An anti-austerity demonstration in Lisbon in 2014. Photo: Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images
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Why the left is losing the austerity argument

Unlike voters in Greece, Spain or Ireland, the Portuguese are not turning to left-wing parties – even the moderate mainstream left is failing to turn Portugal’s hardships to its advantage.

In a Lisbon hotel, Portuguese nurses sit, waiting to be interviewed for jobs at an NHS trust in the north of England. “The national health service in Portugal is being destroyed,” says Artur Colares, a 45-year-old trauma nurse. “Many medical professionals are choosing to emigrate.”

Portugal’s health service has been battered by deep spending cuts. Nurses have had their salaries frozen, their overtime pay reduced, their promotions halted and their working week increased by five hours with no change in what they earn.

“Nurses are overstretched, exhausted and demoralised,” says José Carlos Martins, the head of the nurses’ union that staged a two-day national strike for better conditions this month. More than 10,000 nurses have emigrated in the past six years, leaving a shortage of 25,000, according to union figures. The flight of medical and other professionals is just one scar left by the recession that Portugal suffered following an economic adjustment programme overseen by the EU and the IMF in return for a €78bn bailout in 2011.

Since then, emigration has risen to levels unknown since the 1960s, with more than 100,000 people leaving each year. Britain is a leading destination for Portuguese emigrants but unlike the previous generations of rural workers who fled, today the migrants include many skilled young graduates who, after years of state-funded education, cannot find a job at home.

A third of those under 25 are unemployed. Half the university graduates under 35 who have a job are estimated to earn less than €900 a month, with one in three earning no more than €600. Aggrieved, they call themselves “the 500 generation”, referring to the monthly minimum wage, which many bring home by working on short contracts in cafés or call centres.

Greece and Spain, where youth unemployment is even higher, bear similar wounds. But unlike voters in these countries – or in Ireland, another bailed-out country – the Portuguese are not turning to left-wing parties such as the Greeks’ Syriza, Podemos in Spain or the anti-austerity Sinn Fein. Even the moderate mainstream left is failing to turn Portugal’s hardships to its advantage.

Less than four months away from a general election, the centre-left Partido Socialista (PS), the main opposition party, had been expected to be leading comfortably in the polls, with its promise to “turn the page on austerity” and put more money in voters’ pockets by reversing public-sector cuts and lowering taxes.

Yet a recent poll showed the PS fewer than 4 points ahead of the two right-of-centre parties in the coalition government that has presided over four years of austerity. Anti-establishment parties of the Podemos or Syriza variety are, in effect, off the radar here. None polls more than 4.5 per cent. On current voting intentions, neither the ruling coalition nor the PS would have enough support to form a majority government.

Pedro Passos Coelho, Portugal’s centre-right prime minister, has been heartened by David Cameron’s election victory in Britain, noting that it was achieved in spite of “difficult and unpopular measures”. The parallels are clear. Passos Coelho’s message, not unlike George Osborne’s, is that austerity works. Over the past four years, Portugal has turned its big current account deficit into a surplus. The economy has been growing for more than a year and is forecast to expand by 1.7 per cent in 2015 while the budget deficit falls below 3 per cent of GDP for the first time in 15 years.

António Costa, who took up the leadership of the PS last year after resigning as mayor of Lisbon, argues that this is only one side of the bailout coin, achieved at the cost of record unemployment, the worst recession in almost half a century and social hardship. Meanwhile, public debt has risen to 130 per cent of GDP, a level considered unsustainable by many economists.

The PS, however, has toned down its message as the stand-off between the Greek government and its creditors brings out the risk-averse side of Portuguese voters. “Passos Coelho’s message to voters is very simple and effective,” writes the political commentator Teresa de Sousa. “Do you want to put all the sacrifices you have made at risk and lose everything?”

Analysts seeking to explain why Portugal is bucking the trend set by other austerity-hit countries in the eurozone also point to the role of the Communist Party, which often polls as high as 10 per cent of the vote, providing a lightning rod for anti-establishment and anti-austerity dissent while remaining too far outside the mainstream to enter government in alliance with the moderate left.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue