Citizens’ distrust for political institutions is high in Portugal – as elsewhere in Europe. That distrust, a new study shows, stems from the failings of established political parties. So why are incumbents still dominating the elections?
João Paulo Batalha is a social activist and founding member of Transparency
“At least we don’t have far-right parties winning seats”. That was a common refrain in Portugal in the week since the EU election. And in fact, the results were hailed as a resounding victory for the left and a condemnation for the right. After almost four years of rule by the centre-left Socialist Party with parliamentary support from the Communist Party and the Left Bloc (an amalgamation of former Maoist and Trotskyist political movements) the strain of power seems not to be showing.
EU elections generally punish sitting governments and reward the opposition. Yet, the centre-right Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats did not fare well on May 26, merely holding on to the number of seats they secured five years ago, when they were the ruling coalition under a crushing austerity bailout negotiated with the European Commission, the European Central Bank ant the IMF – the dreaded troika. The socialists and the Left Bloc both gained a seat each – the Left Bloc more than doubling its total votes from 2014 –, even if the Communists, the other partner in the parliamentary arrangement known as “the contraption” that holds up the current Government, lost a seat and almost 190.000 votes. Those far-right parties? Two were in the running – the older, openly nationalistic National Renovation Party and a new right-wing populist coalition titled “Enough”. Together they won less than 2% of the vote, just above 65.500 ballots. So, “at least” there’s that: Portugal continues to be a European exception when it comes to successful nationalists.
The “at least” part is a consolation prize for the dark cloud over the Portuguese EU election: record low turnout, of only 30%. Turnout is always lower in EU elections, but this year Portugal was one of the few exceptions in a vote that mobilized more citizens across Europe. That the far-right parties fared worse than expected in most EU countries may mean that the higher turnout was a repudiation of the politics of fear and hatred. That the empty promises of the extremists – proclaiming easy solutions to difficult problems while being (if given the chance) every bit as corrupt as the mainstream parties – are running out of steam. That is a good thing, obviously. False solutions are simply new problems in disguise, adding to the problems we already have. But the result still leaves us with no clear way forward.
During the election campaign, prime-minister António Costa and his Socialist Party candidates promised to bring to Europe what they had brought to Portugal: an alternative to austerity, a new way forward. But really, as Mathew D. Rose demonstrated in his analysis of the EU vote, what’s the difference? TINA is alive and well and living in Brussels – and in Lisbon. The extremist parties have long moved the mainstream to the right, on immigration and borders – There Is No Alternative. Trade deals and any policy of economic development still views transnational corporations as untouchables – There Is No Alternative. Many in the European Parliament have been pushing for fiscal justice and corporate transparency, as well as a tougher fight against corruption, but the successes can be measured not in miles but in millimetres – There Is No Alternative. EU elections continue to be a collection of 28 national votes rather than a collective decision on our common future, which is unfortunate, as it seems increasingly clear that systemic corruption, corporate welfare and State capture are having too strong a grip on national governments and can only be broken from Brussels, if at all.
This was made very obvious by the experiences of radical parties like Syriza in Greece or its sister party in Portugal, the Left Bloc. The closer to Government they came, the tamer they became, subjected to pressures from inside as well as outside their own countries. In Greece’s case, to the point where Syriza seems to have reached the end of the road. In the case of the Left Bloc, not having a direct hand in Government but merely supporting a parliamentary understanding, the party seems to have successfully walked the tight rope, claiming victory from some of the sweeter policies of the Government, while distancing itself from the worst ones. This translated into the increase in votes of any political party in this year’s Portuguese EU vote, although it still lags behind their best result ever, in 2009, when they broke the 10% mark and elected three MEPs as a clearly radical left party. The more centrist, pragmatic version of the Left Bloc has abandoned radical thinking and hangs its political fortunes on its ability to leverage its proximity to power to deliver on tiny improvements for their core voters. In short, they try to get by. Today, the realities of power are not dictated by voters or citizens, in ballot boxes or street protests. Politics has become an insider’s game, where access and influence rank higher than reason or public interest, or any notion of the common good. TINA is alive and well.
The growing, hollowing centre
In Portugal, the right has clearly failed to win any new voters since the depths of austerity, as it continues to struggle with the fundamental question of what to offer voters. With national parliamentary elections coming on October 6, the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats are bracing themselves for possibly their worst election result ever. That does seem to indicate prime-minister Costa’s alternative to austerity is a success but, to be clear, Costa’s real stroke of genius was the way he occupied the centre of the political spectrum. Just weeks before the election, with polls predicting a closer call – in part because of the lacklustre performance of the Socialist’s uncharismatic candidate, a former public works minister with no public works to show for his period in office, because any possibility of investment was stifled by tight budget controls –, Costa seized on a golden opportunity to position himself to the right of his opposition.
Since late last year, political pressure was mounting on the Government, with strikes by nurses, stevedores, and transport workers, who had come to the conclusion that the promises to roll back austerity were taking too long to materialise. In April, a strike by lorry drivers responsible for transporting fuel and other hazardous materials ground the country to a halt, with petrol stations running dry just as people were trying to drive out of the cities for their Easter holiday break. As bad as the strikes themselves is the fact that they were being carried out by new workers’ unions, unbound by the close relationship older, established unions always had with the Socialist and the Communist parties – this, in fact, helps explain the Communists bad result in the EU poll, as it slowly losses its grip on the unions.
