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Portugal's Government Falls, Prolonging Instability In Lisbon

4 MINS READNov 11, 2015 | 14:00 GMT
Portugal's Government Falls, Prolonging Instability In Lisbon
(PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/Getty Images)
Left-wing lawmakers in Portugal's parliament in Lisbon vote to oust the government, Nov. 10.
Portugal's center-right minority government, established just two weeks ago, was forced to resign Nov. 10 following a vote of no confidence by an alliance of left-leaning parties. This is just the latest development in a saga created by the fact that no party won enough votes to govern alone in the Oct. 4 general elections. The result meant that the incumbent coalition, headed by Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho’s Social Democratic Party, was given the opportunity by conservative President Anibal Cavaco Silva to form a government, despite having won just 39 percent of the vote.
 
But the minority government would remain in power only if the three leftist parties — the center-left Socialists (which won 32 percent of the vote), the far-left Left Bloc (10 percent) and the Communist Party (8 percent, in coalition with the Greens) — failed to put aside their differences and unite against the government. This, of course, is just what they did.
 
In other countries, this is a point where fresh elections might be called to try to achieve a more manageable result. But in Portugal, the constitution prohibits back-to-back elections, meaning new polls cannot be held until at least June 2016. Thus, the responsibility for the formation of a government returns once again to the president, who has to decide whether to empower this leftist coalition as a new government. His other options are shaky alternatives such as a center-right caretaker government, which would limp along until the next elections, or an interim technocratic government formed by presidential initiative. The first option is the most likely, and the president could endorse a left-wing government by the end of next week. The alternative caretaker or interim governments would leave the president open to accusations of bias — he is aligned with the center-right alliance — and of anti-democratic behavior.
 
In its concerted action to oust the government, the left-wing parties showed a level of cohesion that was unexpected, considering the distance between the parties' historical positions. But any new leftist administration would face several challenges. Prior to the October election, the more-centrist Socialist Party had committed to continuing Portugal's adherence to EU-mandated budget limits — policies which had already moved the country to exit its IMF bailout early. The two far-left parties, however, are more Euroskeptic and opposed to austerity measures in general, advocating instead increased spending. The deal struck between the three parties appears to balance the positions of both sides of the debate, maintaining a commitment to European budgetary constraints while also boosting spending to the smaller parties' satisfaction. Thus, the new government would be walking a fiscal tightrope, constantly running a risk of either breaking European rules or upsetting the junior members and once again bringing down the government. This is not a recipe for stability.
 
In fact, Southern Europe as a whole is looking somewhat fragile at the moment, particularly with Greece still struggling to keep its creditors at bay. The country that will be watching events in Lisbon most closely is neighboring Spain, which will hold its own elections in December. Like Portugal, Spain has a fragmented political landscape, with four main parties competing for seats in the parliament. And the current ruling center-right coalition in Madrid, which also adopted austerity measures following the 2011-2012 European financial crisis, will see in its situation many parallels to that of Portugal's former center-right government. There is a strong possibility that Spain's election may also produce an inconclusive result, leading to a similar period of turbulent coalition building. For Spain, unlike Portugal, this would be an unfamiliar environment. With Portugal's government looking shaky and Spain's liable to go the same way, the Iberian Peninsula may find itself entering the new year on uncertain ground.

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