Running Out of Options, Portugal Turns Right

In Portugal, this year’s elections mark the beleaguered country’s most significant turn to the right since the seventies. Of course, the right is not exactly the same as the right in the U.S., but it is the rightward-most option available. In some respects, the Partido Social Democrata can sound almost libertarian.

Their work is cut out for them. In Portugal, a different understanding of the state and its relationship with the people prevails than that enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. In Portugal, the idea that the government is at the mercy of the governed is, if not heresy, occasion for the open-mouthed incomprehension usually reserved for the remarks of an eccentric aunt or grandmother.

Yet, Portugal is in a predicament similar to America’s. Both countries have too many commitments and not enough money to cover them.

This is not new in Portugal -- a country that started out profoundly indebted, having promised the pope some fantastical amount of gold in exchange for the recognition of its independence from one of the lands that eventually united to become Spain.

Portugal has played the game of going heavily into debt only to inflate it away by running the printing presses day and night. This was both permissible and negligible: permissible because its currency was its own to do with as it pleased, and negligible because it was a very small country to whom other, bigger countries, could repeatedly lend (relatively) great amounts of money -- and because most people didn’t have their wealth in any form but in inherited land or gold.

Because the debts Portugal inflated away were small by international standards, they were roughly the equivalent of foreigners such as Americans “supporting” a child in a third world country at $20 a month. It is no great amount to us, and it makes a huge difference to the child.

But then Portugal became one of the European Union countries.

While giving all your power to unelected and unaccountable leaders is one of those ideas so profoundly stupid that only the very well educated and conventionally intelligent could believe in it, many accepted the root idea that all which stood between Portugal and competitiveness was its lack of size. If Portugal joined with the other countries of Europe, all of Europe would show America a thing or two.

Somehow this has failed to materialize, and no one mentions it anymore -- speaking wistfully instead of the day when China will replace the U.S. (as if the Chinese would indulge Europe as the Americans have done!). And Portugal is torn between breaking away from the EU to fall into its old but comfortable habits and reckoning with the possibility that the rest of the world might opt against keeping the loans coming.

There have been several showdowns. A steadfast refusal to pass a bloated budget finally led to the fall of government. Teachers have had to take a cut in benefits despite their strenuous protests, and yet social security payments have gone up. Voters must choose either bread and circus or austerity.