The most persistent protesters, however, were the school teachers, who for years have been demanding compensation for the time – nine years, four months and two days – their career promotions and pay rises had been frozen due to austerity. The political clash came to a head in the beginning of May, when the right-wing opposition allied itself with the Communists and the Left Bloc to approve a measure in Parliamentary Committee to compensate the teachers. Prime-minister Costa seized on that early vote and publicly threatened to resign if the bill were passed by the full Parliament, citing its prohibitive costs and the impact it would have on budgetary stability. The threat worked, forcing the parties, left and right, to back down.
With that move, Costa positioned himself as more fiscally responsible than the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats who implemented the brutal austerity of 2011-2015, eroding their support on the right. He also painted his own parliamentary partners as the dangerous “radical” left, thus billing the Socialists as the indispensable and responsible party of the centre. It was a completely fabricated crisis – the Parliamentary resolution on teachers left it up to the Government to negotiate the terms of compensation – but it signalled something new: despite its boasts of beating austerity, it was the Socialists pulling the political centre to the right – and dragging their “contraption” left-wingers with them. There Is No Alternative: politics in Europe risks becoming a huge centrist blob, with no clear agenda except maintaining the status quo – a bloc of stasis a mile wide but an inch deep, both in terms of public support and political consistency.
Where to now?
On June 1st, barely a week after the EU election, a new study on political trust was presented by researchers from Lisbon’s New University during a national conference on Ethics, Values and Politics. The data isn’t new – it focuses on existing surveys of political and institutional trust in Portugal and Southern Europe since the 70s – but it is put in a different light. The study recognises that citizens’ trust in political institutions, including parties, parliament, and government, has been steadily declining. But it goes further, in pinpointing the causes for that growing distrust. Not surprisingly, it concludes that the inability of governments and political parties to deliver on social and economic development, in fighting income inequality and promoting social well-being is the driving force behind people’s disillusionment with democracy itself. Or, to put it in other terms, people feel democracy is getting less and less democratic. Things are just not working.
Illustrating that conclusion, on the very week after the EU election a police operation drew national ire. The tax authority teamed up with the traffic police to stop random cars on the road near Porto. As well as checking for valid drivers licences or applying breathalyser tests, the agents would check on the Tax Authority files whether the drivers had any outstanding tax debts, demanding immediate payment and seizing their vehicles on the spot if they didn’t comply. The Government quickly put a stop to the operation in response to public uproar. At the same time, Parliament is winding down two inquiries on excessive energy subsidies fattening electric companies with public money (and the corruption suspicions related to the issuing of those subsidies) and non-performing loans that nearly bankrupted the State owned bank Caixa Geral de Depósitos (CGD). In both cases, the losses to the taxpayers are astronomical, in the dozens of billions of Euros, while the hopes of getting any money back are fairly dismal.
According to the authors of that study presented on Saturday, political legitimacy, as well as public trust and citizens’ engagement in politics rises when political parties are viewed as free from corruption and capture by powerful private interests, functioning with closer ties to civil society, developing new ways to consult with outside experts on public policy matters, and open their doors to the contributions of social activists or NGOs. Democracy, in short, should be a system of government where every citizen has a voice and every voice is heard. When it isn’t, when it becomes an insider’s game, we lose. That’s when extremists celebrate electoral victories, gunning full speed ahead on the populist road paved by the inertia of established political parties. That’s when people just give up on voting.
“At least we don’t have far-right parties winning seats” in Portugal. And now we know why: when 70% of voters don’t show up to the ballot box, the reason we don’t have extremist parties with voter success is because we don’t have any voters left. TINA has evoked anger and nationalist votes in a lot of EU countries. This nationalist vote is becoming increasingly organized – including, laughable as that may seem, through a sort of Nationalist International, pushed for by American loonies like Steve Bannon and funded by Russia. In other countries, the same systemic failures may not be as successful in breeding extremists (though, give it time), but the repeated unwillingness of established leadership to face the problems is fuelling persistent abstention rates. Mainstream parties cry crocodile tears over low voter turnout, as they know high abstention favours incumbents. All the while, the bond between citizens and their democracies is fraying.
The EU needs to make a clean break. Sadly, the options on offer are not enticing. If extremism will not take us far, apathy and disillusionment will not take us anywhere at all. Europe is in a tension between rupture and continuity – meaning, if we want to continue to live in prosperous democracies, with full enjoyment of economic and social – not to mention human – rights, then we need to make a clean break with TINA, clean up our institutions, and restore popular sovereignty over our collective decisions. This is a job bigger than any one country, and that’s why the EU matters. In fact, this is why the EU matters most. Citizens need to find the strength and the hope to re-engage and push forward a consistent, demanding, and well reasoned debate on alternatives – radical or moderate, anchored on a free and honest left, centre or right. There are always alternatives. We need to fight for the quality of our democracies – and ultimately, for democracy itself – to ensure that democracy keeps fighting for us. Unfortunately, the increasingly wide and shallow centre seems likely to be the last to get the message.