Portugal’s Political Crisis, or the Ordeal of Junior Coalition Partners

On Monday, the Portuguese Finance Minister Vitor Gaspar resigned. Gaspar was the main architect of  Portugal’s austerity drive since its bailout two years ago. His political charisma was akin to a flat bike tyre, but he was considered a major guarantee of credibility for the Troika and Portugal’s creditors. Apparently, he had already asked to resign last year after the constitutional court invalidated a number of the austerity measures contained in his budget for 2013. However, his resignation was then denied by the Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho.

Yesterday, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and leader of the minority coalition partner CDS-PP, Paulo Portas also asked to resign to protest against the nomination of Gaspar’s replacement, Maria Luis Albuquerque. Earlier this year, he had already expressed his disagreement with some of the austerity measures carried out by his own government, notably an increase in the taxation of pensions. This would badly hurt his traditional electorate of pensioners, but he acquiesced because it was a condition imposed by the Troika.  Since he is the leader of the minority coalition partner, it would have been difficult to imagine his party staying in the coalition, and early elections were probably the most likely outcome. However, once again, Pedro Passos Coelho refused Portas’s resignation, saying it was premature. Passos Coelho said he wouldn’t resign either despite the unpopularity of his government. We don’t really know what’s going to happen now. Passos Coelho said he would talk to the CDS-PP to maintain a majority, but all its ministers seem to have their resignation letter ready. Nobody knows what’s happening next, but Portuguese bond yields have soared, making another bailout quite likely.

There are two conclusions that can be drawn from this.

First, excessive employment protection may indeed really be a problem in these PIGS countries. Two ministers want to quit (perhaps to do something more productive, like pet food taster or nude cruise worker), and they simply won’t let them. However, this may only apply to ministers, because liberalising the labour market doesn’t seem to improve things for everybody else.

Second, this shows the dilemma of small parties like the CDS-PP when they coalesce with conservative parties that implement austerity. Even if there is no real populist radical right party  (PRRPs) in Portugal, the electorate of the CDS-PP is pretty similar to that of PRRPs elsewhere in Europe: pensioners, farmers and other groups that often depend on government transfers. These parties have electorates that are attached to the welfare state, but they can only coalesce with right-wing parties that are likely to retrench it. As a consequence, they take the blame for policies that they don’t really want in the first place. Something very similar happened with the Austrian FPÖ when they were in a coalition with the conservative ÖVP between 1999 and 2006. They supported a number of retrenchment policies which hurt their own electorate, and the party collapsed in 2002, giving birth to a splinter group, the BZÖ. More recently, in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’s PVV agreed to support the first (minority) right-wing cabinet of Mark Rutte (VVD) without formally taking part in government. The government engaged  in harsh austerity measures in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and Wilders eventually withdrew his support because of disagreements about the size of austerity measures, notably about pensions, causing the cabinet to fall. In the following elections, the PVV lost a third of its votes. Similarly, even if their electorate is different, the electoral prospects of the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom look fairly grim after they had to betray a number of their electoral promises, notably not to raise tuition fees. For these parties, it seems really difficult to hold office and keep voters at the same time.

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