The irrevocable resignation and other tales - Chronicle of Portuguese Politics I Jeroen Bennink

Portugal is a recent democracy. Pioneer of the so called "third wave", the country can only truly be considered to have started its democratization, in 1976, with the endorsement of a new constitution. The "hot summer" of 1975 was a turning point leading up to the progressive success of a western-style democracy, instead of the likes of the USSR or Cuba.

And, even though the country has been generally off-radar throughout Europe, it is heating up again, with temperatures reaching over 40ºC and a succession of political and legal controversies spicing up the daily media and the everyday café discussion. The Portuguese are bracing themselves for yet another "hot summer", one that has, so far, undermined the credibility of the current government and the general confidence in traditional political parties and institutions.

Resignations – a "series of unfortunate events"

On the 1st of July 2013, the cover of "Diário de Notícias" informed its readers regarding the tropical nights predicted for that week. Later, that afternoon, the Minister of Finance dropped the bomb: no, not another tax raise. But, worse – he resigned. After five minutes of involuntary euphoria, the political commentators, and, then everyone, in general, started asking the logical question – wait, does that mean you were wrong? The resignation of former Finance Minister, Vítor Gaspar, was interpreted by the public opinion as an admission of guilt. Guilt for dragging Portugal to its knees – a country that has not grown in two and a half years, with all the predictable social implications (the unemployment rate is, currently, at 17,6% and the youth unemployment rate is at 42%; both being national records). He admits that his credibility was undermined as Minister of Finance, and that a new economic strategy was required, one he lacked the confidence of public opinion to pursue. Vítor Gaspar, also justified his resignation, expressing his belief that it will reinforce the leadership and cohesion of the government.

Could he have been more wrong? The resignation of Vítor Gaspar was the beginning of a "series of unfortunate events": when everyone was expecting a refreshing figure as new Finance Minister, to lead the inception of the new economic-financial strategy, based on some much needed growth, Portugal gets his former number two, the former Secretary of Treasure, Maria Luís Albuquerque. In other words, the living shadow of Vítor Gaspar, with little promise of moving a millimetre in austerity-related matters. The general public opinion has very little knowledge of her work, but, at least the Eurogroup was quick to express their full confidence.

In practical terms, since 2011, the government of Portugal has been working under a bicephalous leadership formed by the Prime-Minister and the Minister of Finance. But, this government is based on a post-electoral coalition, between the Social Democratic Party (PSD – Partido Social Democrata) and the Popular Party (CDS - Partido Popular – Centro Democrático Social, the minority partner). The most preeminent position of CDS-PP in this government was having their leader as the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The "Diário de Notícias" was right about the tropical nights, but didn’t foresee the tropical storm: hours before Maria Luís Albuquerque was officially recognized as the new Minister of Finance, on the 2nd of July, the Minister of Foreign Affairs resigned. Obviously, the government was dead.

The double meaning of "irrevocable"

"Irrevocable" - that is how Paulo Portas, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs and leader of CDS-PP, qualified his resignation. There were news that the other two CDS-PP Ministers (Agriculture & Fisheries, and Social Security) had placed their positions vacant, awaiting a party decision. The coalition was broken. But, Pedro Passos Coelho, the Prime-Minister, thought different – as Prime-Minister, he did not accept the resignation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs who was put in the awkward situation of staying in government, openly against his will. Following this decision, the two parties held negotiations for a week. The divergence was, essentially, due to the choice of the new Minister of Finance, opposed by CDS-PP who considered she represented "continuity" instead of "change". In the meantime, Maria Luís Albuquerque, was absent from the parliament debate on public debt and austerity, held on the 4th of July. In her place, the government was represented by the Minister of Health.

"Irrevocable" turned out to be a word of many meanings. The Prime-Minister presented a new plan for ministerial reform to the President of the Republic, Aníbal Cavaco Silva – where, among other changes, Paulo Portas was upgraded to "Vice-Prime Minister", a position that had been absent of Portuguese politics since 1985.

Aníbal Cavaco Silva, was scheduled to address to the nation on the 10th of July. That evening, the country was glued to the television, expecting the President to either accept the government reshuffle or announce the dissolution of the National Assembly, arguing that the regular working of the institutions was compromised. A generally predictable figure, the President, did neither – he wanted the three major political parties (the "arch of governance") to negotiate and reach some sort of agreement, that would allow the current government to subsist until June 2014, or the remaining of the international assistance programme (IMF, the European Union and the European Central Bank), after which the country should arrange early elections. According to the President, this scenario would preserve an image of stability for foreign creditors. Apparently, he was not bothered by the obvious message he was sending out: complete distrust for the current government.

Even though the Socialist Party answered the calling, it was the one in the most delicate position: on top of its constant criticism, the Socialists had now been asking for early elections since the recent resignations. The public opinion and even preeminent figures inside PS started to question the point of the negotiations and the apparent lack of coherence. Was the President expecting PS, PSD and CDS-PP to come together in one government? Or perhaps establish a parliamentary agreement, where PS would not oppose certain government proposals in parliament? Adding to the confusion, the Socialists argued they were not really negotiating with the government (just with PSD and CDS-PP, who happened to be the government). Again, the importance of confidence: throughout the duration of these negotiations, Standard & Poor’s downgraded Portugal’s sovereign credit rating outlook, yields on the Portuguese 10-year bond rising to 8% and PSI 20 crashing nearly 6%. This is the matter Portuguese children’s nightmares are made of, now. More importantly, the whole discourse on justifying austerity that the Portuguese population has been fed, on a monthly basis, has precisely underlined the tragedy and the need to avoid these scenarios. 

Edited by:
Ana Postolache
Photo Credits:
Jeroen Bennink via flickr