Portugal: Poor presidential judgment or fall of democracy?

And now we turn to my beloved Portugal. Are dramatic headlines of Portugal’s democracy being subverted to EU neoliberalism fair or a tempest in a teapot?

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The international business editor of The Daily Telegraph (in the UK), Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, published a column this past Friday with the dramatic headline “Eurozone crosses Rubicon as Portugal’s anti-euro Left banned from power”. The subheader followed up equally dramatically with “Constitutional crisis looms after anti-austerity Left is denied parliamentary prerogative to form a majority government.”

I’m not sure this take on the situation is exactly accurate (as I’ll get into below), but let’s take a look at the explanation provided in the column.

Anibal Cavaco Silva, Portugal’s constitutional president, has refused to appoint a Left-wing coalition government even though it secured an absolute majority in the Portuguese parliament and won a mandate to smash the austerity regime bequeathed by the EU-IMF Troika.

He deemed it too risky to let the Left Bloc or the Communists come close to power, insisting that conservatives should soldier on as a minority in order to satisfy Brussels and appease foreign financial markets.

Democracy must take second place to the higher imperative of euro rules and membership.
[…]
Mr Cavaco Silva argued that the great majority of the Portuguese people did not vote for parties that want a return to the escudo or that advocate a traumatic showdown with Brussels.

This is true, but he skipped over the other core message from the elections held three weeks ago: that they also voted for an end to wage cuts and Troika austerity. The combined parties of the Left won 50.7pc of the vote. Led by the Socialists, they control the Assembleia.

 
While I’ve expressed or anticipated very similar concerns about balancing democracy and the demands of the European Union’s technocracy upon national governments in other situations, I’m not quite ready to jump on this op-ed’s bandwagon. Why? To me, it seems potentially like it might be an over-reaction or at least misdiagnosis of the situation. Here’s what I notice about it.

For one thing, Anibal Cavaco Silva, the president trying to keep the center-right PSD government in power, is the former leader of the PSD (and prime minister for 10 years). That’s a huge problem if that’s his motivation here, but it’s a different problem than (essentially) arguing “he’s subverting democracy for an agenda in Brussels.”

Next, it’s also worth pointing out that the PSD did finish first and — as I understand it — therefore gets first crack at forming a government, whether or not anyone else is pitching a majority. He actually does acknowledge that in the piece, but it’s definitely buried in there:

The conservative premier, Pedro Passos Coelho, came first and therefore gets first shot at forming a government, but his Right-wing coalition as a whole secured just 38.5pc of the vote.

 
Yes the PSD and their allies lost seats, but it’s not like the Socialists and their allies won a convincing victory and are now being denied out of hand the chance to govern.

Lastly, even if his motivations or rationale are dubious, President Cavaco Silva identifies a legitimate quandary with coalition governments: If the vast majority of the country didn’t vote for a (relatively) radical party with sharply divergent policy views from the larger parties, should the country then be taken along for a ride on the agenda demands of a junior coalition partner?

That’s certainly something I question whenever a far-right party ends up in coalition with a center-right party. It just happens in this case that the Communists or Left Bloc (who would be the two junior partners of the Socialists) want to leave the euro and a bunch of other econo/fiscal things, rather than proposing some Portuguese version of the Sweden Democrats or whatever.

I don’t know if the president is making the right call on that particular philosophical/theoretical debate on coalition governments — and perhaps the Socialists wouldn’t have allowed some of the extreme agenda points in a coalition agreement — but it’s at least a somewhat legitimate democratic concern (whether or not he’s sincere about it).

All that being said, the bigger thesis of the column, beyond the shock headline and opening, is actually about how the damaging austerity regime will continue under the center-right government, which is bad news for Portugal. I pretty much agree with that part.

Also, I agree that if the Socialists, Communists, and Left Bloc parties all stick together in the opposition and manage to block major PSD agenda items and budgets, then the minority government under the PSD would probably stumble quite badly and struggle to survive confidence votes, which is not ideal. (And constitutionally there can’t be fresh elections for almost another year.) And that may well be a good reason to let them form a government now. But it doesn’t require it per se. And the three-party alliance may fall apart anyway.

The total vacuousness of Guatemala’s election

Arsenal Bolt: Quick updates on the news stories we’re following.

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In the aftermath of a corruption prosecution that brought down the President, Vice President, and much of the cabinet, a mildly popular former first lady with a vague platform looks set to lose this weekend’s presidential election to a conservative comic actor promising virtually nothing.

