter emphasized the need to adopt a more culturally and populist oriented approach to ruling. So the focus was placed on the role of tradition and culture in the development of new political entities and institutions. Also, historically, it is viewed as a reaction to the threats of modernization and industrialization.

It is important to acknowledge the highly contested nature of corporatist ideology as a modern phenomenon. However, the persistence of the concept is seen in the authoritarian tendencies inherent in Iberian-Latin culture. The regimes of Salazar in Portugal and Antonio Sampalo da Noval in Spain are classic examples.

Portugal has a young and weak unfulfilled democratic political culture. It has no deep-rooted democratic traditions-a characteristic often seen in cultures with a low level of education and income inequality. This pattern tends to reinforce a weak civil society in which small numbers of people are actively engaged and subject to high levels of disaffection and alienation.

Very little has changed in Portugal’s conservative political culture. In late January, a right-wing president, Rebello de Souza, former leader of the neo-liberal social democratic party, won a popular election of over 50% of the vote. The vote was seen as a rebuke to the socialists and the far left ruling coalition

Under Portugal’s constitution, the president is empowered to dissolve parliament and fire the prime minister. The president has no veto power over legislation but he can challenge policy by ordering reviews of legislation Souza’s big win has led Costa’s left-wing partners to warn the prime minister that de Souza could bring back new austerity programs. Assuredly, it would be naïve to count him as an ally in times of crisis

The political and historical realities in Portuguese politics do not bode well for the prospect that a democratic political culture, or a dominant socialist-left ruling coalition will ever materialize; remains a lengthy process and one still incomplete.


Andrew Raposa is Professor Emeritus at Massachusetts State University in Westfield Westfield.