PORTUGAL: Will we hit the bottom? Prospects for 2009.

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.

portugal_afunda_seIn 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.



Filed under Portugal

10 responses to “PORTUGAL: Will we hit the bottom? Prospects for 2009.

  1. Eu não sabia que a situação em Portugal estava tão grave… Por aqui a crise ainda não é tão grave. Mais a longo prazo, uma coisa que não entendo bem é a razão pela baixíssima taxa de natalidade nos paises europeus mediterrâneos. Vc tem alguma hipótese?

  2. PS: Decide escrever em português mesmo em homenagem à nossa recente união ortográfica! 😉

  3. Hi Sarah and thanks for such a great insight into present situation in your country. I hope that things will work out for better however worn out this phrase may sound.

  4. Sarah Franco

    Thanks, JC!

    A crisis is always an opportunity for change. In the portuguese case, this has deeper causes that are not related to the financial crisis. Of course there are also positive aspects, the problem is the perception that the current political system and elite are unable to provide a project for the future.

    Bruno, a língua portuguesa, na sua diversidade, tem um certo charme 😉

    About the low birthrate, in the portuguese case the main problem is housing and the difficulty in having stability at work, plus emigration, that never ceased. More generaly in the mediteranean region, the social changes from a traditional society to a modern one still managed to preserve the traditional family, so young people compensate the lack of stability by delaying the moment to leave the parents. Many people still live with the parents at 30…while in other societies in western Europe, people are induced to leave early, here they are induced to stay. In a way, young people are relieved of the responsibility to take care of themselves, but they are also treated as eternal adolescents. I recognize exactly the same problem with my friends in Serbia…

  5. In a nutshell: the s*** has it the fan… I can’t say we haven’t all seen this coming. The problem is we all saw it and not a single soul did a thing about it.

  6. Carlos

    We have no one to blame but ourselves…

    Where we should be proud of our accomplishments, we admire others.

    When we should look towards the future and prepare, we dwell on the past and morn.

    Where we should consider the best way to complete a task, we opt for “good enough.”

    Where we should help our own people to expand our stimulate our own culture and influence, we choose to learn to speak French and English.

    When we should choose to fight for a better country, we choose to emigrate.

    Where we should have dignity and pride in what we do, we laugh at ourselves and mock those in our country who are naturally great.

    We have no one to blame but ourselves…

    • Marcus Kurtenbach

      Eu não tenho nenhum complexo de inferioridade, nem cunheço pessoa alguma que sofra de tal mal…
      Isso foi problema de “outros tempos”, em que o povo, oprimido, se sentia menos que os outros… E é nessa geração que ainda se vê esse “complexo de inferioriade”… Pois as gerações mais recentes, têm ogulho mais que tudo em serem Portugueses/as, e serão essas novas gerações, com as suas visões futuristas que, graças a deus, irão tumar conta da nossa nobre, e ilustre nação tão acarinhada internacionalmente, nos anos vindouros. Quanto a falar outras línguas, concordo que é sempre bom a nível cultural aprender outras línguas, mas vejo-me falante da 3ª lingua mais falada no mundo ocidental, logo a unica língua que necessito aprender realmente será o inglês, por razões claras… Falo fluentemente 3 idiomas: Português, inglês e Alemão, esta ultima por questões familiares, mas sempre que vou a um país latino, nunca por nada deixo de falar Português e nunca tive dificuldade em me expressar nem em Espanha, nem em Itália, embora que em Itália tivesse que falar lentamente.
      Obrigado e desculpem a intromissão.

  7. Sarah Franco

    Carlos, tem razão sobre o nosso complexo de inferioridade, mas não posso concordar num ponto:

    “””Where we should help our own people to expand our stimulate our own culture and influence, we choose to learn to speak French and English”””

    Aprender e falar línguas estrangeiras é sempre uma coisa positiva, que permite às pessoas comunicar com mais pessoas e expandir horizontes. é fundamental que as pessoas saibam falar inglês e quanto ao francês, é uma língua muito bonita, que tem todo o interesse aprender.

    Nas minhas viagens tenho encontrado muitos estrangeiros que sabem falar ou pelo menos compreendem o português. Da mesma maneira que é desejável que estrangeiros falem a nossa língua, também é bom que nós saibamos as línguas dos outros.

    … até porque a emigração, para muita gente, tem sido a única fuga possível à pobreza, e quanto mais línguas falarmos maior é a possibilidade de nos integrarmos noutro país.

  8. Pedro

    Interesting article… but not sure I agree with you. I believe the current economic situation will herald a new Portugal full of energy and drive. The backward policies of the present socialist goverment has led it to its downfall. The current crises is the single largest opportunity that has presented itself in the last 34 years! The revolution in 1975 brought democracy but was an absolute disaster economically. Geo politically favourable winds blow in our direction. I am confident of the future despite the temporary winds of the current global economic crises.

  9. Bruno

    I have been away from Portugal for more than 10 years. I came from a poor background so for me was the only way to be able to have a better future. I am very sad to read this article and I hope not all is so glooming as it mentioned. I which one day to be back, and hope the portuguese sociaty gets together and to be able to move forward.