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Running Out of Options, Portugal Turns Right

Here is what they face: a "new left" under Prime Minister Jose Socrates, slick and polished and full of its own wisdom which consists, in the end, of practicing crony capitalism in a more suave way than its predecessors; a right-leaning coalition torn between privatization and mercantilism; and a hodgepodge of unreconstructed radicals vowing to “increase production and renegotiate the debt.” How is Portugal to increase production in a country where the top tax rate is more than 50%? Where unemployment is a way of life, particularly for the young? I suspect like all bureaucrats seeking to dictate economic change from above, they would prescribe a five-year plan, calling for a steel furnace in every backyard.

So the success of the rightward coalition in the new elections was bittersweet. Bittersweet because PSD did not win enough of a majority to rule alone and must instead ally with the Centro Democratic Social/Partido Popular, which is definitely the "rightward most" party in Portugal, at least on the axis of protectionism. It wishes for a kinder, gentler government, not necessarily a smaller one -- a government that encourages "traditional ways of life" and takes a benevolent view of economic protectionism.

The word “compromise” was used so much in the victory speech by the party leader that I was sure the speaker must be a McCain on his mother’s side. On the other hand, there remained odd grace notes, particularly for Portugal. The victors want to shrink government and call a constitutional convention to remove the dread words “Portugal is a republic on the way to socialism” (among others).

Alas, still left unaddressed are the unavoidable facts, so unavoidable that Portuguese might be no more aware of them than a fish is of water: social commitments are unsustainable; cradle to grave social security cannot and will not work in a country where borders are effectively open and the native population is aging and failing to adequately reproduce; it is impossible to become rich with one month guaranteed paid vacation for all and untold paid “leaves” for various reasons; it is impossible to be the most productive country of Europe when one has the most holidays of any European country.

Unspoken also is the staggering cost of bureaucracy in Portugal. Part of this is because Portugal is a country where when looking for work one must keep in mind that “he without a godfather dies in jail” -- that is, he without connections will get nowhere. The idea of restraining government growth has never really occurred to anyone. In fact, government is where you find a job for that unemployable youth or your ne’er-do-well cousin, by talking to “some guy I know.”

I seem to remember hearing in school that the Portuguese chose to adopt French-style bureaucracy. The idea seems staggeringly unlikely, but people do all sorts of stupid things, particularly when those people are very educated and theoretically smart. For the simplest things -- say, re-booking a flight -- one must get form B with which to obtain form C with which, if that clerk is not out at lunch or on coffee break, you might hope to obtain the other form that gets you the ticket. This is so not just in government but everywhere. It’s entirely possible this madness has seeped into the national character, formed by education and culture. (My family is shocked I have to punctuate my novels myself, surely a restraint on my artistic talent. Surely they have some secretary who can do that for me?)

At any rate, every time I come to Portugal, I leave with the picture of an energetic and often brilliant or at least plucky people, constrained by an unresponsive government and a crushing bureaucracy -- a people whose principal export, increasingly, is the more ambitious and work-minded of its children.

It could probably be said that this is our future.

I wish the victors of their -- and our -- latest elections luck and spine. They’re going to need both.