Austerity bites Portugal as much as Greece. Why no populist movement?

Many in Portugal have seen businesses close and savings disappear. Yet in the October election, there won't be a Syriza or Podemos to back.

Armando Franca/AP
A line of policemen block protesters trying to enter the Lisbon headquarters of Portuguese bank Banco Novo, formerly Banco Espirito Santo, Monday. Most of the hundreds of protesters were elderly Portuguese emigrants who lost their savings when the country’s largest listed bank collapsed last summer and was renamed after a 4.9 billion euro ($6 billion) bailout.

At the height of Portugal’s economic crisis, Fernando Fernandes was forced to close seven of the 10 clothing stores he spent his life building  – working so hard he missed the birth of his first son.

But when he found out he lost nearly half of his life savings last year, after Banco Espirito Santo collapsed, he took to the streets.

“You are liars,” he yells into a megaphone on a recent day, camped outside a bank branch of the newly formed Novo Banco, where he and 10 others say that they were duped into a shady investment plan and left defenseless. “You should be ashamed!” yells another. Their anger is clear, and it is directed at the bank, the ruling classes of Portugal, and Europe.

Yet when Mr. Fernandes casts his ballot on Oct. 4 in Portugal’s general election, he'll have no anti-austerity, anti-EU party to register his frustration. A competitive one doesn’t exist.

Portugal is held up as the poster child of austerity that works, having successfully exited its bailout program last year. Exports are rising and the economy expanding. Most notable, from the vantage of Brussels at least, it does not have a firebrand party like Syriza from Greece or Podemos in Spain attempting to redraw the political map.

“There is no room for it,” says Manuel Villaverde Cabral, a researcher at the University of Lisbon.

But demography, history, and culture are also at play, in a way that tempers the fiery politicization playing out in the rest of southern Europe – even if recession, record unemployment, and slashed salaries and public services have hit Portugal every bit as hard.

Domestic politics is central to why Portugal is a political outlier in the region. While the Socialists were in power when the country needed to be bailed out, the then-prime minister resigned and the conservatives won the snap election, without needing the center-left in a coalition. That left the Socialists untarnished, unlike their counterparts in Spain and especially Greece, where they’ve been blamed for essentially becoming indistinguishable from the right, says Pablo Simon, a political science professor at Madrid's Carlos III University.

Portugal also has a strong Communist party, which wins roughly 10 percent of the vote and leaves less space for a populist left.

“It’s not easy to open space for new social movements because Communists do play this preemption role,” says Antonio Costa Pinto of the University of Lisbon’s Institute of Social Sciences.

The leftist parties that have sought to emulate Syriza or Podemos are bitterly divided, leaving none with power to harness change. The group LIVRE is polling at about 3 percent and the older Left Bloc at 5 percent.

Emigration, not revolution

Still, the lack of vocal populism does not equate with lack of frustration in Portugal.

Europe may cast the country as a "good student," especially in comparison to Greece, says Margarida Castro Felga, as she leads a group of nearly all British tourists through the back streets of Porto. But that "is propaganda."

Ms. Felga is a guide and co-founder of "The Worst Tours," which takes visitors away from the booming tourist heart of Porto and into more rundown areas, to give a sense of the "real" city. Porto and northern Portugal are poorer per capita than the rest of the country, and were hit harder when the economic crisis came crashing through.

The tour guides say that this reality hasn’t turned into a viable political expression because so many young people have responded to the crisis by leaving Portugal. Many of them listened to their prime minister when he said the best response to high youth unemployment was for the young to emigrate.

“They prefer to emigrate rather than make a revolution,” says Pedro Figueiredo, another tour founder.

Even the youths who have stayed local, however, seem resigned to the fact that their politics isn’t going to shift the status quo. Fernandes’s son, Luis Fernando, graduated with a degree in chemical engineering, did an unpaid internship for a year, and then was let go. Luis Fernando expected it.

Now he is working in his father’s dwindling enterprise. He isn’t sure for whom he’ll cast a ballot in October, but doesn’t have hopes that it even matters. “If we change right or left, there is no change,” he says.

A less contentious history

That is a sentiment that is even stronger among older groups, says Mr. Villaverde Cabral. And if the response of youths has been to flee, the response among those who stay in the country's aging society has been to refuse to vote. “They’d rather abstain than create a new left-wing party,” he says.

Part of the reason is a temperament that is not like that of many countries in southern Europe. “We are more like the English,” says Villaverde Cabral – and even so, British politics is far more radicalized today than those of Portugal.

History has played a role in Portugal's relative passivity, too, Mr. Costa Pinto says. Portugal lacks the sort of internal regional divides that characterize Spain, and didn't have a 20th century civil war like Spain and Greece. And while Portugal did have a dictatorship, it was not as bloody as those in Spain and Greece. The country even strikes less than its counterparts, says Costa Pinto, which he sees as a symptom of a much less active civil society.

That is one reason that Fernandes, the protester, says that only about 10 of the 2,500 who lost their savings are regularly on the streets protesting, blowing deafening whistles and horns.

Fernandes has lost more than 20 pounds since he realized he lost his savings a year ago, says his son, who adds that gone are lazy Sunday afternoons and light banter over family meals. His father’s words are radical. He blames Germany and a Europe that has no sense of solidarity. He talks about the economic enslavement of the people.

He says the group LIVRE could grow into a new alternative. “But it’s still in an embryonic state,” he says. Instead, his vote in October, he says, will safely go to the Socialists.

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