“The candidates vying to be Guatemala’s next president” – France24.com:

Jimmy Morales, a 46-year-old comedian and actor, rose to fame playing the role of a simpleton cowboy who almost ends up becoming president. […] The final opinion poll before Sunday’s run-off election gave him 68 percent, against 32 percent for [former First Lady Sandra] Torres.
[…]
Running for conservative party FCN-Nacion, Morales has led a light-hearted campaign, cracking jokes at rallies but giving few concrete details on his policy plans. […] In his 2007 film “A President in a Sombrero,” Morales played a hayseed named Neto who nearly gets elected president by making a string of empty promises…
[…]
In real life, the current race is his first foray into national politics, though he once ran unsuccessfully for mayor of his hometown. Morales briefly studied management at university, but never finished his degree.

 


Previously from AFD on this topic:

– AFD by Kelley: “Guatemala has a lot to celebrate this independence day”
– AFD Radio with Bill and Kelley: Episode 144, Guatemala’s political upheaval.

Low turnout in Egypt parliamentary election

The Egyptian military saved Egypt’s democracy so hard that you don’t even need to vote there anymore because it’s so saved. And yet the regime is furious no one showed up this week for the first round of a largely uncontested parliamentary election.

“Despite risk of $62 fine for not voting, less than 20% of Egyptians bothered to show up at polls” – Al-Monitor

President Abdul Fatah al Sisi, former general and military ruler:

“I call on you to rally strongly once again, in order to complete this last milestone that we all agreed upon.”

Not sure who exactly agreed upon what, given that he staged a military coup, banned the most popular party, and then rammed through a new constitution approved with extremely low turnout.

…the minister of local development, Ahmed Zaki Bader, on Oct. 19 threatened laggards with the law, insinuating that those who were registered but refrained from voting without a valid excuse (which the law does not specify) would be fined 500 Egyptian pounds ($62) in accordance with Article 57 of the Law on the Exercise of Political Rights.

 
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Complicated former longtime president of Benin dies

February 2006 Photo: President Mathieu Kérékou (right) of Benin receives Brazil's president.

February 2006 Photo: President Mathieu Kérékou (right) of Benin receives Brazil’s president.

One of Africa’s most unusual and complicated leaders — Pastor Mathieu Kérékou of Benin — has passed away at age 82. The former radical military dictator and later civilian democratic president led Benin through several major transformations in its history, eventually earning him the surprising nickname “father of democracy.” BBC News:

Mr Kerekou had two spells as president totalling nearly 30 years, first coming to power as the head of a Marxist regime in 1972.

But he then accepted the idea of multi-party democracy and organised elections, which he lost in 1991. […]
He stepped down in 1991 after losing to Nicephore Soglo in a multi-party poll, but returned to power in 1996 having beaten Mr Soglo at the polls and then went on to win a second and final five-year term in 2001.

 
From 1972 to 1991, Kérékou served as the country’s military president, pursuing a radical new nationalism in his first two years and then a hybrid of nationalism and revolutionary Marxism-Leninism, backed by the Soviet Union. Much of it was marked by totalitarian violence and incompetent policy management. Over the course of his first presidency, the economic doctrines would grow less and less radically leftist and more moderate, eventually moving even to the center-right by the late 1980s.

During the early period, however, he renamed the country from Dahomey to Benin, in an effort to shed the French colonial legacies and avoid favoring one ethnic group over another, although both labels applied to pre-colonial African states in the area. Eventually, after facing down many coup attempts and amid growing economic stagnation and political unrest, he realized that his days were probably numbered if he clung to power — particularly with the Soviet Union’s fading influence and then disintegration — so he accepted a transition to multi-party democracy when it was demanded by a 1990 National Conference to fix the unraveling domestic situation.

Perhaps most importantly, however, Kérékou did not fight or cancel this transition when it became clear he would not be kept in power democratically, and he gracefully exited the political stage, even asking for forgiveness on national TV for whatever errors and crimes his regime had committed. He was permitted to remain president (albeit with an outside prime minister) through the 1991 elections, which he contested but lost by a landslide. 1991 in Benin became sub-Saharan Africa’s first successful direct handoff of power by a free election since the end of colonialism. This peaceful and stable transition likely helped spark or reinforce the coming wave of democracy in West Africa during the 1990s.

