21/09/2009 - D-7
On 27th September 9.5 million Portuguese are being called to appoint the 230 members of the Assembly of the Republic, the only Chamber in Parliament from candidates running in 15 political parties.
On 12th September outgoing Prime Minister José Socrates (Socialist Party PS) and the leader of the main opposition party, (Social Democratic Party, PSD), former Finance Minister, Manuela Ferreira Leite, nicknamed the Iron Lady, faced each other during a televised debate during which the Prime Minister defended his results as head of the country whilst Manuela Ferreira Leite claimed that there could not be any political agreement between the PSD and the PS. "I do not believe that José Socrates convinced the undecided electorate on the left to vote for him, which he should have done to increase his lead," analyses political expert Antonio Costa Pinto.
Ahead in the polls for a long time the PS fell behind the PSD during the summer and notably after the European elections on 7th June 2009, but the result is as uncertain as ever since the Socialists have recently recovered their popularity in the polls and are now in the lead as far as voting intentions are concerned.
The campaign was already proving tough but it really became heated on 3rd September after the removal of the Jornal de sexta presented by journalist Manuela Moura Guedes from the programming on TVI. The latter argued that it wanted to homogenize its programmes as justification for its decision. The Jornal de sexta which had the highest audience ratings in the country broadcast several documentaries on the Freeport affair, supposedly an affair of corruption in which the Prime Minister is said to have been involved. José Socrates is under suspicion of having facilitated the building of one of Europe's biggest shopping centres, Freeport, by modifying the special protection zone of the Tage estuary by decree, without which this centre could not have been built. The outgoing head of government has always denied the accusations brought against him. In April last he accused the TV channel, owned by Media Capital, a branch of the Spanish group Prisa of "leading a man hunt" and denounced "the unrelenting aggression he was being subject to."
The removal of Jornal de sexta led to the mass resignation of the channel's news department of which Manuela Moura Guedes is Deputy Director. She caused a scandal within political and media circles. The rightwing parties called it censorship. "It is one of the greatest attacks on the freedom of information since 25th April (1974, when Antonio Oliveira Salazar's dictatorship collapsed, a regime he had established in Portugal in 1932)" declared José Pedro Aguiar Branco, Deputy Chairman of the PSD. Prime Minister José Socrates denied any intervention in this decision which according to him "only damages the PS". "This decision is exclusively the responsibility of the group. Neither I nor the Socialist Party nor the government had anything to do with this decision," stressed the Head of government.
The PS tried to calm the affair: several leaders denounced the rightwing's amnesia and recalled the price paid by the Socialists in the fight for freedom and democracy. "Those who speak of democratic strangulation never raised their voice when the country was under a dictator," indicated former MEP Francisco Assis (PS). "In the past people were imprisoned because of words, died because of words," recalled Alberto Martins, chair of the Socialist parliamentary group at the Assembly of the Republic and former student leader who was imprisoned during the dictatorship. The channel's new news programme presented by a young journalist employed by TV1 has continued the broadcast of the documentaries devoted to Freeport.
Rallying the left, José Socrates n°1 goa
José Socrates who came to power in February 2005 has undertaken major reforms of society and implemented an economic austerity policy to make Portugal a competitive nation. The government reduced the number of civil servants, reformed pensions, introduced greater flexibility into the labour laws, continued privatizations and increased VAT etc ... This rigour led to a reduction in the budgetary deficit (down from 6.1% in 2005 to 1.8% in 2007) but the international economic crisis has almost reduced Portugal's efforts to nothing. The country is due to experience negative growth this year and it will be almost zero next year. Its unemployment rate lies at 9.1% of the working population, i.e. the highest rate since 1986.
José Socrates has often had to face citizens' discontent (students, policemen, teachers and also public and private employees) who have organised strikes and demonstrations against his policies.
Hence the PS has cut the number of teachers with its reforms of the education system (including amongst other things the establishment of teacher assessments and modifications in the management of their careers). Education Minister, Maria de Lurdes Rodrigues made the mistake of playing parents off against the teachers by denouncing the corporatism and absenteeism of the latter. "I lost the teachers but I won the families," she declared at the beginning of 2008, a phrase that gave rise to lively reaction on the part of the various teachers' unions which then joined forces and launched a true war cry against the government. "These general elections are important to bring down the government's policies," stresses Francisco Braz, Secretary General of the General Workers' Confederation - National Union (CGTP-IN). "It is no longer a question of simply resisting but also of acting to face the attacks of a government which is bad for employees and which has a phobia of public administrations and the rule of Law," he added.
The only good news for the government: the National Statistics Institute (Ine) indicated on 13th August that contrary to forecasts and after three consecutive quarters of decline Portugal had recorded slight growth in the second quarter of this year (+0.3%). But it is not sure whether this recovery will be sufficient for José Socrates and the Socialists to win the general elections.
At the beginning of August the PS presented its electoral programme that includes several social measures (aid for the handicapped and families living below the poverty line, reduction by half of the minimum salary required for an immigrant to be entitled to a residence permit) and greater public investments in infrastructure projects (a high speed train from Lisbon to Madrid, linking Portugal to the rest of Europe and the building of a new airport). The companies ACS, Sacyr Vallehermoso and FCC, selected to build the future high speed train will follow the upcoming election with great interest, since the PSD has declared that it would abandon the project – estimated at 4.4 billion € – if it wins. PSD leader Manuela Ferreira Leite says that this project is too costly for Portugal and will only serve Spanish interests. "I don't like the Spanish interfering with Portuguese political life," she said. José Socrates, who made relations with Spain his foreign policy priority during his mandate (in 2005 the Prime Minister said that his three foreign policy priorities were, "Spain, Spain and Spain") accused his rival of undertaking "second rate politics". The Spanish Infrastructure Minister said he was concerned about Manuela Ferreira Leite's attitude. "We shall have to deal with a real turn around in the situation, this railway is very important for the integration of the Iberian Peninsula into the European high speed network," he said.
The outgoing Prime Minister does not miss an opportunity to position himself on the left of the political scale with the aim of rallying to his cause all of those who might be tempted by the far left. Indeed the Communist Party-Green Coalition led by Jeronimo de Sousa and the Left Bloc led by Francisco Louca made a breakthrough in the European election of June last winning 21.35% of the vote together. This result achieved by the two parties, which were officially excluded from participating in government by the PS, will be one of the major issues in the general elections.
The Right can take Advantage of Social Discontent
The rightwing hopes to take advantage both of the social discontent and the division on the left.
In its programme the PSD promises to reduce the role played by the State in the economy and slow up on public investments in major infrastructure projects so that the public debt does not increase. "The country has a great amount of debts and the level of this is unbearable. This is why I am fighting against the "Titanic" policy of new infrastructure projects," declared Manuela Ferreira Leite who accuses the outgoing Prime Minister of having "a personal project to stay in power and none for the country." She also said that tax reductions were impossible short term but promised to reduce them as soon as the economy allowed for it. To boost growth the PSD wants to reduce public spending, stimulate private investment and support SME's.
According to the latest poll by Marktest for the daily Diario Economico and the radio station TSF, the PS is said to be ahead in terms of voting intentions with 36.7% of the vote, 32.4% for the PSD. The Left Bloc is due to come third with 16.2% followed by the Communist Party-Green coalition 6.9% and the People's Party (PP) led by Paulo Portas, 5.21%.
Neither of the two parties seems able to win the absolute majority of the vote. "I am not totally convinced that an absolute majority is necessary. There have been minority governments in the past which have governed until the end of their mandate," declared Manuela Ferreira Leite during a televised debate on 12th September last.