Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A pro-austerity coup in Portugal

Its 2017. After 9 long years of cuts, austerity and failing public services, the public have had enough, and given Labour and the Greens a majority in Parliament. But the Governor-General - a National stooge appointed earlier that year - refuses to respect the results of the election, and instead reappoints John Key as Prime Minister.

Its a far-fetched scenario for all sorts of reasons, and I don't for a minute believe it would happen in New Zealand. But the people of Portugal, where it has just happened, probably thought that too:

Portugal has entered dangerous political waters. For the first time since the creation of Europe’s monetary union, a member state has taken the explicit step of forbidding eurosceptic parties from taking office on the grounds of national interest.

Anibal Cavaco Silva, Portugal’s constitutional president, has refused to appoint a Left-wing coalition government even though it secured an absolute majority in the Portuguese parliament and won a mandate to smash the austerity regime bequeathed by the EU-IMF Troika.

He deemed it too risky to let the Left Bloc or the Communists come close to power, insisting that conservatives should soldier on as a minority in order to satisfy Brussels and appease foreign financial markets.

And so we have democracy suppressed in the name of the EU and "financial stability" for elites.

As for what happens next, Pedro Passos Coelho, the reappointed Prime Minister, must face a confidence vote - which he will lose. The President can then respect the outcome of democracy, or reappoint Coelho as a caretaker until elections can be held - effectively demanding that the Portuguese people keep voting until they get it right. Given his rhetoric against the left, I expect it'll be the latter, and a full-on legal coup.

As for how this happened, its simply poor constitutional design. Like our own, the Portuguese Constitution gives the President the power to appoint the Prime Minister, and relies on convention and pragmatism to ensure that the choice is both legitimate and can function. But clearly, that's no longer enough. And the fix is simple: rather than having Prime Ministers appointed by the head of state, you have them explicitly elected by Parliament - thus demonstrating confidence and ensuring that the outcome is both democratic and legitimate. And that's something we should do in the long term to protect ourselves from any rogue head of state.