20/02/2005 - Analysis
On 30th November the President of the Republic Jorge Fernando Branco de Sampaio (Socialist Party, PS) decided to launch the procedure to dissolve Parliament and to convene early general elections hence ending the internal crisis that has been disrupting the government led by Pedro Santana Lopes (Social-Democrat Party, PSD). The President of the Republic justified his decision due the "serious credibility crisis" that the government was suffering and its inability to "maintain the country's political stability." "Portugal has witnessed a series of events over the last four months that have tarnished the government's credibility in a decisive manner – a succession of incidents, contradictions and lack of co-ordination have damaged the government's prestige," he declared. Pedro Santana Lopes succeeded José Manuel Durao Barroso on 9th July 2004 the latter having been appointed President of the European Commission on 29th June last.
The general elections that were initially planned for in March 2006 will therefore take place on 20th February.
Pedro Santana Lopes's government has been the subject of fierce criticism for a number of weeks; the Prime Minister, the former mayor of the capital, Lisbon, even achieved the lowest level of popularity ever won by a head of government.
Pedro Santana Lopes, who was appointed to continue his predecessor's activities, allowed himself a few liberties with the austerity measures that had been imposed by José Manuel Durao Barroso that were to maintain Portugal's deficit within the limits of the Stability Pact, notably in the area of taxation. His decisions eroded the confidence his government had enjoyed in economic spheres. The former conservative Prime Minister (1985-1995), Anibal Cavaco Silva, himself expressed his doubts about Pedro Santana Lopes's government, that had been qualified as "populist". "Competent politicians must set the incompetent ones aside," he declared in an interview with the weekly L'Expresso.
The delay of the start of the school year in September, the government's project to create a governmental media control bureau, that Jorge Sampaio vetoed – and the resignation in November of the Youth and Sports Minister, Henrique Chaves as well as the latter's accusations denouncing the government's "lack of loyalty" and its "dishonesty" ended in a real political crisis that led the President of the Republic to dismiss Parliament, thereby opening the way to new general elections.
In June last the Socialist Party asked President Jorge Sampaio to call early general elections. The Socialists, who won the European election on 13th June – the PS won 46.36% of the vote versus 34.64% for its adversaries in the government coalition, the Social Democrat Party and the Popular Party who joined together in the coalition Força Portugal- expected to take advantage of this victory to take over the national Parliament. But after the appointment of José Manuel Durao Barroso as head of the European Commission, Jorge Sampaio opted to play on continuity and handed the management of the country's affairs to Pedro Santana Lopes. The latter who was forced into resignation criticised Jorge Sampaio's decision to convene early general elections, emphasising that Portugal had witnessed sixteen governments in the last twenty-eight years. "It is not the best way to build a competitive economy," he maintained. The PSD came to power on 17th March 2002 after winning the early general elections that followed the resignation of Antonio Guterres (PS) when his party failed to win the local elections of 16th December 2001.
The Electoral Campaign
The Socialist Party has expressed its ambition to increase the country's economic growth. "We want Portugal to be able to start growing by 3% per year again," declared José Socrates - the party's general secretary and future Prime Minister if the Socialists win - before an audience of four hundred foreign company heads at a meeting in Lisbon. To do this the Socialist Party has planned to launch a "technological plan" and a government and private investment programme of twenty million euros in order to "modernise the economy."
Recently both the Left and Right confronted each other over the issue of abortion, a subject that again became the centre of public debate at the end of the summer when a boat hired by a Dutch organisation, ‘Women on Waves', that fights in favour of legalising abortion, tried to penetrate territorial waters. Pedro Santana Lopes' government finally dissuaded it from doing so by sending out two navy ships to prevent it from docking.
Pedro Santana Lopes announced that although he would not take the initiative of organising a referendum on the legalisation of abortion he is prepared to examine any proposal sent to him for a popular consultation on the subject if his party wins the next general elections. He did however maintain that he agreed with the present legislation, which we should remember, is one of the most repressive in the European Union. An abortion is only allowed in Portugal if the mother's life is in danger or in rare cases, when it is for her physical and psychological health, as well as in cases of congenital deformity of the fœtus or sexual violence. An unauthorised abortion can lead to a three year prison sentence – women accused over the last few months for this have been acquitted however due to a lack of evidence. The number of illegal abortions is estimated at between 20,000 and 40,000 per year with thousands of Portuguese women travelling regularly across the border into Spain for an abortion.
For his part José Socrates maintained that he was in favour of legislation to legalise abortion up to the tenth week of pregnancy and is prepared to organise a referendum on the subject. The opposition leader did not however say when this popular consultation would take place. After the general election on 20th February the Portuguese will have to go to ballot again this year to ratify the European Constitution by referendum (initially planned in April, the referendum has been postponed without a new date being established) and to elect their local representatives (between 14th September and 14th October next). Finally they will also have to appoint at the start of next year, a new President of the Republic.
We should remember that in 1998 the Portuguese rejected the legalisation of abortion by a narrow margin during a referendum that mobilised few voters. The latest opinion polls undertaken on the subject show however that the Portuguese are mostly in favour of making legislation more flexible.
Although the Socialist Party comes out ahead by a wide margin in the opinion polls its lead has frittered away over the last few weeks. The latest survey, undertaken by the pollsters Aximage between 17th and 19th January and published by the daily newspaper Correio da Manha, credits the Socialist Party with 42.8% of the vote (- 2,8 points less in comparison with the beginning of January). The Social Democrat Party is due to win 28.7% of the vote (+ 1, 2 point) and the Popular Party (CDS/PP) 7.1% (+ 0,5 point). Together the two parties of the government coalition would win 35.8% of the vote, i.e. 7 points less. The Communist Party (PCP) is credited with 6.2% of the vote and the extreme leftwing party, the Left Block, (BE), 4.3%.
In spite of a slight regression the opposition might however win the general elections on 20th February next.
Reminder of the General Election Results 17th March 2002
Participation rate : 62.34%
Source Agence France Presse