In the last few months, the international financial crisis has been dominating the news all over the world. The financial crisis, and more recently, the riots in Greece are starting to force the portuguese to open their eyes and face the fact that Portugal’s prospects for the future are not at all bright.
In December, former President Mario Soares added his voice to those who warn that riots similar to those in Greece can also happen in Portugal:
«Com as desigualdades sociais sempre a crescer, o aumento do desemprego que previsivelmente vai subir imenso, em 2009, a impunidade dos banqueiros delinquentes, o bloqueio na Justiça, e em especial, do Ministério Público e das polícias, estão a criar um clima de desconfiança – e de revolta – que não augura nada de bom»
«Oiçam-se as pessoas na rua, tome-se o pulso do que se passa nas universidades, nos bairros populares, nos transportes públicos, no pequeno comércio, nas fábricas e empresas que ameaçam falir, por toda a parte do País, e compreender-se-á que estamos perante um ingrediente que tem demasiadas componentes prestes a explodir»
“With rising social inequality, the expected high rise in unemployment in 2009, the impunity of delinquent bankers, the blocade of justice, particularly the public Prosecution and the police, are creating a climate of distrust-and revolt-that does not bode well”
“Listen to the people in the streets, look at what’s happening in the universities, in the popular neigbourhoods, in the public transports, in the small shops, in the factories and companies threatened with banckrupcy, everywhere in the country, and one will understand that we are upon an ingredient that has too many components ready to explode”
It is not the first time someone says something like this, but, until recently, this kind of statements, that indirectly or directly question the very legitimacy of the political system, were only made by people who are or claim to be outside the system and who have their market niche as anti-system rebels. I am talking about University professors, failed politicians and others who have personal resentments and like to feed their ego and hide their personal flaws by blaming ‘the system’.
I am citing Mario Soares because he is one of the most important, if not the most important founding figure of Portugal’s current political regime. He is one of the founders and the historic leader of the Socialist Party, created in Germany in 1973. In the revolutionary period that followed the military coup of 25th April 1974, the Socialist Party lead the struggle with the Communists, who were trying to impose a communist regime, despite having been outvoted in the elections for the Constitutional Assembly. He was Foreign Minister in the provisional goverments, then Prime-Minister for three times, then President of the Portuguese Republic for ten years (1986-1996). He is a controversial figure whom many deeply respect or even adulate as a national heroe while others absolutely hate and blame all the flaws they identify in the portuguese democracy (not to mention those who hate democracy itself).
There are many differences as well as similarities between the social and political situation in Portugal and Greece.
The biggest difference is that the legitimacy of the current regime in Greece is much more questioned than the legitimacy of the Portuguese democracy. The portuguese revolution is a fantastic example of major changes being introduced and being accepted by the people without provoking major violence. Unfortunately its legacy has been under attack for many years, both by those on the political right that hate its left print, and by those on the left that systematically undermine its achievements by claiming ‘property rights’ over that legacy, and demanding eternal gratitude. There is also the role of the radical left in Greece, which has no counterpart in Portugal, while the regional context of Greece in the Balkans and Portugal in the Iberian peninsula is totally different and this has important implications on the people’s self-image and the behaviour of the political elite.
Then, there are the similarities: nepotism is not so assumed in Portugal, but it is widespread; the level of poverty is the same, around 20 to 25% of the population classified as poor, with the evolving erosion of the Middle class as a serious problem, and the situation of the youth is exactly the same.
To this we add the prevailing pessimism.
Since at least 2001-2002 the country is living in an environment of latent crisis and since then we often hear that our development model has run out and that we need a new one. But there was never a ‘development model’, for the last three decades Portugal has been run on a short-term basis, never with a clear well-defined strategy for development or an idea of future. During the years from 1975 to 1985 the priority was the stabilization of the new regime and the assession to the EEC, now the EU. These were very difficult years, not only because of the internal situation but also due to the international context. By 1986, a phase of stability and a favourable international context allowed for an unprecedented development fueled by EU subsidies and construction.
This period lasted until 2000, when it became obvious that it was reaching its limits. In my opinion, the roots of the current situation of latent crisis has its origins in the lack of strategic vision of those previous 15 years, the best example being the field of education. However, the situation prior to this period was so bad, that most people prefer to simply dismiss the idea of missed oportunities by pointing to the heavy legacy of the past.
