Portuguese president José Socrates, of the Socialist Party, turned in his resignation on Wednesday after losing a crucial vote on government austerity. The fall of the Socrates cabinet may lead to new elections in a couple of months, and has profound implications for the future of the strategy of imposing austerity on the Portuguese people so as to avoid having to ask for a bailout from the European Union.
Socrates has been running a minority government as his own party does not have a parliamentary majority. He has been relying on support from the Social Democratic Party (PSD), which in Portugal is a right wing formation, to govern. For over a year, Socrates has been trying to impose severe cuts in social programs as a way to avoid the kind of utter collapse that has forced Greece and Ireland to go hat-in-hand to the European Union The EU will certainly impose conditions of austerity on the Portuguese government in exchange for any financial help.
These austerity measures have been strongly opposed by the Portuguese Communist Party (PC) and its ally the Green Party, along with the majority of labor unions and other mass organizations, who demand that the wealthy interests who helped bring about the crisis be forced to pay for its resolution, instead of the workers and the poor. There has been a series of militant, anti-austerity demonstrations on the streets of Lisbon and other Portuguese cities.
On Wednesday, the Communist Party delegation in the parliament proposed a motion rejecting the government's austerity-based economic program, called the "Program of Stability and Growth" (Programa de Estabilidade e Crescimento - PEC). The communist motion received the support of all opposition parties, of both left and right, with only Socrates' own socialist deputies opposing. Alternative bills could not pass either. Prime Minister Socrates then resigned, probably opening the way to new elections.
The government warned that the defeat of the austerity budget would have a bad impact on Portugal's bond ratings, a prediction which almost immediately came true.
The motive of the Communists and the Greens for opposing the government's budgetary program was based on the principle that the economic crisis should not be solved on the backs of the workers. The motives of the PSD and other right wing parties is seen as being opportunistic, to cause a crisis so that they can take electoral advantage of it.
Even some Socialist Party politicians accused the PSD of playing a dirty game for their own advantage.
Interviewed in various Portuguese media, the secretary general of the Portuguese Communist Party, Jeronimo de Sousa, pointed out that there is another way out of the dilemma: To drop the center right alliance between the Socialist Party and the PS, make a complete break with the anti-worker policies of the PS-PSD coalition, and form a new coalition (which would presumably be left-center instead of center-right) to fight for pro-people policies.
De Sousa stated, "There has been a policy of identification of the PS with the PSD, which has been negative for the workers and for the people." De Sousa added that it is not enough to merely "change the government, it is necessary to change the politics." Asked about new elections, he suggested that they might be avoided but on the other hand it would be important for the voice of the people to be heard.
Portugal's semi-ceremonial president, Anibal Cavaco Silva, is now meeting with the leaders of the various parties and will make a decision as to whether to call new elections based on those consultations.
Photo: Young people join a protest in Lisbon, March 12, called onto the streets by a social media campaign to vent their frustration at grim career prospects amid an acute economic crisis that shows no sign of abating. Thousands more attended simultaneous protests at 10 other cities nationwide. The banner reads " Precarious they want us, Rebellious they'll have us" and in the poster, "temporary job = permanent slavery." (Armando Franca/AP)