The Myth of the Passive Portuguese Public
Portugal is now a year into a structural adjustment program overseen by the Troika, a term widely used in “bailed-out” countries to refer to the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission. Even though Portugal was the third country to turn to the Troika for financial support, it is largely seen as the second flashpoint in the Euro Zone crisis after Greece. But as the second most troubled country on the European periphery, there are expectations of unrest in Lisbon to match that of Athens. With English language news outlets like the New York Times and Reuters failing to witness the long running economic protests by the Portuguese public, they’ve concluded the Portuguese are a passive people and that social peace has been won in Portugal. Reuters and Al Jazeera English even went as far as to suggest the melancholic Portuguese Fado music is to blame for the lack of resistance to austerity.
There is much to dispute in this portrayal of Portugal. It’s worth pointing out that Portugal can claim a great deal of credit for the massive protests last year by Europe’s indignados. On March 12th of 2011, many tens of thousands poured onto the streets of Portugal’s major cities to protest the economic crisis. The protests were organized through social media and by word of mouth, achieving a tremendous turnout without labor unions or political parties driving their ranks onto the street.
These protests were watched closely in neighboring Spain. The first protest in Portugal was called Geração à Rasca (Precarious Generation) and the movement in Spain that followed weeks later was Juventud sin Futuro (Youth Without a Future). Ironically, as Reuters blamed Portugal’s music for the lack of protests, the Portuguese song that started the protests was promptly subtitled and featured on Spanish news sites like El Pais.
While the Portuguese public held multiple mass protests over the last year and a half, the street opposition to austerity has lacked coherence. In Greece, labor unions call general strikes on days of austerity votes and much of the Greek public adds their weight to the strikes by joining the demonstrations in front of parliament. In Portugal, no such alignment has occurred to the detriment of the anti-austerity movement. Portuguese general strikes have occurred after austerity legislation has already passed, giving little motivation to public sector workers to strike in force, let alone the more non-unionized sectors of the Portuguese economy. To make matters worse, the General Union of Workers (UGT) signed a social pact with the government, a pact that took the second largest union confederation out of the struggle.
Greece and Portugal are also at different stages in their political life cycles. In Greece, the center-left PASOK party implemented the Troika’s austerity program. In Portugal, a departing Socialist Party government signed onto the Troika’s austerity program and the incoming center-right Social Democrats zealously implemented the program, even being called more Troika than the Troika. In Greece, center-left PASOK imploded as it alienated its base with the most right-wing economic policies. With Portugal, the center-right Social Democrats implement austerity that’s supported by the party’s base while the opposition from the Socialist Party is neutered since the party signed onto the “bailout”.
This different political dynamic during austerity implementation results in a slower disintegration of the ruling political consensus in Portugal. The government of the Portuguese Social Democrats doesn’t have to suggest a referendum on the austerity program because it isn’t at war with its base. Further, the government doesn’t have to worry about elections as it’s just one year into its term. But while the Portuguese government has a lot working in its favor, the social peace hasn’t been won.
Despite rain, an estimated 30,000 marched on Saturday in the city of Porto against austerity, this on the day of a major football match between the national team and Germany. A larger demonstration is expected on June 16th in the capital. The protests are important but the context is key. While Reuters issued a piece that wrote off the Communist Party as a political force, polls suggest a surge for Portugal’s left-wing not dissimilar to that of their Greek counterparts. The two left-wing parties, Left Bloc and the Communist Party, each polled 9% in the survey as support declined for the government but crucially didn’t switch to the Socialist Party and their austerity-lite model. This is all before the government ends collective bargaining for unions, the latest policy measure sought by the Troika, a measure that would terminate the above mentioned social-pact with the moderate General Union of Workers.
The narrative of a passive Portuguese public collapses without anecdotal quotes that stereotype the country. The narrative isn’t all that surprising given how the international media stereotypes Greeks as violent and ungovernable, as if being ungovernable was a bad thing when self-preservation is at stake. Both countries are enduring failing policies from the Troika, policies that are driving up unemployment and driving down wages. The markets merely catapulted Greece into the austerity abyss one year before giving Portugal the same fate.
For Portugal, the situation can become far more desperate. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development expects the economic downturn to continue. There is also the added trouble of neighboring Spain suffering the same austerity. Both Iberian countries are simultaneously poisoning the economic waters they share so closely. With this in mind, journalists visiting Lisbon should ask people whether the ongoing resistance to austerity will strengthen. I already put this question to Filipe dos Santos Henriques, a board member of one of the largest student unions in Portugal: “If anyone shows us there is an alternative, an alternative like that in France where they’re lowering the retirement age and making it more expensive to fire workers, we can expect true resistance to austerity, with or without fado.”