Portuguese revolt against austerity grows

A coalition of the left has ousted Portugal's conservative government of Anibal Cavaco Silva – can it survive?


Cavaco Silva loathes the left

Portugal's new government collapsed this week after just 11 days in office. A centre-right coalition emerged as the largest bloc after the 4 October election, but without a parliamentary majority. Since then, the Socialists, Communists and far-left Left Bloc have buried historical differences and last Tuesday managed to oust the government in a no-confidence vote. They now look set to form a government.

Portugal's president, Anibal Cavaco Silva, has made clear his distaste for the left and could, in principle, decide to keep the current minority government in place until the constitution permits new elections in April, but is thought unlikely to do so.

What the commentators said

This is not a "Syriza moment", said Ambrose Evans-Pritchard on Telegraph.co.uk. But "the ascendancy of the left marks a clear break with the previous austerity regime". Given the coalition's apparent desire to turn back the clock, a leftist coalition "could pose a real risk to both domestic and international confidence in the Portuguese economy", said Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute on TheHill.com which is something Portugal really can't afford.

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The country's overall debt pile is still around 125% of GDP. Add in private debt and the overall ratio jumps to 370% of GDP, among the highest in Europe. The recovery has been slow and the economy is flirting with deflation, which would make the debt pile worse. If the country now turns its back on austerity and reform, it could lose its investment grade status from credit rating agencies.That would prevent the European Central Bank from buying its debt and thus keeping long-term borrowing costs low as part of its quantitative easing programme.

This Portuguese drama is "part of a larger process of political fragmentation" in Europe, noted Lachman. Catalonia is making noises about declaring independence from Spain, while the migrant crisis is undermining Angela Merkel's authority.

If Spanish socialists combine with new insurgent parties to boot out the right in Spain next month, added Evans-Pritchard, the whole of southern Europe would be left-leaning. It would then have the "heft to confront Germany and push for a fundamental overhaul" of the euro bloc's economic policy. Political risk in Europe is making a comeback.

Andrew Van Sickle

Andrew is the editor of MoneyWeek magazine. He grew up in Vienna and studied at the University of St Andrews, where he gained a first-class MA in geography & international relations.

After graduating he began to contribute to the foreign page of The Week and soon afterwards joined MoneyWeek at its inception in October 2000. He helped Merryn Somerset Webb establish it as Britain’s best-selling financial magazine, contributing to every section of the publication and specialising in macroeconomics and stockmarkets, before going part-time.

His freelance projects have included a 2009 relaunch of The Pharma Letter, where he covered corporate news and political developments in the German pharmaceuticals market for two years, and a multiyear stint as deputy editor of the Barclays account at Redwood, a marketing agency.

Andrew has been editing MoneyWeek since 2018, and continues to specialise in investment and news in German-speaking countries owing to his fluent command of the language.