Reprinted from Dispatches From The Edge
Within a week, Europe will face one of the most serious challenges to democracy it has seen in many decades. On Nov. 10 Portugal's minority rightwing government will likely lose a vote of confidence, initiating a series of events that will determine whether voters in the European Union (EU) still have the right to a government of their own choosing.
The crisis was set off by the Oct. 4 elections that saw the rightwing Forward Portugal coalition, which has overseen austerity policies that have driven 20 percent of the population below the poverty line, lose its majority in the parliament to three parties on the left, the Socialist Party, the Left Bloc, and a Communist/Green alliance.
Forward Portugal, an alliance of the Social Democratic Party and the Popular Party, lost 28 seats in the election, dropping from 135 seats to 107. The left parties, meanwhile, won over 50 percent of the vote and picked up 25 seats, for a total of 122. An animal rights party won one seat.
The Portuguese parliament has 230 seats. A majority is 116 seats.
Instead of asking the left if it could form a government, however, on Oct. 23, Portuguese president Cavaco Silva -- a former prime minister for the Social Democratic Party -- reappointed the rightwing alliance's leader, Pedro Coelho as prime minister.
Silva went further, however, delivering an incendiary speech in which he declared that he would never appoint "anti-European forces" to run the government, and denouncing parties on the left for opposing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the common currency, the euro.
"It is my duty, within the constitutional powers, to do everything possible to prevent false signals being sent to financial institutions, investors and markets," he concluded.
The speech has set off a firestorm in Portugal, one that is reverberating throughout the EU. It is one thing for the EU and its financial enforcer, the Troika -- the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund -- to exert pressure on a country from the outside. It has done exactly that in Greece. It is quite another to say that a particular political or economic program is beyond the pale.
Portugal's austerity program, originally introduced by the Socialist Party, has impoverished the country and driven half a million young people emigrate. Unemployment, while down from its height of 17 percent, is still at 12 percent, and over 31 percent for youth. One out of five in the population is below the poverty line of $5,589 a year, and Portugal has one of the highest in income inequality in the EU. The average household income has fallen 8.9 percent since 2009. Exhausted by austerity, Portugal's voters turned against the rightwing government and turned it into a minority.
In what is an historic development -- one commentator called it a "Berlin Wall moment" -- the three left parties put aside their differences and agreed to form a united front government.
While all the left parties opposed austerity -- the Socialist Party having finally seen the light -- they differed on many other issues. The Left Bloc and the Communist Green alliance opposes Portugal's membership in NATO and wanted the country to get out of the Eurozone, the group of 19 countries in the 28-member EU that use the euro.
The euro is a controversial issue. It has been a boon for Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, and to the large banks that dominate European finance. But it has had a generally negative impact on many other countries, particularly those in the distressed south -- Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal. Since Ireland is also in this same the problems are economic, not geographical.
As far as NATO goes, there are a number of political organizations that argue the old Cold War alliance should be retired and that NATO does more to raise tensions on the continent that it does protect its members.
In any case, opposition to NATO and the euro are hardly opinions that should bar one from government, but that is exactly what the Portuguese president has done.
He has received support for his position as well. Joseph Daul, president of the center-right grouping in the European Parliament, said, "The sacrifices made by the people of Portugal must not be jeopardized by a government composed of anti-EU and anti-NATO parties." German Chancellor Angela Merkel said an anti-austerity government in Portugal would be a "very negative" development.