During the last ten years, the only ‘development model’ to emerge was based on construction, the acceptance of de-industrialization as an inevitable consequence of globalization and the naive faith on Portugal’s touristic potential. Instead of looking for the missed opportunities provided during the period of economic expansion, people started identifying the Carnation revolution as the cause for the dead end in which the country then found itself. Since then, its legacy started being attacked much more openly, and last November Manuela Ferreira Leite, the leader of the main opposition party (PSD-social democratic party, actually a right wing party composed of an amalgam of conservatives and liberals) declared:
«Eu não acredito em reformas quando se está em democracia, quando não se está em democracia, é outra conversa, eu digo como é que é e faz-se; e até não sei, se a certa altura, não é bom haver seis meses sem democracia, mete-se tudo na ordem e depois então, venha a democracia»
“I don’t believe in reforms when we are in a democracy; when there is no democracy, it’s different, I say how to do it and it’s done, and I don’t really know, whether, at a certain point, it may not be a bad idea to have six months without democracy to put everything in order and then, bring democracy back”
This statement, which the whole country had the opportunity to hear on the news was not followed by her resignation, but merely by a statement of her spokesman saying that she was being ironic (irony and sarcasm is a national sport, but I don’t see any irony in her words)…this is the attachment that the party that traditionally represents the alternative to the ruling socialist party reveals towards the very idea of democracy…
At the social level, a mentality hostile to the concepts of solidarity and social cohesion emerged that contributes to keep divided and compartmented a country that has an otherwise very homogeneous national identity. This compartmentalization of the portuguese society has its roots on the fascist regime, where there was no social mobility, where the classes didn’t mix, and where poverty was portrayed as something of which people should be proud. As I remember my teacher saying in scholl ‘its better to be poor and happy than to be rich and unhappy’ (this ws the early 1980′, but the teacher was old and I was in a conservative school, which functioned as a ‘refrigerator’ where the social order of the previous regime was preserved-I thank my parents for the miserable years I spent there, it was a very useful ‘lab’). Meanwhile many of the poor stopped being poor, and their politicaly induced ‘modesty’ was replaced by an awful arrogance against those who remained poor, something which reflects their fear of having their statues reversed. An individualistic mentality emerged in which individuals who have failed to get rid of poverty are blamed as ‘loosers’. As a result, most people are ashamed of assuming its difficuties, ashamed of the situation of precarity or poverty in which they live, and fight each day to hide their situation.
These statements by Mário Soares do correspond to a widespread feeling among the people who live in Portugal. Pessimism and self-defeatism is part of our national identity, we tend to be bitter and we love to complain, but we also tend to be conformists and to resign ourselves with what we are given and carry on. Still, even the most conformist people eventually become fed up and then the urge to change becomes irresistible.The problem is that change doesn’t happen spontaneously . If we take a look at Greece, what do we see? The government hasn’t resign and is patiently waiting for the protesters to get tired, while the problems all remain there.
I don’t believe something like Greece is likely to happen in Portugal very soon:
- Unlike the greek government, the current government, which rules with an absolute majority, is not widely contested and the ruling party sistematically appears first on the pools.
- The fact that in 2009 there will be european and parliamentary elections will provide a public space for the expression of discontentment that will deter the discontents from expressing themselves in other ways.
- To this I add our comformist mentality and the social divisions that i have exposed above. The comformist mentality is so widespread among the youth that it becomes despairing to deal with people under 25, most of those I know seem to have no goals in life and have no problem in behaving as a burden on the shoulders of their parents, while the ones who show some dynamism are mostly dominated either by greed and cynism or by discouragement.
- The fact that emigration is working as an escape valvule to decrease social tensions. Thanks to the fact that we belong to the Schengen Zone (how I love to belong to the Schengen zone), hundreds of thousands of people, both portuguese citizens and immigrants have been leaving the countries (this is a double edge sourd, as it is mostly the youth that is leaving, with severe implications on our already fragile demografic structure).
So, my guess is, nothing will change, but since the structural problems will remain and, thanks to the financial crisis, will become undeniable and impossible to hide for much longer, instead of a political crisis we will have a sense of decay, with everybody expecting a miracle.
However, there is a potential time bomb ticking. As the economic situation gets worse in the rest of Europe and emigration stops being an option, the escape valve will stop working, while conformism has its limits.
But even if the degradation of the economical situation leads to widespread contestation, the fact is that change will not happen spontaneously, but neither there is a foresseable alternative within the political elite. This is dramatic, because it reveals the ultimate failure of the democratization process in Portugal, the existence of alternatives being at the core of the concept of democracy.
A moment of crisis is always an opportunity for a positive change, but the prospects of positive change are grim. Some weeks ago, in another blog, a friend asked the crucial question. Are we prepared to seize the opportunity?
How should we prepare ourselves to shape this change that most of us agree to be necessary, if not unavoidable.