The next few days are shaping up to be among the most remarkable in the annals of Portuguese democracy.
On Monday, parliament will debate the centre-right coalition’s proposed programme for governing the country.
On Tuesday or Wednesday, members of all parties will vote to accept or reject the programme.
The centre-right Portugal Forward (PAF) coalition has 107 seats in parliament, having lost its majority in the October 4 general election. It is possible, however, that some rebels within the opposition centre-left Socialist Party (PS) may vote in favour of the coalition’s programme.
It is thought more likely that the Socialists will be backed by the radical Left Bloc (BE) and the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) in rejecting the PAF programme.
The Socialists have 87 seats, the Left Bloc 19 , the Communists 17 and an environmentalist-animal rights party a single seat. Such a collective could raise a majority in the 230-seat parliament.
If the centre-right programme is voted down, it will be the state president’s constitutional job to decide what comes next.
Will President Aníbal Cavaco Silva ask the centre-right coalition under Pedro Passos Coelho to serve in a caretaker capacity, knowing that the earliest possible date for a new legislative election will be in six months time?
Will he instead permit the moderate Socialist Party under António Costa to form a government that has some sort of agreement, if not a formal alliance, with the far-left parties?
Passos Coelho has said he would like to reach a compromise arrangement with the Socialists. This would avoid political instability that could be economically crippling as the country seeks to make a recovery in the wake of the debt crisis that brought an international bailout and severe austerity measures.
The centre-right leader admits he could soon be ousted, but vows to be “where I am needed,” either as prime minister or leader of the opposition.
Costa, who has said he will abide by Portugal’s EU budget obligations, has been trying hard to firm up accords with the far-left parties despite ideological differences on major issues involving the EU.
Unthinkable just a few weeks ago, reports suggest some sort of working deal between moderate and extreme leftists has already been reached.
President Cavaco Silva has pointed out that “in 40 years of democracy, no Portuguese government has ever depended on the support of anti-European forces, in other words, forces which have campaigned to repeal the Treaty of Lisbon, the Budgetary Pact, and the Stability and Growth Pact, as well as calling for the dismantling of the Monetary Union and an exit from the Eurozone - not to mention leaving NATO.”
The president has also noted: “This is the worst possible time for radical change in the foundations of our democracy.”
He has promised to do everything possible within his constitutional power “to avoid sending false signals to the financial institutions, the investors and the markets.”
Obviously the situation is highly sensitive, but some ill-informed critics and biased commentators in the foreign media have not been able to resist exaggerating.
The president has been accused of staging “a coup d'etat,” and exposing “the undemocratic nature of the EU.” It has been claimed that “Portugal’s constitutional crisis threatens all of Europe’s democracies.”
Aside from such alarming notions about a country that others have described as “an oasis of stability in southern Europe,” speculation about the coming showdown is rife. We shall just have to wait and see which way things go, but we won’t have to wait long.
President Aníbal Cavaco Silva