It has been said that the difference between Spain and Portugal is a year. But while the government in Madrid grapples with the decision on whether to formalize a full bailout request and its counterpart in Lisbon continues to roll out the concomitant austerity measures, one element in both political scenes has come into synch at the start of the new term. The socialist opposition parties have decided that the time for loyalty to center-right governments who inherited emergency situations is over. Rugged opposition is to be the order of the day. In reality, both formations were understandably in self-flagellating mode, the apparent outbreak of institutional responsibility little more than a sense of mea culpa decency as both the Socialist governments of Sócrates in Portugal and Zapatero in Spain had charted unsuccessful paths through the international credit crunch.
Now a face-saving number of months have passed (nine months for the Spanish PSOE and 16 for the Portuguese PS, which asked for the European bailout itself) and there are a dazzling array of truly ugly government policies to pick on. Passos Coelho has introduced healthcare charges, slashed pensions, eliminated holidays and last week announced an effective seven-percent pay cut for the entire nation’s workforce in the form of an across-the-board rise in Social Security payments. The courts had told the government it was discriminatory to remove only public workers’ Christmas payment – so Finance Minister Vítor Gaspar was told to look for alternative budget savings. His latest idea certainly cannot be described as discriminatory!
Portuguese Socialist leader António José Seguro, the successor to José Sócrates, has had enough. Noting that the deficit target for this year will almost certainly not be met and that unemployment has risen to more than 15 percent, he asks: “What good has come from all the pain and sacrifices that the Portuguese are going through?”
Spanish Socialist Party leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba has moved somewhat faster. In spring he was still eager to press the case for a cross-party pact with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, hoping to loop a few salutary red lines around vital services to cushion the austerity blows for the most disadvantaged. And despite being roundly snubbed during the spring period when 2012’s belated state budget was being finalized, the PSOE was still there for Rajoy’s government when summer arrived and the vote on ratifying the EU Budgetary Stability Pact came around. Now he is saying that calling for a bailout will be “Rajoy’s certificate of incompetence.” A bit rich, maybe?
Why the sudden change to a more aggressive form of opposition? It is worth noting that both countries are heading for elections, with the Spanish regions of Galicia and the Basque Country going to the polls next month. Portugal’s local elections are coming up next year. It could also be legitimately argued that a mainstream expression of disapproval toward austerity measures is important for the cohesion of society at a time when some citizens’ protests are crossing the boundary between peaceful resistance -– like the original 15-M take-the-square movement -– and criminality, as has been seen in a spate of symbolic supermarket robberies.
But is the whole concept of opposition to government austerity measures somewhat disingenuous if these are effectively being imposed from the outside. Passos Coelho is fairly sanguine about what is expected of his administration by the troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and the IMF), saying last week that “Portugal is now seen in a far better light from the outside than when we asked for the bailout.” In Spain Rajoy is intent on holding on to his fig leaf of authority. He tried to set his own deficit target for Spain, insisting it was a sovereign issue, but was forced to smile grimly as Brussels lowered it once more (though still allowing a little extra leeway). VAT was not something he wanted to raise, but he bit that bullet too. Even his absolute red line on pensions now seems less stubborn than before, recently replying to journalists in his first televised interview as prime minister that any reduction in retirees’ allowances would be “a last resort.”
Given this order of things, is opposing “government policy” anything more than empty posturing?
Photograph: The Spanish Socialist Party's federal executive meeting earlier this month, by Álvaro García.