The onetime Marxist and atheist (rumored possibly also to have dabbled with Islam) staged an impressive comeback one term later, in 1996, this time as an evangelical Christian pastor, to become the second civilian president of Benin. This political comeback itself set its own precedent whereby former African military rulers would rehabilitate themselves as wise and experienced civilian candidates for the offices they once held by force.

Kérékou served two five-year terms as a civilian, from 1996 to 2006, before retiring again. Announcing, in 2005, his planned departure from the presidency per the constitutional term limits, Kérékou explained that a lifetime of high-level service had taught him one lesson many times: “If you don’t leave power, power will leave you.” Once again, he was strengthening democracy in Benin and the region.

His successor, President Thomas Boni Yayi, now nearing the end of his own second term had widely been rumored to be considering trying to remove the term limits provision but seems to have bowed earlier in 2015 to similar pressure to leave power before it leaves him. This decision to retire was likely reinforced by the Burkina Faso revolution in 2014 over an attempt to lift presidential term limits and the chaotic political violence in Burundi after the president sought a third term on a technicality. For now, the unexpected legacy of Kérékou, born-again democrat not totalitarian dictator, will live to see another day.

A world without politics (would be bad)

Many people seem frustrated by “politics” and increasingly express a desire to “depoliticize” things large and small, as if everything would be better if politics were taken out of it.

Here’s the reality: Politics is the mechanism by which we shape and register our policy preferences and priorities, including what we as a whole self-governing society choose to invest in and emphasize from among competing options. Policy without politics is possible but never leads anywhere good in the long run. In the end, policy without politics would merely be one faction’s unchallenged implementation of their own priorities and beliefs without popular consent.

Top Catalan independence party fails to move the needle

You may recall my November 2014 post “Just 3 in 10 back Catalonia independence in ridiculous referendum” in which I broke down what the “80% for independence” recorded on a non-binding referendum sponsored and staffed by the Spanish region’s secessionist movement actually translated into real-world proportions. Ultimately I determined that only about 30% of registered voters — 1.6 million people — had actually showed up and voted for independence on behalf of 7.5 million residents.

We now have the results from this month’s regional parliamentary elections. While the turnout was much higher, a few facts jump out presenting a very similar picture all the same:
1. In September 2015 Catalonia parliamentary elections, 48% of those 77% who voted chose two parties supporting independence from Spain, handing them a “victory.”
2. In absolute numbers, this translated to just shy of 2 million votes for pro-independence parties. (The opposing 4 parties actually won slightly more votes than the two pro-independence parties.)
3. That’s less than 36% of all registered voters and barely more than a quarter of the region’s total population (7.5 million).

And the biggest observation of all?
4. The first-place party, really the same umbrella coalition behind the referendum, won 1.6 million votes and 29% of the registered voters.

Wow. That’s exactly the same as the November 2014 referendum outcome. 1.6 million and about 30% of registered voters. So all they’ve proven is that they are disciplined enough to get their same 1.6 million people out to the polls twice in 12 months. They didn’t grow their base at all over that span. They didn’t move the public needle on independence. And 65% of registered voters either voted for a party that doesn’t support Catalonia becoming independent or couldn’t be bothered to show up to vote at all because this doesn’t matter to them.

No wonder the Spanish central government doesn’t particularly feel compelled to negotiate with such a small and unpersuasive faction. In the final analysis, this “movement” so far remains less about Catalan identity and more about wealthy conservatives trying to keep poorer people in other parts of Spain from getting any of their money.

The feuding between [Prime Minister] Rajoy and Mr. Mas started in 2012 as a dispute over the financial contribution that Catalonia should make to a Spanish system that redistributes tax income from Catalonia and other wealthy regions to poorer parts of the country.

Mr. Mas then turned his frustrated demand for fiscal concessions into a full-fledged drive for independence.

 

Regional flag of Catalonia

Regional flag of Catalonia

Flash Summary: September Greek election outcome in 100 words

Greeks voted for parliament for the second time this tumultuous year. In 100 words, here are the key results:

Syriza lost just 4 seats relative to January but replaced 22 of the 26 defector MPs who quit the party this summer over the bailout capitulation. The junior coalition partner Independent Greeks lost 3 seats. That leaves the existing coalition down just 7 seats versus January but up 19 supporting MPs versus recent weeks.

Syriza’s main ideological competition (Potami) lost a fair number of seats, and older-school socialist and communist parties rose back up from the ashes. Neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn picked up 1 seat and almost a percentage point to finish 3rd at 7%, but their absolute supporter turnout figure dropped, along with the whole electorate’s turnout.

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