By Len Port, Contributor (*)
Portugal’s center-right government is determined to continue with its austerity program despite Thursday’s general strike, record low approval ratings and opposition demands for it to resign.
The government is unlikely to deviate from its highly unpopular policies, let alone collapse, as it enjoys a comfortable majority in parliament and national elections are not due for another two years.
Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho said that while his government respected the “inalienable right to strike,” what the country needs are “fewer strikes and more work and rigor.”
Although largely confined to the public sector – transport and health services in particular – the strike was still a powerful reminder of the depth of resentment and unrest in the country. “Enough of impoverishment and exploitation” was a common theme during demonstrations.
Across all sections of the community there is anger over the spending cuts and tax hikes imposed because of the €78 billion bailout requested by the Portuguese administration in 2011.
As Portugal struggles to meet the fiscal targets of the bailout, it is experiencing the third year of its worst economic recession since the 1970s. Analysts expect the economy to contract 2.3 percent this year after a 3.2 percent slump last year.
While protesters accuse the government of intransigence over its austerity program, there is no clear agreement on a cogent alternative strategy. The closest so far was a joint statement at the beginning of the week from the heads of four national business confederations, covering industry, trade and services, tourism, and agriculture. They called for lower taxes that might allow companies to resume investment and permit households to start spending again.
The two main unions behind the general strike were the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (CGTP) and the General Union of Workers (UGT). Together they represent about a million workers.
Ahead of yesterday’s strike, CGTP secretary general Armenian Carlos said, “We refuse to work longer and receive less.”
The UGT leader, Carlos Silva, declared: “We say no to the dictatorship of the Troika – that is what we are rebelling against.”
On one of the hottest days of the year so far, many young people reportedly chose to go to the beach rather than attend street protests in support of the strike.
Last week an estimated 90% of the country’s 100,000 teachers took part in a controversial 24-hour strike that severely disrupted end-of-year examinations, especially among 12th grade students enrolled to take exams that day to enter university.
Unemployment and the dismal outlook for the country’s youth were among of the main worries underlying the latest protests. With unemployment almost at a record 18 percent among the working population in general, youth unemployment (under 25-year-olds who are not studying) has soared to about 43 percent. Meanwhile, young people, including graduates, are leaving in droves to seek jobs and a better life abroad.
Among the government’s fiercest critics is elder statesman Mário Soares. The former Socialist prime minister and president, who came to prominence after the 25th April revolution, recently told the Portuguese daily newspaper Público: “Right now, we are a pseudodemocracy because democracy needs to have people who solve problems.” He accused the present government of “ignoring the people” to such an extent that “democracy is in danger.”
There is no end to the bad news in sight. The government’s plans include increasing working hours and monthly pension deductions while laying off almost 12 percent of state employees.
More mass protests seem inevitable.
(*) Len Port is a journalist and author. Born in Northern Ireland, his first written pieces were published while he was working in the Natural History Museum, London. Since then he has worked as a news reporter, mainly in Hong Kong, Northern Ireland, South Africa and Portugal. In addition to reporting hard news for some of the world’s leading news organisations, he has produced countless feature articles on all sorts of subjects for a range of publications. Now living in southern Portugal, his books include travel guides and children’s stories. His ebooks – People in a Place Apart and The Fátima Phenomenon – Divine Grace, Delusion or Pious Fraud? are available from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk. His blog posts can be viewed at algarvenewswatch.blogspot.com